Malaysian historical action movie Mat Kilau: Kebangkitan Pahlawan, directed by Syamsul Yusof, has become the highest-grossing local film of all time in the Asian country, breaking the record set by the director’s own horror film Munafik 2 in 2018.
Mat Kilau has grossed $11.97m (RM53m) in 13 days across Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei. While the producers only announce figures for the three territories combined, local distributors say the film has easily overtaken Munafik 2, which grossed $8.5m (RM37.74m) in Malaysia and $10.8m (RM48m) across the region. It has achieved that figure despite going up against Top Gun: Maverick, Jurassic World Dominion and Minions: The Rise Of Gru at the Malaysian box office.
Produced by Studio Kembara and distributed by Skop Productions, Mat Kilau tells the story of a legendary 19th Century Malay warrior, Mat Kilau, who fought against British colonisers and their high taxes.
The cast includes Adi Putra, playing central character Mat Kilau, along with Beto Kusyairy, Fattah Amin, Yayan Ruhian and Johan Asari. In addition to hit horrors Munafik and its sequel, actor-director Syamsul Yusof is also behind the popular KL Gangster franchise.
The film’s scorching run suggests Malaysian box office is recovering after two years of cinema closures due to Covid-19. Malaysia’s cinemas were forced to close in March 2020, and aside from a few small temporary openings, weren’t fully back in action until September 2021.
But Mat Kilau is also proving controversial: local news site Malaysiakini describes it as an “ethnonationalism film,” as the Malay characters are depicted as heroes, with all other races including Chinese and Indians playing villains. Malaysia has a racially diverse population with people of Malay, Chinese and Indian origin, and ethnic tensions bubble up from time to time.
Others are comparing the film to Marvel movies and Mel Gibson’s Braveheart. Local film critic Zaim Yusoff told South China Morning Post the film’s success is due to its portrayal of Mat Kilau as a “relatable heroic figure,” just like Marvel superheroes: “The masses love superheroes, Marvel & DC movies are proof. The storytelling is simple, the story of betrayal between Malays, something that is relatable to the current political climate.” The film’s lengthy martial arts action sequences are also pulling in audiences.
Meanwhile, the local industry is divided on the film’s subject matter but appreciative of the hit. Malaysia’s box office only started to pick up at the end of last year with Spider-Man: No Way Home, which grossed around $10m, but audiences weren’t turning up for local films. Adrian Teh’s action thriller The Assistant, released in May, was the highest-grossing local film before Mat Kilau with a gross of around $800,000 (RM3.5m).