Voices of Malaysian Cinema
Feature by: Hassan Muthalib
The Early Days
Wayang kulit, the Malay shadow play, gave the earliest inhabitants of Southeast Asia their first experience of ‘cinema.’ But narrative cinema as it is today only began in Malaysia, with the production of Laila Majnun in 1933, directed by B S Rajhans and produced by Motilal Chemical, a Bombay-based company in Singapore. In 1938, two brothers from Hong Kong, Run Run and Run Me Shaw, set up a film unit and produced (unsuccessful) films using Chinese-based stories. With the advent of the Second World War and the Japanese Occupation of Malaya, local film production ceased. After the war, a new company, Malayan Arts Production produced Seruan Merdeka (The Call to Independence - the first with the theme of patriotism). B S Rajhans was again the director. However, it was the establishment of the studio system modeled after Hollywood by the Shaw Brothers, and their company, Malay Film Productions, that gave impetus to the film industry and resulted in other studios being set up.
From the late 40s to the early 50s, the films were directed by Indian directors imported from India. Among them were B S Rajhans, S Ramanathan, L Krishnan, B N Rao and Phani Majumdar. Though overly melodramatic with stylized acting and song-and-dance, their films went down well with the local populace. Stars were created and audiences flocked to the cinemas. It was not long before the locals were given a chance to helm productions. The first one, Permata di-Perlembahan (Pearls in the Valley, 1952) by Haji Mahadi, an actor, failed at the box-office. Filipino directors were then called in. Among them: Ramon Estella, Lamberto Avellana and Eddy Infante. However, it was the entry of other Malay directors (and in particular, P. Ramlee, a versatile actor and singer), who transformed the Malay cinema of the times with familiar themes and techniques that resounded with the movie-going public. Though the ubiquitous song-and-dance was still there, the over-acting and heavily Indian-influenced stories had faded. In place were themes related to issues more in tune with the times.
Among the local directors who quickly made a name for themselves were M. Amin, Omar Rojik, Hussein Hanif, Salleh Ghani, Jamil Sulong, S. Kadarisman and Mat Sentol. However, it was P. Ramlee and his unique brand of storytelling and techniques that consistently drew the crowds. Among his most cinematic works are Bujang Lapok (Raggedy Bachelors, 1955), Semerah Padi (The Village of Semerah Padi, 1956), Sumpah Orang Minyak (The Curse of the Oily Man, 1957), Antara Dua Darjat (Between Two Classes, 1960), and Ibu Mertua-ku (My Mother-in-Law, 1961). As a ‘thinking’ filmmaker, P. Ramlee felt the need to make use of the film medium to comment upon the lot of his race, calling upon them to come out of the drudgery and backwardness that they were in.
New Beginnings in Kuala Lumpur
The late 50s and early 60s were bad times for the industry. Production costs mounted and the introduction of television resulted in a fall in cinema audiences. Singapore split from Malaysia in 1965 and two years later, the studio system of Shaws and Cathay (now called Cathay-Keris), collapsed in Singapore (Shaw Brothers, because of union problems). Shaws decided to move their business to Merdeka Studios in Kuala Lumpur, taking P. Ramlee and Saloma, one of the stars with them. But this was to be the beginning of the end for the shining star of Malaysian cinema. Without the facilities of the studio system, P. Ramlee was forced to be involved in every aspect of production. Budget and location constraints led to the cutting of corners – and it showed on the screen. Audiences began to stay away from his films and also that of other directors employed by Merdeka Studios. They turned instead to Indonesian films that had better storylines and higher production values.
Seeing the need for a change, Shaws decided to bring in other (Singapore) directors who were now attached to the government documentary film unit, Filem Negara Malaysia. Among them were Jamil Sulong and Salleh Ghani. Crew from Hong Kong were brought in to support them. A new look (but similar to films from Hong Kong), emerged. This did not go down well with the audience, especially with a younger, more educated and discerning group. The entry of Hafsham (a film graduate) with Adik Manja (Affectionate Child, 1979), for Merdeka Studios, gave a glimmer of hope for the industry. However, Shaws decided to close down in 1980, and Chinese domination of the film industry came to a decisive end. The time now was ripe for the locals to take over.
