A Malaysian Renaissance
By Benjamin McKay
The recent success of Malaysian films on the international festival circuit comes as no surprise to those of us who have been watching the recent independent films emanating from Kuala Lumpur and supporting their development over the past seven years or so. A small but dynamic burgeoning independent film culture exists now in the Malaysian capital and the other film cultures of Southeast Asia have begun to take an active interest in developments in new Malaysian cinema. With Tan Chui Mui’s recent success at Pusan and Rotterdam for Love Conquers All (2006) and the award of the International Jury Prize in Berlin to Yasmin Ahmad’s Mukhsin (2006) it seems the world has finally realized the value of the work being produced in Malaysia.
The independent film community in Kuala Lumpur works parallel alongside an existing and long established mainstream commercial film industry. The Malaysian mainstream has however rarely in the past forty years or so managed to make much of an impact outside of its own national borders. Producing Malay language films and featuring largely Malay performers and storylines these films often ignore the cultural, ethnic, religious and linguistic diversity that is a feature of plural Malaysian society. The mainstream cinema is an ethnic rather national cinema. The emerging independent film culture challenges that narrowness by embracing the diversity of the society that is producing it.
The Malay language film industry does however have an impressive lineage born out of a studio based production culture that was largely centered in the city of Singapore. Singapore was a part of the British colonially controlled larger Malay world until it became an independent city state in 1965. The first screenings of films commenced in what was then Malaya in 1901 and the region has consistently had some of the largest cinema attendance figures in the world since those days. Local productions in the Malay language began being produced during the 1930s. Production stopped during the years of the Japanese occupation, but commenced again in the post war era after 1947.
The two studios that helmed what is collectively known now as the Golden Years (Era Emas) of Malay cinema were the Shaw Brothers controlled Malay Film Productions and its competitor Cathay-Keris. The studios controlled production of local films and also had power over the distribution and exhibition of all films in the colony. Both studios had strong connections throughout the region and production arms in Hong Kong that meant the local Chinese population of the colony had their film requirements met. The studios were Chinese controlled but made Malay films that were, at least in the early days of the industry, largely directed by Indians.
The 1950s and 1960s were indeed fruitful years for Malay cinema. During a turbulent period that saw guerilla war, the negotiated compromises of independence from British rule, the creation of Malaysia and the eventual expulsion of Singapore from that federation, the film industry continued to flourish. Directors like Hussain Haniff and M. Amin built strong and critically acclaimed careers, and the versatile and iconic P. Ramlee managed to excel as an actor, singer, composer, director and writer building an impressive body of work that still towers over the cultural landscapes of contemporary Malaysia and Singapore years after his death. During this fertile period some 350 films were made locally. Films from that era that are still watched and much loved in Malaysia include Penarik Beca (The Trishaw Driver, P. Ramlee, 1955), Hang Tuah (Phani Majumdar, 1956, Antara Dua Darjat (Between Two Classes, P. Ramlee, 1960) and Dang Anom (Hussain Haniff, 1962).
Several factors led to the decline of the studio system including the separation of Singapore from Malaysia, the need to move production to Kuala Lumpur, the rise of television ownership and the inability to sustain profits on local productions. By 1972 the studio culture based in Singapore was largely dead and a period of decline in the film industries of both countries followed. By the 1980s however we see the slow development of a handful of quality films made under the auspices of both the private studios and with the assistance and support of government agencies and policies designed to reinvigorate the local industry, including the establishment of FINAS – the National Film Development Board.
During the 1980s and 1990s the flag bearers of Malaysian cinema were directors such as Rahim Razali, Shuhaimi Baba and U-Wei Hajisaari whose film Kaki Bakar (The Arsonist, 1993) was screened in the Un Certain Regard category at Cannes. Some notable films with a distinctly independent spirit at this time include Matinya Seorang Patriot Death of a Patriot, Rahim Razali, 1984), Selubung (The Veiled, Shuhaimi Baba, 1992), Seman (The Lost Hero, Mansor Puteh, 1987) and Dari Jemapoh Ke Manchestee (From Jemapoh to Manchester, Hishamuddin Rais, 1998). These films did however need to compete with mainstream commercial films made to formulas that worked well with local audiences.
