I went to watch Datin Sofia Jane on the big 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 a screenplay by Lim Boon Siang, is a real gem. Low is an advocate of women’s rights in Malaysia and president of Kakiseni, an NGO for the performing arts.

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

The movie addresses the issue of homelessness in Kuala Lumpur and racial relations, too. There is even subtle racism as the subtext. After all, this is 21st-century Malaysia where we are all still defined by stereotypes, prejudices and biases.

We live in our racial enclaves, at least psychologically. We still grapple with the “otherness” of “the other”.

Makcik Mawar, played with fabulous retrain by Sofia, is homeless. She lives hard because it is not easy to find a job when one is old and homeless. She sleeps on benches and pavements. 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, Namron makes a cameo appearance as a street gangster.

She is sleeping behind a restaurant belonging to Teck (KK Wong) and his wife Ching (Carmen Soo) when she is discovered by the family. Teck is a hardworking coffeeshop owner with little time to care about others. Ching is more charitable.

Mawar inevitably changes the family and their perceptions, too.

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

Sofia Jane and Carmen Soo in Orang Itu.

Even their son, Dee (the incredibly talented Sawyer Leong), undergoes a transformation. Mawar is a curiosity to him, more so to his friends.

Dee is as shocked as his father when Ching brings Mawar home to stay with them. But Ching is persistent, and Mawar takes Dee to school everyday, much to the amusement of his friends. Just like the family, Dee’s friends make adjustments with Mawar’s presence and they end up liking her.

But Mawar is not well. As she makes herself useful to the household, Teck’s perception about her changes. Mawar becomes an integral part of the family. One of Teck’s customers even comments cynically: With Mawar around, the restaurant will soon stop serving pork.

When Mawar’s eyesight worsens, Ching suggests using her savings to operate on her. But Mawar realises she is a burden to the family, so she disappears. But not without leaving a note to the family.

In one of the most poignant scenes – in the frame divided by a partition, Ching and Dee on one side, Teck on the other – the family struggles with sadness and feelings of lost. Even as a hardened man, Teck comes out with a missing persons poster for Mawar: “Dia keluarga, tolong cari” (She is family, please help find her).

Orang Itu poster

Homelessness is seldom addressed in Malaysian cinema. The last movie about street urchins was in 1982 and starred the late great entertainer Sudirman Haji Arshad. Written and directed by Patrick Yeoh, Kami was the only movie featuring Sudirman. He was 28 when he played Tooko, a runaway teen – and he was very convincing.

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

It takes Sofia Jane to jolt us of out of complacency about the homeless issue. She is a fine actress who catapulted to fame in 1993 thanks to U-Wei Haji Shaari’s Perempuan, Isteri Dan….

U-Wei directed her again 23 years later in Hanyut, a multimillion ringgit movie based on Joseph Conrad’s Almayer’s Folly. Her portrayal of Mem was manic, textured and nuanced, providing the case for a woman scorned who takes revenge in a sweltering Malayan heat.

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

I am equally amazed by the other talents, especially Wong and Soo who give award-winning performances. Wong is a famous radio DJ and an accomplished comedian, and we can watch another dimension of Soo’s acting in Crazy Rich Asians.

The boys, led by Leong, are outstanding. Yeong Jer-Rick, Bosvin Chen, Chan Zi Xuan and Tan Carlton are all watchable. With Zahim Albakri as an uncaring florist and Redza Minhat as Din, the cast is complete. It is a must-watch movie!

‘Orang Itu’ premiered on Oct 16 at the Jade Ribbon Gala Night, an event to create awareness on hepatitis. Johan Jaaffar has just published ‘Jejak Seni’, a book about his 50-year journey as an actor, playwright, director and chairman of Malaysia’s largest media company. He was a journalist and former chairman of Dewan Bahasa Dan Pustaka.