Kuala Lumpur’s first feature film was actually produced by Filem Negara Malaysia, the Government documentary film studios. Set up in 1946 by the British, the unit produced Abu Nawas in 1957, with the main stars and music personnel coming from Singapore. The film was about the communist insurgency that began just after the War. A number of the unit’s production personnel became employed at both Shaws and Cathay-Keris in Singapore. A few others (like Hafsham), found easy employment in the advertising industry in Kuala Lumpur. P Ramlee had actually been in discussion with the Filem Negara to produce a police series in the late 60s but nothing came out of it and Roomai Noor, an actor/director formerly in Singapore, took over the helm.
In 1975, the government began to take the film industry seriously, realizing that film could contribute towards national unity and nation-building. As a result, the National Film Development Corporation (FINAS) was set up in 1981 in response to the film community’s appeal for government assistance to improve and develop the industry. FINAS’ first step was to stipulate that film companies could undertake only one of the following activities: producing and distributing; or producing and screening; or producing and distributing. Taxes on film stock were lifted (much later, the 25% entertainment tax imposed on ticket sales was returned to the producers to enable them to continue making films).
1975 was also a momentous year for the industry. A new company, Sabah Films, burst onto the scene with the successful Keluarga Si Comat (The Family of Comat - Aziz Sattar). The producer, Deddy M Borhan, a hitherto unknown figure, went on to produce an unprecedented 16 films. Though cheaply-made and with predictable storylines, a number of the films nevertheless made money. Azura (1984) was the biggest box-office hit. Borhan’s success led to a proliferation of film producers, some of whom fell by the roadside because they did not understand the business side of filmmaking.
The ‘Voices’ of Malaysian Cinema
Dr Anuar Nor Arai, film lecturer and critic, counts five ‘voices’ in Malaysian cinema. By ‘voices’ he means the articulation of emotions and feelings about one’s society and its problems through the medium of film. The Chinese, and Indian pre-War filmmakers may be regarded as The First Voice. Even though they were not citizens of the country, they tried to react to the local populace’s wants through their stories. Among the productions from 1933 to 1941 were love stories, horror and the odd one about polygamy and the nasty stepmother.
The Second Voice was made up of the post-War Indian and Filipino filmmakers (1940s to 1950s). These directors/writers too were not nationals but their close working relationship with the locals resulted in a number of films that made social comment and had ‘messages’ aimed at the local population. A theme of racial unity emerged in Seruan Merdeka (Call to Freedom – B S Rajhans, 1949). Patriotism and the consequences of treachery could be seen in Sgt Hassan (Lamberto V Avellana, 1958) and the tale of the wayward son in Anak-ku Sazali (My Son, Sazali – Phani Majumdar, 1958).
The Third Voice belonged to the locals in Singapore, who began to take over in the 50s and 60s. A few of them, like Hamzah Hussin, Rahman B and Jamil Sulong, had been either involved with the literary scene or were former journalists. Their themes were more realistic and consonant with the times. Penarik Becha (The Trishaw Puller, 1955) and Antara Dua Darjat (Between Two Classes, 1960), both directed by P Ramlee, were about class distinction; Rumah Itu Dunia-ku (That House is my World - M Amin,1964), written by Hamzah Hussin, was about the travails of family life in Singapore of the 60s; Hang Jebat (Hussein Hanif, 1961), was a contemporary interpretation of the well-known tale of the two legendary warriors, Tuah and Jebat. Hanif’s version went against the popular view that Tuah was an unthinking lackey of the ruler, and that Jebat, in effect, was the real hero.
The Fourth Voice emerged from among the filmmakers during the Merdeka Studio era and after. However, before Merdeka Studios became prolific, Filem Negara Malaysia was already producing docudramas (using popular actors), with themes of good neighbourliness, planning for the future, and education. This also included drug abuse (many years before it became a major issue for the country). A brainchild of the then Director-General, Mohd Zain Hussein, the narrative approach was used to get across government messages. A particularly good example was Mata Permata (The Lost Jewels – Osman Shamsuddin, 1964) based on the Guy du Maupassant short story, The Necklace. It told of how a mother-in-law pesters her daughter to coax her husband into buying jewelry so as to show off to the neighbours. In the end, the husband loses what little he had in the first place.
