Making a long-distance relationship work requires a Herculean amount of commitment and communication. While the commitment to each other is the first spark of the fireworks, communication is the key that keeps the fireworks alive. But what happens when you take the communication out of the long-distance relationship equation altogether? This is the plight that is displayed to a cinematic effect amidst a background of life and society in pre-independence Malaya and Malaysia in its infancy in Pulang ('returning home' in Malay). Pulang is also Kabir Bhatia's biggest project yet with an ambitious production cost and the expectations that come with a 'based on a true story' film.
The premise of Pulang sings to an almost similar tune of A Very Long Engagement, a 2004 French romantic film, although the former is actually based on a true story. Pulang is essentially a recount of a fragile long-distance relationship between the protagonists Othman and Thom, played by the big screen veteran Remy Ishak and the greenhorn Puteri Aishah, respectively. With a plot that is delivered from the standpoints of Thom, Othman, and Othman's son, Omar, and his grandson, Ahmad, the consequences of Othman's life-altering decision is shown to cascade down to his lineage until the whole story comes full circle with a closure born out of Ahmad's fulfilled promise to his grandmother.
The courtship between Othman and Thom takes place against the breathtaking scenery of Serkam village in Malacca, which was in fact filmed in Terengganu. The daily struggles of making a living from the sea's bounty are dramatized against an authentic 1940's backdrop of a seaside settlement and a society that lives under the British occupation. Despite the hardships of their reality, Thom and Othman, who is working as a fisherman found their way into each other's embraces and are blessed with the birth of their only child, Omar. However, Pulang's real traction materializes in the aftermath of Japanese occupation which saw Othman crosses path with Lum, a local Chinese who will turn out to be his lifelong best pal. It is also during this crucial juncture that Othman makes the biggest decision in his life to working as a sailor in the hopes of a better life for his wife and son.
As a man who accepts that his fate is tied to the sea and wherever its tides brings him to, the end justifies the means for Othman, even if it means leaving behind the two most important persons to him to seek a brighter future for them. They say that opposites attract, and it shows between Othman and Thom. While Othman is adventurous and dares to dream big, Thom is more prudent and puts a greater value on raising a family with her husband than material wealth. The day that Othman finally sets foot on the deck of the British cargo ship that will take him around the world is the day that the waiting game between Othman and Thom is set in motion.
Through a series of events and a handful of unfortunate ones in Othman's seafaring career, the physical and emotional distances between the husband and wife are stretched to the limits. In the absence of communication means throughout the 1940s to 1960s, the only connections that exist between Othman and Thom come in the form of Lum, who intermittently crosses path with Othman in their sailing endeavor and Omar who temporarily moved to London to further his studies and taking a time off to reconnect with his long-lost father. However, as in any long-distance relationship, it has a shelf life before couples naturally drift apart from each other. The waiting game in Pulang lasts 61 years with both Thom and Othman never had the chance to rekindle their love for each other again.
This is the point in the film where the whole recounting begins with Ahmad, Othman's grandson going on a journey to fulfill his grandmother's final wish to find a closure on Othman's fate. The revelation on why his grandfather never returns home is poignantly laid bare, albeit a small circumstance in Othman's recounting that I find a tad too convenient that it feels like a plot device. While the characters’ stories are fictionalized, Othman’s journey is factual, so that particular incidence might have been rehashed to fit in the runtime and narrative.
Pulang gives you an authentic feel on many fronts such as the chemistry between Remy and Aishah, the occasional comedic reliefs of Lum played by Alvin Wong, the tension in the air from Thom's frustrations and the race against time to fulfill Thom's dying wish. The historical theme of Pulang provides a solid time frame for the narrative, in particular, the invasion of the Japanese Empire on Malaya and the journey of early Malaysian sailors on cargo ships which found them settling down for retirement in Liverpool. The fact that Pulang is based on a real-life story packs an additional emotional punch and the cognizant of how we take daily convenience in communication for granted, given that instantaneous communication didn't exist in those days from the 1940s to 1960s.