This is why we travel “Around the World with Netflix.” We peek into other cultures, weigh their differing values, mores and customs.
Sometimes, we puzzle over how different we can be, from culture to culture, continent to continent. And sometimes, we see how much alike we all are, and stumble across a cute comedy in the process.
I didn’t have high expectations for the Malaysian rom-com “Kongsi Raya.” Other romances and comedies from this predominantly Islamic state failed to surmount the stodgy conservatism of the place, something that tends to smother the life out of comedies and play as “backward” or at least “retrograde” to a Westerner, whose movies seem more modern, more tolerant and more hip by comparison.
There’s a whiff of Doris Day’s America to this chaste, cheesy little rom-com that puts “Romeo & Juliet” into the blender with “Iron Chef.” It can feel 60 years out of date, even though it’s (clumsily) framed within a TV interview set in 2029.
But stick with it. It starts to work. And even if it never gets up to door-slamming farce speed, the laughs come and the “finally getting a clue” message comes through loud and clear.
Qasrina Karim and Wilson Lee, a couple of big screen cutie pies, co-star as a couple that’s been married ten years, parents of a young son who interrupts as they’re being interviewed in 2029.
The reason they’re TV worthy? The show’s is titled “Kongsi Raya,” which is a mash-up of the names of Chinese New Year’s and the Islamic holiday Eid al-Fitr. Sharifah (Karim) and Jack (Lee) are an interracial/interreligious couple. And it doesn’t look like they get along all that well.
But the film, which tells the story of their meeting and courtship and struggles to argue, cajole or trick their families into accepting this match, ten years before, just might get them back on the same page.
Sharifah was producing her father Rahim’s (Harith Iskander) Malaysian TV cooking show. Jack was a chef himself, having studied at the elbow of his father (Kin Wah Chew), the third generation of the Long family to preside over their popular restaurant.
Jack and Sharifah meet when they’re the only ones on part of the ride of their daily bus commute. What’s her deal?
“I’ve been waiting for you to speak to me,” she says (in Malay, Chinese and even English at times)!
Malaysian rom-coms tend to depict love-at-first-sight romances because of cultural (and cinematic) strictures on courtship, kiss-free dating and such. It takes some getting used to, because that long chat on the bus means these two are pretty much deciding to get married and bonded for life. Just like that.
His mother (Ai Leng Ong) is pretty hip and easygoing, as is hers (Erra Fazira). But whatever their dads say, when the kids lie and float trial balloons about “a friend” who is going through this sort of romantic “never-the-twain-shall-meet” situation, there are limits to their theoretical “tolerance.”
First-time writer-director Teddy Chin’s picture gets airborne in the silliest way. Jack sneaks into Sharifah’s room, her mother almost barges in, so he dons Sharifah’s clothes and pretends to her Islamic friend Siti, the one with the Chinese beau.
Confusion piles upon confusion, with Jack’s dad bristling with rage at the idea that his son might convert to Islam and abandon their (not Islamic diet friendly) Chinese restaurant and Sharifah’s dad sticking his big clueless foot in the middle of a situation that is about to turn a lot more personal than he suspects.
There’s cross-dressing and lying on the fly, Jack’s adopted brother (played by writer-director Teddy Chin, hilariously) is brought in as a doofus co-conspirator and the two dads vow to settle this nonsense Eastern Hemisphere style.
Nobody shouts “Allez cuisine!” in Japanese-tortured French. But damned if these two cooks don’t throw down, “Iron Chef” style.
Chin’s film takes a while to get going, but by the time the two dads are trading ethnic-stereotype insults about “Malaysians” and Muslims and “Chinese,” and one dad’s son has donned a dress and a hijab, it’s clicking.
Lee vamps-up his cross-dressing turn, the mothers give their voice-of-reason characters (subduing their husbands) funny twists and Karim is befuddled sweetness and light in the middle of it all, wondering how many lies she’s going to have to tell to get this romance from meeting on the bus to walking down the aisle.
Iskander is the stand-out in the cast, loud, broad and borderline bawdy when he talks in hypothetical terms about what can happen in a proper Islamic courtship vs. “anything goes” wink wink once whoever this Siti and Jack he doesn’t know consummate their cross-ethnic union.
“Kongsi Raya” may never fully shake the feeling that we’re watching a Malaysian take on some Doris Day “Virgin Queen” rom-com from the early 1960s. But Chin manages to get G-rated laughs out of this subject in 2022, which is saying something.
And if American comic Albert Brooks is still “Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World,” I’ve finally got a suggestion for you, pal.
Cast: Qasrina Karim, Wilson Lee, Harith Iskander, Erra Fazira, Ai Leng Ong, Kin Wah Chew.
Credits: Scripted and directed by Teddy Chin. A Netflix release.
Running time: 1:41