Sometimes the best kind of story is the one based on actual events. Ola Bola captured everyone’s imagination when it came out – it reminded us that our football team, Harimau Malaya, qualified for the Olympics. We cheered at this accomplishment and wondered when this feat would be repeated.
Adiwiraku (My Superhero) can also check all the right boxes for having an inspiring story based on real events. What makes Adiwiraku even more special is that the majority of the young actors featured in this film are playing themselves. And, surprisingly, most of them are quite natural in front of the camera, especially Irdina Tasmin, Ahmad Adnin Zidane and Balqis Sani.
Adiwiraku follows English teacher Cheryl Ann Fernando (Sangeeta Krishnasamy) getting posted to a rural school, SMK Pinang Tunggal in Sungai Petani, Kedah. She has a tough time getting through to her students – some are rebellious and others just can’t be bothered to learn. But we know that still water runs deep, so Cheryl figures there must be more going on in the students’ lives than meets the eye.
Fast forward two years later. Cheryl has come up with a creative way to get her students to at least speak and write basic English. And their initial dislike of her has also changed.
Cheryl doesn’t stop there – she then gets some of the students to participate in a district-level competition on choral speaking. The 35 students have to practise for months before they are even at the same level as other schools in the area.
Well, since this is an inspiring tale, the audience can somewhat guess where it is heading. But like all good stories, there are uphill slogs and other challenges before the end is reached.
Director Eric Ong smartly chooses to let Cheryl and the students move the story forward, while intercutting glimpses of kampung life with the goings-on in school. There is a powerful shot where Ong shows a student walking from the break of dawn to get to school on time. At one point, he pulls back the camera and the long shot reveals that the muddy road the student is travelling on is only a stone’s throw away from the well-developed highway that is filled with speeding vehicles.
This scene aptly summarises the chasm between city life and kampung life, even though they may be very close to one another.
While most students in the city only have to deal with making time for tuition, Ong shows how some rural students have more urgent things to worry about – like helping their parents earn enough for their daily meals. Worse, if one parent falls ill, then the responsibility of earning that income falls to the student. Education is of secondary importance in their lives, which shouldn’t be the case at all.
These scenes are what take Adiwiraku to inspiring heights – that the acts of heroism do not need to be grand, they just have to count for something. Cheryl and teachers like her make that difference.
This reality makes the heart-rending moments in the film even more tragic. But Adiwiraku is far from a bleak film – there is lightheartedness too, like when the students sit around talking about their favourite superheroes. It must be stressed that these are actual students and not professional actors, and yet they pull off their scenes with much heart and humour.
Actors Wan Azlyn and Farra Safwan are also exceptional in carrying their roles as teens with sensitive storylines.
Nonetheless, not all the students are on the same page, which is totally understandable and actually OK – it doesn’t hurt the story. What does are a couple of jumps in the narration, especially in the introduction, as it relies too heavily on voice-overs to make up for the lack of cohesion.
For example, it would’ve been nice to see exactly how Cheryl overcomes her initial challenges in connecting with the students, instead of rushing through it to get to the choral speaking plot. Or even some background of who Cheryl is before she arrives at the school. Luckily, actress Sangeeta Krishnasamy is capable enough as Cheryl that we get an idea of the character without the background details.
It’s easy to overlook these flaws simply because Adiwiraku celebrates the unsung heroes out there, the teachers.
Director: Eric Ong
Cast: Sangeeta Krishnasamy, Xavier Fong, Wan Azlyn, Farra Safwan, Ahmad Adnin Zidane, Irdina Tasmin, Balqis Sani