Jins Shamsuddin (a former actor in 1950s Singapore), entered the fray in Kuala Lumpur with his Bukan Salah Ibu Mengandung (Blame Not the Expectant Mother, 1968). This, and his later films, were about illegitimate children, abortion, adultery, polygamy and divorce and how the family coped in modern-day Malaysia. He was the more successful compared to directors like Salleh Ghani, A R Tompel, Hussein Abu Hassan and M Maroeti.
The Fifth Voice, the most eloquent among all the others, slowly emerged in the 1980s. The few filmmakers representing this group were either educated in film, were from theatre or were knowledgeable about film as a means of expression. Among them were Rahim Razali, Nasir Jani, Mansor Puteh, Anuar Nor Arai, Adman Salleh, Mahadi J. Murat, Shuhaimi Baba, U-Wei Hajishaari, Erma Fatima, Hishamuddin Rais, Teck Tan and Yasmin Ahmad. A study of their films reveals a profound understanding of the tensions, frustrations and idiosyncrasies that lie beneath the surface of Malay society. Rahim Razali made benign comments through Abang (Big Brother, 1981): A family becomes successful in business, but a member misuses the finances of the company, not because he is greedy but only because he had the opportunity to do so. In Matinya Seorang Patriot (Death of a Patriot, 1984), he points out the parallel between political events today and of the intrigues of the 15th century Malacca Sultanate, that led to its downfall.
Not so Nasir Jani. He went straight for the jugular in Kembara Seniman Jalana’n (The Travelling Artistes, 1986) and Rozanna Cinta 87 (Rozanna, Love 1987). He was anti-establishment off and on-screen and gave no apologies. U-Wei Hajisaari, the first local director to have had a screening at Cannes with his Kaki Bakar (The Arsonist, 1995), has dealt with only one theme in all his films: the psyche of the Malay man and woman and why they are what they are, without moralizing about it. He has continued the tradition in his latest film, Buai Laju-laju (Swing My Swing High, 2004) and will doubtless continue to do so in his forthcoming Almayer. Adapted from Joseph Conrad’s Almayer’s Folly.
Shuhaimi Baba and Erma Fatima, both women directors are boldly feminist in their approach. In Selubung (Veil of Life, 1992), Shuhaimi Baba deals with young, educated people and their (mis)understanding of Islam. In Ringgit KaSorgga (The Fee for Paradise, 1995), she attacks corrupt politicians and in Layar Lara (Screen of Grief, 1997), she stands up for the young filmmakers of today. Erma Fatima explored the search for Malay identity in Perempuan Melayu Terakhir (The Last Malay Woman, 1999) and in Embun (Dewdrops, 2002): that women must stand up and take their place in the world despite the odds.
Adman Salleh’s characters are always those on the fringes of society and unable to come to terms with their milieu, as evident in Bintang Malam (1992), Amok (1995) and Paloh (2003). Mahadi J. Murat's Sayang Salmah (My Dear Salmah, 1995) is about political persecution, and also of a mother’s love. Both Teck Tan’s Spinning Gasing (Spinning Top, 2000), and Yasmin Ahmad’s Sepet (Slit-eyed, 2005) explore ethnic relationships and inter-racial love (Chinese boy loves Malay girl). Anuar Nor Arai has made Malaysia’s only gangster film in film noir style, Johnny Bikin Filem (Johnny Makes a Film, 1995) was a university project that brought together film students working side by side with professional, both in front and behind the camera.. Shot on 35 mm, it presents a story set in 1950s Singapore and goes below the surface of Malay society to explore their lack of vision, place and identity. Mansor Puteh has made the country’s first and only anti-narrative and anti-plot feature, Seman (1987), about the dilemma of educated young Malaysians in a country that does not recognize their capabilities. Hishamuddin Rais, too, broke rules with his Dari Jemapoh ke Manchestee (From Jemapoh to Manchester, 2002). With a highly formalist approach, his message to the young people of today was: ‘break out of the cocoons you are in and take over the world’ (specifically Malaysia).
