The Bungsu Story (2017)
Directed by Aznniel Yunus
Produced by The Creative Core BN and Filterworks Productions
Written by Zainal Bostaman, Aaqiil Ahmad, Ying Chia and Huwaida Ishaaq
There is much to like about The Bungsu Story, the pilot episode of a new series set in Brunei created by Filterworks Productions, and produced jointly with The Creative Core BN, which premiered on July 27.
The episode had a two-week run at the Arena Cineplex in Kiulap. (Note: when I went to watch it in the cinema during a lunch break, my friend and I were charged the wrong amount for tickets, so, the cashier had to sheepishly come round and ask for more money. And then the show started 15 minutes late. Everyone was very nice and cordial about everything, no hard feelings, just an amusingly Bruneian start to the show.)
Directed by Aznniel Yunus and set in a Bruneian university (locals will recognise the classroom in UBD where some of the action plays out, but its never quite clear whether the show is actually supposed to be set in UBD, so I’m going to call it BU – Bruneian University – for now), The Bungsu Story follows a few days in the life of the titular heroine Safarah, who we find out is the youngest in a family of overachievers. The premise of the episode is that Safarah needs to study for a surprise test, but her mother – who Safarah thinks doesn’t take her seriously – insists she attend a family dinner to celebrate her father’s “latest award” instead; at the same time we’re introduced to a new guy at BU, Adi, who is clearly being set up to be the love interest, and who has a penchant for hanging out by the beach by himself. Moodily.
The production value and photography are spectacular. From the initial posters – glossy and eye-catching and cheerful – to the episode itself, the director of photography, Fecks Ali, has a lot to be proud of. There are several stunning shots in the episode, including a birds-eye view of the Muara-Tutong highway, which give you a whole new perspective on Brunei. The editing is slick, and some of the performances, especially of the minor characters, are solidly promising – particularly Nasruddin Azman as Bobby, an extra who plays a guy handing out audition flyers. The original theme song, Rasa, composed by Juan Madial and performed jointly with Umi Raudhah, is also lovely.
The biggest problem is that the story doesn’t feel like it knows what it quite wants to be or where it’s going. Half of the writing team are well-known comedians, and it shows – the one-off gags work really well, including an entirely entertaining scene during a class test in which students cheat extravagantly, everything about the lackluster history professor Isor, and a throwaway moment in which Bobby, drolly and unrepentantly throws a video game to Adi so he can go out for dinner.
Less convincing are the moments that are supposed to be grounded in realism, or which aim for drama – from the opening shot of a row of Safarah’s “Student of the Month” photos in the classroom (In university? Really?); to a butler with a British accent; to a “restaurant” which is clearly filmed in a room in a house and is therefore not a convincing set piece. These are several anachronisms which make it hard for viewers to suspend their disbelief. Tonally, too, there are misfires – there is a particularly melodramatic scene set in McDonalds which is played so ambiguously that its hard to tell whether the effect is meant to be comedic or angst-ridden.
Some of these issues are just a matter of tightening and polishing – there are a lot of throwaway scenes which don’t go anywhere in the episode and distract the viewer, including one of Adi in the toilet (?); the audition flyer which never comes up again; and 90% of the conversations with Farah, Safarah’s boxing instructor. The episode would perhaps have benefited from cutting another five to seven minutes out.
One of the most fun things about watching Bruneian productions is recognising people and places you know – we see so little of ourselves reflected in the media that we consume, that I, at least, am greedy for it. The generous number of extras and Bruneian brands (excellent marketing there) makes it extra fun to play “Did you see X, Y and Z?” with friends after watching.
Overall, The Bungsu Story feels very much like a pilot, with a few kinks still to work out – its very baggy because there are a lot of narrative balls flung in the air, and some of them have just vanished by the end of the episode – so you’re left wondering what happened to them, or why they were there to begin with. There is no shortage of talent involved with the production, so I’m optimistic about where it goes from here – I hear there’s a reboot happening, and Filterworks had an open call for auditions recently, so some of these issues might be resolved in the next episode, which comes out in 2018.
Dr Kathrina Mohd Daud is a lecturer in the English programme at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, Universiti Brunei Darussalam. Her short story, I Am A Bird, was the Judges’ Pick for the Asia-Europe short story contest in 2013. She is also the co-founder and playwright at Salted Egg Theatre, an all-female theatre troupe from Brunei.