It was however the great advances in digital filmmaking and the capacity for access to inexpensive equipment and software that gave a new generation of filmmakers the capacity to explore filmmaking as a means of telling new, interesting and culturally embracive Malaysian stories. This new generation was also aware of the social, political and cultural changes that had taken place in the country following the fallout of the so-called reformasi movement in the late 1990s. The ethos of independent filmmaking practices was mirrored in a new spirit of nascent but palpable grass roots democratization. The new millennium ushered in new possibilities.
The first feature film to deal with interracial relationships, including both cross cultural love affairs and gay love was Teck Tan’s ambitious Spinning Gasing (Spinning Top, 2001). The film was largely formulaic and attempted to find access to a mainstream audience but it was daring in that it dealt with issues that were largely taboo on Malaysian screens. That it suffered cuts was just a further indication of the restraints that censorship places on films and filmmakers in contemporary Malaysia. The film is notable too in that it placed non-Malay Malaysians in leading roles and had them communicating with each other largely in English.
One of the earliest indie films was made by a graduate of the Malaysian Film Academy, Osman Ali, whose confronting work Bukak Api (Open Fire, 1999) focused on sex workers and transvestites in the Chow Kit neighborhood of Kuala Lumpur. Originally slated as an educational video for the city’s sex workers, the film was infused with enough narrative substance to accord it something of a local cult status and it went on to screen at festivals internationally. Also receiving some exposure to the international festival circuit was a quirky and amusing film Lips to Lips (2000) by the young writer and filmmaker Amir Muhammad. As a strategy for circumventing the national censors Amir screened his work as a part of a multimedia theatre/installation production in venues not normally regarded as theatres or cinemas. A tradition of private or membership screenings developed and is continued through to today.
One of the salient features of the movement of independent filmmakers that emerged in Kuala Lumpur from 2000 onwards has been the sense of community and the spirit of collaboration. The scene itself is small and as it generates little by way of large sums of money the need to be cooperative and collaborative has infused the movement with a very supportive ethos that is often the envy of other Southeast Asian independent film cultures. A director may turn up as a Director of Photography or an editor on a fellow director’s new film – indeed many of the credits for these films are like a roll call of the scene itself. Having said that it is important to note that the leading figures in indie Malaysian filmmaking take their mentoring responsibilities very seriously and a second wave of young practitioners has begun to emerge.
The indie movement itself would not exist without the continuing support of a small but fundamentally important organization called Kelab Seni Filem Malaysia (The Malaysian Art Film Society) helmed by the tireless hard work of its President Wong Tuck Cheong and supported by local luminaries such as Hassan Muthalib and the filmmakers Bernard Chauly, Ho Yuhang and Amir Muhammad. The regular screenings of shorts and documentaries have been a showcase that has launched many of the promising and noticeable careers of young Malaysian filmmakers.
Distinctive for his essayed documentaries that blur the boundaries of the genre itself, Amir Muhammad has been at the forefront of indie Malaysian filmmaking. His work includes The Big Durian (2003) a blisteringly affectionate portrait of the political, ethnic, religious and social firmament of contemporary Kuala Lumpur. This work critiques the cleavages and ruptures that need to be negotiated on a daily basis in this complex and dynamic city. It also explores the manner in which rumour becomes truth in a society where information is jealously guarded. In The Year of Living Vicariously (2005) Amir explores the nexus between memory, politics and myth in his neighboring Indonesia. Tokyo Magic Hour (2005) was an innovative experimental work that used assembled found text to narrate the rise and fall of a gay relationship against a visual backdrop of Japanese alienation.
Amir Muhammad’s documentaries Lelaki Komunis Terakhir (The Last Communist, 2006) and Apa Khabar Orang Kampung (Village People Radio Show, 2007) navigate their way backwards and forwards across time and place to explore the legacies of communism in Malaysia and the landscapes and urban settings that conceal that hidden history. For his efforts these two films were banned respectively in Malaysia, but have both had considerable success internationally. His earlier collection of short films, 6horts (2002) works collectively as a suite of essays that touch upon many of the potent issues that tend to shape and colour contemporary Malaysian life.
