Sunday, November 17

Hollywood reel fantasy vs Brooke history

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LAST Saturday, a Hollywood film production company wrapped its location shoot for the feature ‘Rajah’ at Siniawan, a small town which was used as the set location for 1840s Sarawak (Kuching).

Due to rainfall and other events, the shoot was delayed by one extra week out of its total 59 days of location shooting around upcountry Kuching. Rob Allyn of ‘Java Heat’ fame wrote the screenplay, which was directed by Michael Haussman, who had made a name in directing slick music videos for Madonna, Justin Timberlake, and Shakira.

Jonathan Rhys Myers (right) as James Brooke and Dominic Monaghan as Arthur Crookshank in a scene from ‘Rajah’.

According to Allyn, he chanced across the James Brooke story when he picked up the book ‘White Rajah’ by Nigel Barley at an airport bookstore. He wrote an original screenplay based on the Brooke story and approached the Brooke Trust’s Jason Brooke and the Sarawak Tourism Board more than three years ago, and set the wheels rolling.

At the start of the location shoot more than two months ago, Allyn decided to drop the word ‘White’ from the eventual title and it’s now known as just ‘Rajah’.  The story is based on Brooke’s character but does not pretend to be unadulterated historical truth or even factual, as Allyn has said that he has taken many creative liberties with both the characters and the plot.

As a comparison, one can possibly look at the Oscar winning movie of ‘Lawrence of Arabia’, David Lean’s 1962 masterpiece based on the life of TE Lawrence, the English officer who successfully united and led the diverse and often warring Arab tribes during World War 1 in order to fight the Turks.

Despite that movie’s wild success at the box office and wide acclaim from critics and cinema audiences alike, ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ had its many detractors and critics too! It was regarded by some as a weirdly lopsided, oddly womanless cosmos with the only females in the film being skewered corpses, and has been called a ‘boy’s movie’, even homoerotic’; which surprisingly the director David Lean even agreed with!

The last three major Hollywood features, which were shot entirely on location in Sarawak were ‘The Intended’ (2002), ‘The Sleeping Dictionary’ (2000), and ‘Farewell to the King’ (1987). I was personally involved with all three in their production.

An old illustration of Brooke with the local ruler in the 1840s.

Both ‘The Intended’ and ‘Sleeping Dictionary’ were never released in Malaysian cinemas due to their sensitive subject matter and restrictive censorship issues.

‘The Sleeping Dictionary’ did find fame and a wide viewership during the heyday of pirated DVDs, which had produced the movie in its entirety without any cuts – the full version ran at one hour 49 minutes. In later years when local television screened it, it had lost almost 10 minutes due to censorship. Some scenes had depicted sexual trysts, violence, and frontal nudity.

In the years since ‘Sleeping Dictionary’, I have met many tourists, visitors, and overseas friends – among whom those who have seen it told me about the beauty of the locations as well as the touching love story behind it. Many were astounded that Sarawak had so many hidden treasures in its potentially attractive tourist spots, and its scenic and natural beauty had impressed them. Quite a few were surprised as to why it had not attracted a much bigger audience at the time.

Tragically the Hollywood film studio which had financed and promoted it, Fine Line Features, was in 2003 totally overwhelmed at the time of the film’s worldwide release because it had been badly timed having clashed with another one of their productions called ‘Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Rings’! The rest is history.

The total budget for ‘Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Rings’ was US$93 million at the time. The budget for ‘Sleeping Dictionary’ was barely 15 per cent of it. Guess who was left on the wayside. LOTR eventually made US$871 million at the box office.

Coming back to the ‘Rajah’ movie. The storyline roughly follows that of the James Brooke story, with screenwriter Allyn taking many creative liberties in the form of playing up the relationships that he had with a certain Madam Lim, also a main female character named Fatima, and his buddy Colonel Arthur Crookshank.

For the purposes of dramatisation and story flow, and of course time constraints and budgetary considerations many of the scenes in the movie may or may not have actually happened according to the history of Sarawak in the 1840s. For a movie to be successful there has to be a good storyline, romance and love interest, and lots of drama and action (violence to a certain extent). Good casting, beautiful actors, plus attractive locations as well in order to entice movie audiences to the cinema, and later to the online portals.

Any decent Hollywood film producer knows what it’ll take to bring in the box office – most of all, ‘Rajah’ is not a documentary and doesn’t need to adhere to the precepts of one – documentaries have to be truthful and factual. ‘Rajah’ is neither.

The other consideration that ‘Rajah’ had to contend with has been its budget, which was financed partially by the Sarawak Government through the Sarawak Tourism Board. A few other local investors, clearly the hotel where cast and crew had been lodged, plus a few others. From what I’ve seen of the film sets, which were specifically constructed for the movie, I am assuming that there will be quite a considerable amount of CGI (computer generated imaging) to be added in the studios in postproduction. The props and art department dressing were also rather modest; as were the costumes, picture boats, and other props.

Allyn is aiming to showcase ‘Rajah’ come next May at the Cannes Film Festival in France. I wish him good luck as I know for a fact that the selection committee there is extremely eclectic and snobbish, so he will have a tough time getting there.

Whatever the final cut of ‘Rajah’ turns out to be – a cult indie, a hugely successful box office hit, or just another run of the mill B movie, it doesn’t really matter to Sarawak – ‘Rajah’ will endure and be there for future audiences and as a Visit Sarawak tourism promotional tool for a long time to come!

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