Detectives with supernatural powers is a TV trope that tend to fall deep into the land of cliches. But Mandatori takes what we know and love, successfully creating a binge-worthy series that is visually intelligent, and keeps you at thrilled at the edge of your seat.
Mandatori centers around Norman (Aeril Zafrel), a preternatural police detective with the ability to use his ‘imagination’ to visualize and subsequently solve a crime scene. Things take an odd turn however, when he discovers later on that he is unable to his ‘powers’ anymore. Time is not on his side, as the city of Banda Raya fall into deeper abyss as more mysterious occurrences come to unfold.
This production by ASTRO, Playground Productions and Ideate Media is an adaptation of legendary author, Ramlee Awang Murshid‘s novel of the same name. The writing team, led by two writers and show runners, Alfie Palermo (Juvana, J Revolusi) and Yasmin Yaacob (Tombiruo) takes creative liberty with the source material, sticking to the premise while artfully expanding upon it to make it suitable for a 6-episode TV series. The Writers Room does a wonderful job with the screenplay, allowing space for characters to come to life, for dialogues to be meaningful, and for expositions to be timely while sufficiently succinct. Although it is not without a few moments of cheesiness, the script feels human, instead of treating the roles as mere vessels to tell the audience the story. It is a great example of what happens to a Malay drama, when writing is given time and thought; deliberated around the period of year between a group of competent writers. (Other writers include Aziz Salim, Na’a Murad, Adib Zaini, Shamaine Othman, Ashraf Modee Zain and Fairul Nizam Ablah)
Of course, a good screenplay can still get flushed down the proverbial drain if it’s not interpreted with the just right touch. Razaisyam Rashid (CEO) however, exceeds expectations with his cinematographic prowess. So much heart is poured into the screenplay that enough of the story is told through the visuals, following the philosophy of “show, don’t tell” that only most local dramas lack. This means that while the plot may sometimes drudge on, there is enough feast for the eyes, already evident in the first scene of the first episode. The beautiful tracking shot (or oner) that kick starts the pilot is mouthwatering, as the camera follows Norman, the main character, into his first crime scene showcasing his supernatural talent at solving felonies.
Not only that, through this shot you get to observe the Fincher-esque details executed by Razaisyam, as posters of electoral candidates in the fictional city is shown as though to add gravity to the scene of ‘changes to come’; foreshadowing what is eventual in the play. Through other visual finesses, like colour grading and timely transitions, moods of a scene (and sometimes the motivation of certain characters) is displayed, and if you’re a film geek who loves these things, Mandatori is a buffet to partake in. Even the action scenes feel purposeful, as opposed to flashy, as the weight of each shot and stab is felt through the filmography, choreographed to be eloquently violent.
Mandatori is not dense for the sake of being dense. It’s appropriately heavy in parts where it is necessary, but overall is still accessible for those seeking to find a good thriller to munch on. All of that is made possible with a stellar cast, with Aeril Zafrel being one of the most pleasant surprises we’ve ever seen in Malaysian TV history in a long while. More prominent in his role in romantic dramas, due to his boyish charm, Aeril pulls of the stoic, yet internally struggling, character of Norman with such commendable range. There is also chemistry between Norman and his work partner, Kelvin (Alvin Wong) who plays the slightly rugged law enforcer with a sense of humour. This sort of relationships draw you closer to the characters. There’s also Iedil Putra, playing the stubborn prodigal son, sometimes bordering on the creepy, who plays the sort of character you’d love to hate (although his mannerism slightly echoes his character in J Revolusi, with slightly more depth in Mandatori). Amerul Affendi, who shows up in the later episodes, makes an appearance as a villain, showing his precise mastery of ominous subtlety as a character whose mania is quieter than most of his loud and abrasive roles (such as his role as Azman Picasso in Pekak).
A lot more things can be lauded about this series, including the small things like the intro made by Emir Ezwan of ENTROPY (director of short film, RM10). The people at ENTROPY really showcased their artistic arsenal in that tremendously catchy opening credits that makes you forget for a few moments that this is Astro GO, and not Netflix. The wonderful art direction in terms of props and settings, with Maliq Hussein & Edward Chee Boon at the helms help to brush a realistic stroke into a world that seems almost absurdly dark at times, coupled with the angular and gritty sound design by Technica Post. Besides that, Leena Sufie from ENTROPY made a whole new cartoon just for the purpose of this film, ‘Inspektor Carlos’, in order to enrich the backstory of characters. If that doesn’t speak to the dedication for the art, we don’t know what does.
Mandatori sometimes wades into an area of clunkiness, with certain conversations coming off as a filler for dry humor, or tacky expositions, but the highlights far overshadows the shortcomings. The first two episodes might be a bit slow to some, but everything from that is an experience that will reward you for your patience. The series is subversive, not just in the way the story is told, but the thematic content it covers. Mandatori also avoids being overly generic and derivative, thanks to the writing of Alfie and Yasmin. People keep referring it back to shows like Hannibal, but there is a identity to it that makes it strongly Malaysian – the keroncong music Norman listens to that sets the suspenseful mood whenever he scans a crime scene, the Cantonese squabbles between the characters of Alvin Wong and Chew Kin Wah (who plays a stern police chief) and the underlying political climate that is unique to us.
Although a novel adaptation, Mandatori proves that local films adapted from books must not just be saturated by eye-candy, acting as a complement to the literature for “people” who don’t like to read. It stands on its own as a powerful storytelling medium- the subversion displays a maturity that sets a new benchmark for all Malay TV dramas to follow suit.
MANDATORI is an ASTRO First exclusive, but if you’re not a subscriber to cable, don’t fret! You can also watch the series on Astro GO for just RM20. Rm20 for a series of this quality is extremely worth it. Check it out and tell us what you think!