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Chiu Keng Guan’s Ola Bola (2016) may be about the Malaysian football team fighting for a place at the 1980 Moscow Olympics but it’s really about how much ra-ra and chest-beating the viewer can take. Stephen Tan reviews.

The most telling moment in Chiu Keng Guan’s Ola Bola (2016) is the scene after the end credits when reporter Marianne whips out the Malaysian flag, the Jalur Gemilang, and waves it outside the train that she’s travelling on. It’s a moment that turns the movie from quasi-documentary into a propaganda tract - and caps all the ra-ra and chest-thumping that has gone on before.

The movie is based somewhat on Malaysia’s football pre-Olympic qualifying final against South Korea in 1980 [only the names have been changed but so what, everyone knows who they are]. At the end of the day, Malaysia and 64 other countries boycotted the Moscow Olympics.

It’s understandable that the feature film cannot focus on everyone in the team, so Ola Bola chooses to look at captain and defender Chow Kwok Keong or Tauke; goalkeeper Muthu Kumar; and the rivalry between strikers Ahmad Ali and keeper-turned-forward Eric Yong. Then there is Harry Mountain coming across more like a petulant school teacher than national football coach. To bridge the narration, there are reporters Marianne and Rahman.

The movie starts with a team that is so laughable that it is actually considering vying for the Olympics. Team officials are sceptical; the lead striker is out with injury; a hot-headed player-cum-captain/coach who is a taskmaster; with the rest of the players generally (and strangely) aquiescent.

New coach Harry Mountain takes over and, without so much of an introduction, starts laying down the rules and talks about tactics. And the first thing he does is to have goalkeeper Eric playing as a forward and makes Muthu the regular keeper.

Clashing with the coach over tactics, the team initially loses a couple of friendlies and the crisis comes to a boil when Chow leaves the team. After some soul searching, he rejoins the team. As if life on the pitch isn’t hard enough, during the day Chow is an office worker; taps rubber in the morning and helps his girlfriend run a stall at an amusement park in the evening. At home, he has to contend with a sister who is angry at sacrificing her life for him and his football.

Goalkeeper Muthu, who has three younger brothers, gets grief when he cannot find enough time between football and helping his father deliver coconuts. Of course, the drama piles up when one of Muthu’s brothers is injured in an accident.

Chow’s return to the team sparks a fresh round of enthusiasm among the rest of the players who do military training as part of their final preparations. [Cue the team getting instructions such as “The word ‘defeat’ doesn’t exist in a soldier’s dictionary! Cooperation is your strongest weapon. Your comrades, they are your life. If you want to stay alive… look out for your comrades… If one of you make a mistake, the entire team will be punished.”] The team gets to bond and is prepped for the final match.

In Malaysia, nothing unites the people as much as football (that’s soccer to those not from these parts) and, compared to the current Malaysian team, the 1980 squad was truly and startlingly multi-racial. Score one for muhibbahism (multi-racial harmony).

While the Chow and Muthu personal stories work, one also gets the feeling that these characters are shouldering so much burden they are going to collapse at any moment. Chow’s girlfriend may act as a foil to his angry sister but where does Muthu get his support from?

While the names have been changed, this chart, posted online, identifies some of the actual players in the Malaysian team and their screen counterparts.

More unbelievable is the so-called rapport among the team members. The set pieces on the pitch look fine but one doesn’t get the feeling that the 18 men (on and off the field) are truly united.

Add to the pressure of the final against South Korea is the fact that Malaysia is boycotting the Moscow Olympics so any win is also moot. By itself, this is already a pivotal moment in the film. It’s almost like at what point do you tell your children that the parents are divorcing and how do you deal with the announcement. In this case, Muthu makes a rallying speech in the locker room about going all out for the match and this coming from a guy who hardly spoke more than five sentences in the movie? Guess what he said wasn’t as important as how he said it.

And that’s what makes Ola Bola work with most of its viewers. This is a movie made to sell the message that different people and races not only live in harmony but can achieve great goals (pun intended) if only they work together.

To the film’s credit, the acting is generally acceptable [you might cringe in parts but you can live with it]; and newcomer Sarankumar (as Muthu) could well have a career in Tamil movies. It is the dialogue and delivery where the film stumbles. Thankfully, the dialogue isn’t as cheesy though Marianne’s accented-English comes across as jarring [it’s unlikely that after several years in the plebeian newsroom a reporter can still retain those accent!, especially when talking to a fellow colleague] and the mix of Malay, Tamil, English and Chinese dialects works well.

The real question is: How much chest-thumping and flag-waving can you tolerate? [To pile in the ra-ra factor, even the real “Tauke” - footballer Soh Chin Aun - makes a cameo as the present-day Chow to reminisce the times.] For similar movies with more finesse, just watch Chariots Of Fire or even Chak De! India (2007) - about the Indian women’s national field-hockey team which was inspired by the team’s win at the 2002 Commonwealth Games.

As a side note, many Sabahans are miffed at the movie as Sabahan James Wong [depicted by Eric Yong] scored the winner in the match. Wong was born in Jesselton while teammate Hassan Sani came from Labuan.

The only time Malaysia’s football team reached the Olympic Games was in 1980 when they beat South Korea 2-1 to reach the final 16 teams to play in the Olympics in Russia. During the Olympic games qualifier that year, Malaysia won the play-off at the Merdeka Stadium in Kuala Lumpur. Wong scored the winning goal, with assistance from Hassan Sani. [In the movie, it is Ahmad Ali who nets the winning goal.] Even though Malaysia had qualified for the Games, the national team did not go to the Olympics as Malaysia joined the US-led boycott against the Soviet Union for the invasion of Afghanistan. The movie Ola Bola is based on the above events. Watch how the winning goal was scored here.

Meanwhile, Ola Bola is considered a hit. Budgetted at RM5 million (US$1.2 million), the film made RM12 million after 18 days - it opened on January 28, 2016. To date, it is reported to have made RM16 million.

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