“No one should have to do anything against
their will,” says Hang Tuah (M. Nasir, coolly understated throughout) before
single-handedly annihilating a band of ruffians who have come to force the
daughter of a market hawker into marriage with their master. Thus the
opening action-sequence in Puteri Gunung Ledang establishes Tuah’s
credentials as martial arts master (Pentjak Silat), philosopher and
protector of the weak. This contrasts wonderfully with the stoicism of
Princess Ledang (Tiara Jacquelina, the model of composure stoked by desire), his
one time lover who abandons her fabled life to live atop a Malaysian mountain
until her true love returns.
By combining two well-known fifteenth century legends, first-time director
Saw Teong Hin has taken the risk of angering the Gods by re-working their
personal stories (with screenwriter Mamat Khalid), but has cobbled together a
remarkable achievement that revels on the big screen, providing spectacular
views of the country, daring to let the emotional content simmer just beneath
the surface through the characters’ expressions.
The pacing is deliberately slow with just a few action segments (notably the
duel between Tuah and Gusti Adipati Handaya Ningrat—Alex
Komang) where the brief descent to hell and the
ensuing moment of truth-or-consequences forgive any blemishes in the surrounding
It falls to the music and dance to carry and reinforce the thoughtful tone and
quiet dignity of this quest for true love and the timeless struggle between
dreams of hope and the moral shackles of responsibility. The generous use
of traditional instruments (particularly the husky wooden flute, soaring
effortlessly from phrase to phrase) and the modern day string orchestra, usually
separate but knowingly (composer, Daniel Yu Wai Kwok; orchestrator Tan Yan Wei)
combined, give the proceedings a wider range of colour than many other epic
productions. The court dancers, despite some ensemble problems, add
another layer of regal movement.
But none of that compares to the forever-memorable moment following the
Princess’ finger-rich solo when Tuah joins her, producing a pas de deux whose sensual subtext goes right to the heart. Marvellous.
However, in the reunion coupling, where everyone agrees that “reality does not
measure up to my dreams,” the constantly circling camera makes the viewer as
dizzy as the lovers, but soon redeems itself with a three-head shot that speaks
volumes about the paradox of marrying an enemy to save a nation.
Failing to be true, Tuah resigns as Lord Admiral, hurls his jeweled kris into
the river then dashes through the mud before collapsing and taking the “Jesus-on-the-cross” position while wondering “What did I do wrong?”
Moments later, Sultan Mahmud Shah (Adlin Aman Ramlie, needing a cup more of evil
to convince) prepares to sacrifice his own son in order to secure the hand of
the most impressive bride in the world. But his murderous decision
(seconds after the cock crows—adding another biblical reference) only serves
to release the Princess from her agreement, walking away to exile effectively
covered in the actual words of her seven demands.
And so the legends live on, and this film, itself a labour of love, should be
seen and taken as the first magical step along the perilous road of bringing
fine art to the screen. JWR