‘Orang Itu’: A gem of a film about homelessness in Malaysia

I came to watch Datin Sofia Jane on screen. I came out of the cinema awed by the performance of almost everyone involved.

Orang Itu (That Lady) directed by Low Ngai Yuen from the screenplay by Lim Boon Siang is a real gem. Low is currently the President of Kaki Seni, an NGO platform for performing arts and an advocate of women’s rights in Malaysia.

Orang Itu is unpretentious, sincere and clever. It is a movie that melts the heart without having to resort to dramatic pomposity. It is heart-wrenching as it is truthful. It is one of the best things that has happened to Malaysian cinema of late.

The movie addresses not just the issue of homelessness in Kuala Lumpur but racial relations as well. There is even subtle racism as the sub-text. After all this is 21st Century Malaysia where we are all still defined by stereotypes, prejudices and biases. We are living in our racial enclaves, at least psychologically. We are still grappling with the “Otherness” of “the Other.”

Makcik Mawar (played with fabulous retrain by Sofia Jane) is a homeless. She lives hard. It is not easy to find a job when one is old and homeless. She sleeps at pavements and benches. She even has to pay RM2 a night to ensure a place to sleep. There is always someone taking advantage of the homeless (in the movie played by Namron making a cameo appearance as a street gangster).

Fate has it she was sleeping behind a restaurant belonging to Teck (KK Wong) and his wife Ching (Carmen Soo) when she was discovered by the family. Teck is a hard-working coffee-shop owner with little time to care about others. His wife is more charitable. Mawar changes the family. And their perceptions too.

Orang Itu stars Sofea Jane (left) and Carmen Soo.

Orang Itu stars Sofia Jane (left) and Carmen Soo.

Even their son, Dee (the incredibly talented Sawyer Leong) undergoes a transformation. Mawar is a curiosity to him more so to his friends. When Ching brings Mawar home to stay with them, Dee was as shocked as his father. But Ching is persistent. Mawar takes Dee to school every day much to the amusement of his friends. But just like the family, Dee’s friends have to make adjustments with Mawar’s presence. They ended up liking her.

Mawar is not well. As she makes herself helpful in the household, Teck’s perception about her changes. Mawar becomes an integral part of the household. One of Teck’s regular customers even commented cynically, with Mawar around, the restaurant will soon stopped serving pork.

Orang Itu poster

When Mawar’s eyesight worsen, Ching even suggested they used her saving to operate on her. But Mawar realised she is a burden to the family. She disappears but not without leaving a note to the family. In one of the most poignant scenes in the film, in the frame divided by a partition, Ching and Dee on one side and Teck on the other were struggling with sadness and the feeling of lost.
A hardened man that he is, Teck came out with a poster in search of Mawar. “Dia keluarga, tolong cari.” (She is family, please help find her).

Homelessness is seldom addressed in Malaysia cinema. The last film about street urchins made in 1982 and starring the late Sudirman Haji Arshad. Written and directed by Patrick Yeoh, Kami was the only film featuring the great entertainer Sudirman. He was 28 when he played the part of Tooko, the run-away teenager and he was very convincing.

To some people the homeless are merely irritants, in fact spoilers of the otherwise robust, beautiful and metropolitan Kuala Lumpur. But homelessness is for real defying all logic of a prosperous nation. Kuala Lumpur is home to many like Mawar.

It takes Sofia Jane to jolt us of out of our complacency about the homeless issue. She is a fine actress who catapulted to fame in U-Wei Haji Shaari’s Perempuan, Isteri Dan …. in 1993. Twenty three years later, U-Wei directed her again in Hanyut, a multi-million dollar production based on Joseph Conrad’s Almayer’s Folly. Her Mem was manic, textured yet nuanced, providing the case for a woman scorned taking revenge in a sweltering Malayan heat.

She is one of the best actresses around, her cinematic presence always felt. In Orang Itu, she’s simply outstanding, proving her worth as a classy actress. She speaks little in the movie but her gestures and expressions tell the story of pain, suffering and despair.

I am equally amazed by other talents, especially that of KK Wong and Carmen Soo, who gave award winning performances. KK Wong is a famous radio DJ and an accomplished comedian. We will be watching another dimension of Carmen Soo’s acting in the hit movie, Crazy Rich Asians. The boys, led by Sawyer Leong as Dee are simply outstanding! Yeong Jer-Rick, Bosvin Chen, Chan Zi Xuan and Tan Carlton are all watchable.

And with Zahim Albakri appearing as the uncaring florist and Redza Minhat playing Din, the cast is complete.

It is indeed a must-watch movie!

Orang Itu was screened at the Jade Ribbon Gala Night to create awareness on hepatitis among Malaysians on Tuesday evening (the 16th of October).


Johan Jaaffar has just published a book, Jejak Seni, about his 50-year incredible journey as an actor, playwright, director and later chairman of the country’s largest media company. He was a journalist and a former Chairman of Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka (DBP).

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