KUALA LUMPUR — For weeks, the nationwide frenzy of anticipation for "Princess of Mount Ledang" (Puteri Gunung Ledang in Malay) Malaysia's most expensive movie ever has been inescapable.
Mammoth street billboards proclaim the coming of this Malay-language epic based on centuries-old local folklore about a beautiful princess who spurns the love of a tyrannical sultan. The theme song reigns on radio charts. Newspaper columnists speculate that the picture could be the first from this Southeast Asian country to win widespread foreign acclaim.
"Is Malaysia capable of creating a film to match worldwide standards? This movie proves it," says Gil Rossellini, a New York-based film distribution executive who helped the movie secure its international premiere at next month's Venice Film Festival.
Rossellini expects global audiences to relish a rare glimpse at the pre-colonial era monarchies of Southeast Asia in a movie he says reminds him of historical dramas made by his adopted father, Roberto Rossellini, the legendary director who pioneered Italy's school of neorealist cinema decades ago.
By Hollywood's standards, the $4 million spent to recreate 15th century Malay village life and palace intrigue might seem minuscule. But it's 10 times the budget of most movies in a nation where scarcely two dozen local films play each year and American blockbusters rule the multiplexes.
The enterprise produced by Malaysian entertainment company Enfiniti and helmed by Saw Teong Hin, a local music video veteran who is making his feature film directorial debut carries more than the whiff of a prestige piece.
It opens nationwide on Tuesday, when Malaysia celebrates the 47th anniversary of its independence from Britain. It's the first big-screen period drama about the Malay sultanate since the 1960s. And it tells a story that's beloved by many Malaysians.
"I wanted to be part of this movie so much because we all grew up with this tale, which was told to us by our grandparents and taught to us in school," says Tiara Jacquelina, a Malaysian actress who takes on the title role of a princess who is betrothed to the cruel ruler of a maritime empire but loves one of his bodyguards instead.
The movie is certain to spark a box-office stampede for people who are fatigued with the Malaysian film industry's typical output of adolescent comedies and horror knockoffs though critical response remains in doubt.
"Princess of Mount Ledang" is easy on the eyes, showing off colorful, splendidly outfitted characters amid sweeping vistas of misty mountaintops, white coastlines and gnarled forests.
But it's saddled with a script that gives those characters little to do but make grave observations about how chickens cannot outrun foxes and people should be careful while crossing oceans, because the waters might somehow transform into flames. From the start, the movie trades narrative urgency for deadly solemnness and perpetual philosophizing.
Jacquelina and M. Nasir, who plays her warrior lover, have charisma to spare, but their romance never ignites, partly since they have less than a half-hour of screen time together in a 155-minute movie. Jacquelina's character seems content to stare at sunsets and take long, solitary baths near a waterfall, while Nasir is elsewhere, wrestling with existential angst.
Nevertheless, the filmmakers have high hopes for the movie's rollout scheduled for Sept. 5 in Venice, where it will be in competition for movies from new directors. After that, "Princess of Mount Ledang" will probably be shown at other film festivals while awaiting a possible distribution deal in the United States and Europe.
"It's not easy to get attention in this big world, but we hope people will embrace this movie, because it showcases our country's culture and heritage," said producer Shazalli Ramly.
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