I shouldn’t have liked this movie, and at the risk of sounding absolutely pretentious and uncompromisingly edgier than your next door 13 year old atheist who have read a few books and “know” how the world works, when I stepped in the cinema, and maybe even before that, when I accepted my cousin’s and aunt’s offer to watch a movie together during the last day of our Chinese New Year vacation, I just feel that I am going to be indifferent towards this movie, just like all the sports movies I have watched years ago, and that I am supposed to hate it, just for how “middlebrow” (or whatever this means) it will be. It doesn’t help too that I am just not that into football as a sport (except during FIFA season, we can’t escape the bandwagons). And the worst part is that I knew I was a biased douchebag for harbouring such negative thoughts and opinions towards a work of art even before I have any chance of seeing the end product for myself. Maybe it is the inner teenage hipster within me thinking out loud, thinking that any work of art that is overhyped and mainstream will be crappy and not live up to the expectations, given the unanimous praise heaped upon it.
But let’s not kid ourselves here: “Ola Bola” is without a doubt a sports movie, in the truest sense of the term, one with a tried and true formula that has been perfected and used to tiring extremities for decades. The tropes are all there: Shitty team (the underdog), disorganized team structures, members with melodramatic backstories coupled with personal/familial problems, a coach that arrived just at the right time to intervene, struggles between the coach and members due to sudden changes, and the INEVITABLE restroom speech right at the end of the film to pump up our blood and shake our fists at the heavens and shout, “Hell yes!”
It’s all kind of predictable at this point, and certainly, we have all seen this before in movies like “Coach Carter”, “Chariots of Fire”, “The Longest Yard” etc. It’s not as if “Ola Bola” tries to portray the sports scene (in this case, soccer) with a different twist to it, in the vein of the likes of “Moneyball” (highly recommended), “Million Dollar Baby”, “Raging Bulls”, or “The Wrestler”, all of which either take a look the sports business using a different and very under-appreciated perspective, or showed how a sportsperson’s obsession with their career can genuinely destroy their sense of reality as well as hurt those that are near or close to them.
All these criticisms and you may think that I hate this film and intend to continue venting out my frustrations with the film. But the matter of the fact is, I actually (surprisingly) liked “Ola Bola”. In fact, I kind of loved it for what it is. Because while the film severely lacks in any original ideas, it succeeds in its execution, especially when it comes to its cinematography and its basic but extremely straightforward and to-the-point delivery of its story. It is stuff like these that makes movies what they are originally intended to be: entertaining. There are no multiple meanings hidden in some dark corner waiting for you to discover, it’s all there right from the get go, in plain sight.
And I find the director’s honesty, sincerity, and no-bullshit attitude to be very much disarming and inviting, so much so that all skepticism of mine evaporates within the first instance the main cast was introduced (not gonna lie, Marianne’s character, and the elder Eric Balak is extremely redundant, adds nothing much to the story, other than some occasional scenes that remind us that they are part of the cast). The slapstick-esque comedy, and the awkwardness of the casts’ interaction (mostly up and coming actors/actresses), as well as the Malaysian-isms when it comes to language, fashion, food choices etc., which if otherwise handled carelessly by lesser directors will be a butt load of cringe worthy moments, is handled with some semblance of delicacy and tastefulness which made it all seem all the much more endearing, which is a rare feat in and of itself.
But if there’s one thing that won me over (as well as the majority of Malaysians, as it seems), it’s that this movie is so blatantly nostalgic for a past that will (probably) never resurface again in the near future. The version of Malaysia portrayed in “Ola Bola” most likely never existed, and nor will it become a reality any time soon. There are no racial tensions, people help and respect one another just because they are from the same country, and the only instance of racism shown in the movie is when Tauke rejects the new coach from England due to his Caucasian background. And even then it is presented in a very vague fashion, and is immediately refuted by his friend Rahman, the aspiring sports commentator.
The missing element, namely the racial disharmony and subtle discrimination in between the major races in Malaysia, is especially striking, and it is because of this omission of such a big issue in our national discourse that made me think that this is a film that is utopian in its portrayal of our beloved nation. One of the most touching instances of racial unity in this film is when Muthu, the goalie, tells Ali the striker, “I cover you,” during the midpoint of the movie. In fact, that scene is entirely reminiscent of the last few Bersih rallies where a huge group of the Malay community volunteered to stand in front of the protesting mob in order to keep the Chinese and the Indians safe from the potential harm that the police forces might unleash upon the crowd. This is a Malaysia where we no longer fight with one another over insignificant scruples, where we grow stronger through unity and the similarities that we share (NASI LEMAK, BABY!) instead of weakening ourselves by focusing too much on the meager differences that we have but that we can’t change due to its inherent and genetic nature. This is a Malaysia where we are feared as a team, and earned our respect as such.
I have noticed some criticisms on Facebook as to how the filmmakers of “Ola Bola” deliberately skewed the historical accuracy of the events depicted and as such may be too revisionist for our own good. But such arguments ignore the fact that movies aren’t supposed to reflect reality in painstaking detail and that artistic input always guarantee some leeway in changing facts for dramatic effect (“Titanic”, anyone?), especially when it better helps to carry over the themes and messages and smoothens out the wrinkles in the storytelling, as shown here, where the fabricated unity definitely is a potent call to arms for us to throw aside our conflicts and focus on the bigger picture, before it is too late and the powers that be swallow us up in their greedy pursuit of personal wealth and power. And it is telling that the high point in this movie, when the team members are arguing in the restroom during the midst of their final match, that the conflict ends with someone shouting, “Kita menang sama-sama, kita kalah pun sama-sama.” (Trans. “We win together, we shall also lose together”).
There are actually sniffles in the crowd from where I am sitting in the dark cinema, and from a skeptic, I too am converted by the emotions of this scene, and the many other scenes that preceded it and succeeded it, into a fan of this film. Maybe it is a collective longing for something within our reach yet seemingly forever out of our grasp, maybe it is just pure and simple hope, and the very human instinct of believing that things will always be better, even when we know that optimism may sometimes hurt us more. Either ways, the rhetoric rings true and echoed through the halls, “we shall win together”, even if it doesn’t sound particularly convinced, and neither are we convinced. Nevertheless, we will repeat the chant, over and over again.