Mansor Puteh, Shuhaimi Baba, U-Wei Hajisaari, Hishamuddin Rais and Yasmin Ahmad’s works best represent alternative cinema - and the revolution that is taking place among young, educated filmmakers of all races in Malaysia today. With the ease afforded by digital technology, the number of young people engaged in cinematic expression has quadrupled. Since her first TV drama, Rabun (Blurred Vision, 2004), Yasmin has gone on to make Sepet (Slit-Eyed, 2005), a Chinese boy, Malay girl love story. The film made waves and has become much talked about (and also ruffled the feathers of many locals)
The Digital Filmmakers
Since the breakthrough by Amir Muhammad’s digital feature, Lips to Lips in the year 2000, others have come up with digital features or feature-length documentaries. Among them: Ho Yuhang, Ng Tian Hann, Ngai Low Yuen and James Lee collaborated on an anthology called Visits; Osman Ali: Bukak Api (Open Fire) and Malaikat Di Jendela (Angel By the Window); James Lee with Snipers, Ah Beng Returns, Room to Let and Beautiful Washing Machine; Eleanor Low and Linus Chung: Whispers My Heart; Ho Yuhang: Min and Sanctuary; Ng Tian Hann: First Take, Final Cut; Nam Ron: Gedebe (Gangsters); Deepak Kumaran Menon: Chemman Chaalai (The Gravel Road); Woo Ming Jin: Monday Morning Glory; Eng Yow: Ah Kew The Digger; Sandosh Kesavan: Aaandal and Naguib Razak: Glass Enclosure: Tokyo Invisible. Amir has since come up with The Big Durian (the first Malaysian entry to Sundance), Tokyo Magic Hour and The Year of Living Vicariously. He is currently shooting a documentary, The Last Male Communist and will soon be in production with Naeim Ghalili on a 35 mm cinema feature called Susuk (Amulet). Bernard Chauly’s first cinema feature, Gol dan Gincu (Goal and Lipstick) is currently playing the cinema circuits.
Digital shorts are now flooding the increasing number of venues that are showcasing the works of emerging talents. Keelab Seni Filem Malaysia, started in the 1970s, is the most popular, yearly having two crowded showings. The latest has been the Kontot Film Festival. The yearly Nokia Awards, Malaysia Video Awards, Freedom Fest and the Malaysian Film Festival see increasing number of young people submitting their works, either for exhibition or for competition. FINAS and the Multimedia Development Corporation offer monetary support while some of the filmmakers who have won awards garner grants from overseas. Two TV stations have been responsible for the rise of some of these talents. ASTRO, the satellite channel, supported Naguib Razak in his early attempts at making his documentary Anak Duyung (The Mermaid Child - later remade for Discovery Channel as The Boatmakers of Mermaid Island). The station has also screened many digital shorts. NTV7 employed Osman Ali, an able graduate of the Malaysia Film Academy, who in turn, was responsible for giving an opportunity to other digital filmmakers to make headway into the mainstream. Red Communications, a TV production company, is in the forefront, too, in giving opportunities for digital filmmakers to express themselves – and make some money in the process. They produced Visits, Gol dan Gincu (Goal and Lipstick) and a TV series, Shortcuts, that showcases short films Another TV series, Generasi Digital, was produced by Vision New Media and is a first for RTM, the government TV channel.
The support provided by Golden Screen Cinemas with their digital screenings has opened an avenue for digital filmmakers to showcase their works, thus bringing their works closer to the mainstream. Many of their works have participated and achieved recognition at prestigious festivals all over the world. In these young filmmakers’ hands, film is not just for entertainment. The outside world is finally beginning to see, consistently, Malaysian works that project the minds of these filmmakers and their thoughts about themselves, their country and the world.
Film in Malaysia was once dominated by Malay cinema, but now the Fifth Voice has gained momentum and – like it or not – is in the process of creating a new Malaysian Cinema, both independently and through the mainstream. And it is beginning to make its voice heard loud and clear.