- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 2, 2004

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — The country’s costliest movie appeared on screens nationwide on the national independence day Tuesday amid hopes that it could become the latest international success from Asia’s booming cinema industry.

“Puteri Gunung Ledang” — a Malay-language period epic adapted from the centuries-old legend of a beautiful princess who scorns the affections of a sultan and falls in love with his general — makes its international debut next week at the Venice Film Festival.

Producers hope the 20 million-ringgit ($5.3 million) film will become Malaysia’s equivalent of the Chinese-language Oscar-winner “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.”

The maiden effort of entertainment company Enfiniti, which runs private television station NTV7, was directed by newcomer Saw Teong Hin.

The 155-minute film, which opened the day the former British colony celebrated 47 years of independence, is the first Malaysian entry in a major film festival and the only Southeast Asian movie to make it to the prestigious Venice festival this year.

Since independence, Malaysia has become known for its fast-industrializing economy.

“This is the first time a Malaysian movie is sharing the same stage with world-class films. We see ourselves as a benchmark for other local producers to make it big overseas,” said Shazally Ramli, Enfiniti’s executive director.

“This movie may not get us a gold medal yet — we may have to wait — but the point is that Malaysians can do it.”

The country’s nascent movie industry largely produces adolescent comedies and horror flicks; even Malaysians prefer Hollywood, Hong Kong movies or films churned out by India’s prolific “Bollywood.”

Mr. Shazally said he hopes “Puteri Gunung Ledang” will inspire a “reel revolution” in Malaysia’s film industry.

The film’s $5.3 million budget, including ads and marketing costs, is paltry by Hollywood standards but a record in Malaysia, where most movies cost less than $530,000. And the sum is staggering compared with total box office takings of $4.9 million for all 10 Malay movies screened in 2002.

Mr. Saw, a music video veteran who will compete in the new-director category in Venice, said the movie took three years to complete and aimed to “illustrate the beauty of our language, our culture and our scenery.”

Set in the thriving 15th-century Malay sultanate of Malacca and the grand Javanese kingdom of Majapahit, the plot blends historical facts, myth and fiction to tell the fateful tale of forbidden love at a time when loyalty and national honor overrode personal desires.

Malaysian actress Tiara Jacquelina, who is co-producer, plays the princess, and singer M. Nasir is her love interest, the Malay warrior Hang Tuah. Indonesian actor Alex Komang played the Javanese prince.

Filming began in January at 18 locations, including Mount Ledang in southern Johor state, a popular hiking trail.

Featuring panoramic scenery, a haunting theme song that tops local radio charts and elaborate costumes, the movie is steeped in the supernatural.

Lead characters often converse through telepathy, and there are dramatic fighting scenes with flying warriors and huge explosions similar to Hong Kong period movies.

Stunt expertise from Hong Kong was used, but Mr. Saw stressed that the fighting was choreographed strictly according to the Malay self-defense art of silat.

Enfiniti thinks it can recoup its investment in six months, and talks are under way for distribution contracts in the region, Europe and the United States.

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