Another important filmmaker is James Lee who has an impressively diverse body of work to his name. In addition to an array of short films, several of which are quite experimental in nature, James has made some daring and confronting features. The gritty Snipers (2001) and Ah Beng Returns (2001) mix noir chic with indie edge and are paced deftly to synthesize tone with visuality. His films have explored a unique array of relationships in all variations of disfunction and have never been shy of both the surreal and hyper-real. Other important works by this filmmaker include Room To Let (2002), The Beautiful Washing Machine (2004) and Before We Fall in Love Again (2006).
Yasmin Ahmad has managed to make three feature films that were screened commercially and to much critical success. The first of these films Sepet (Slant-Eyes, 2003) caused controversy here in Malaysia for its depiction of an interracial love affair between a young Malay girl from a relatively privileged background and a young Chinese Malaysian boy who makes a living selling pirated DVD’s in a marketplace. The issues of race, religion and class are sensitive ones for Malaysia and conservative elements within the country began attacking Yasmin Ahmad’s work publicly. The fact is however that her films have begun to change Malaysian cinema in profoundly important ways.
With Gubra (Panic, 2005) and Mukhsin (2007) Yasmin Ahmad has continued to push the envelope with regard to her subject matter. She was the first Malay director to address the problems of the other ethnicities in Malaysia in narrative fictional films, giving voice to their marginality. Her critics did not appreciate her subtle but potent critique on the special privileges accorded to Malays under the law. Yasmin Ahmad has with considerable style and flair created an imagined Malaysia on screen. The three feature films are related to one another – many of the same characters appear in all three – but each film shifts subtly away from the others and when seen as an oeuvre we are presented with a magic world shaped as much by imagination and poetry as it is by humour and enthusiastic gusto.
Ho Yuhang, like James Lee, has been influenced in part by the works of both Tsai Ming Liang (originally from Malaysia) and Hou Hsiau Hsien from Taiwan. Referencing influences however does not negate the fact that his films are deeply centered in Malaysia – whether we are in the suburban banality and sprawl of Petaling Jaya in his 2004 Sanctuary or on the fringes of a small town in the heartland of the country in his 2006 film Rain Dogs. Long takes and often slowly paced Ho Yuhang tells achingly painful stories in very beautiful ways. His somber and deep explorations of people at the margins are all given a very humane treatment through his adherence to careful composition and stark aesthetics. Ho Yuhang is a major filmmaker and while his use of Chinese dialects means his films get classified locally as International (they do not meet the very restrictive and somewhat chauvinistic official cultural definitions of what makes something Malaysian) his work brings great variety to the dynamism of the indie movement in Malaysia.
Tan Chui Mui whose films range from the short but sublime A Tree In Tanjung Malim (2005) to her humorous but painful look at masculinity in Company of Mushrooms (2006) is a part of what might be seen as the second wave of young Malaysian filmmakers. With the success of her feature film Love Conquers All (2006) at international festivals and a growing acceptance at home at last that these indie films have a place on the nations screens the future looks bright for Malaysian cinema. Other young filmmakers whose work is worth seeking out include Azharr Rudin and Deepak Kumaran Menon.
The indie scene has begun to infuse the mainstream – not just through people moving into that arena to work, but through a growing awareness within the industry more broadly that there is an audience at home for intelligent, embracive cinema that speaks to and for all Malaysians. Filmmakers like Bernard Chauly made the cross over with his hugely successful Gol & Gincu (2005) and followed it up recently with his delightful adolescent road movie Goodbye Boys. Even Amir Muhammad this year will release his first mainstream movie Susuk (The Charm) and many indie filmmakers now see the possibility of being able to bridge the divide more permanently without compromising either their independence or their sense of community and cooperation. In spite of continuing restrictions from local censorship and some perhaps dated and obsolete policies still being enforced on to the cultural landscape of the country, Malaysian cinema has over the past seven or so years blossomed – heralding indeed something of a renaissance on Malaysian screens.