Plural Identities: Reinventions & Revisions in Malaysian Cinema
Feature by: Vinita Ramani
August 2005 has been an eventful time, with the Screen Singapore Festival in Singapore  and the Southeast Asian Cinemas at the Border Conference at Thammasat University, Bangkok (August 15-16)  . The following article is a personal perspective on the issues that have arisen in both spaces around the issue of national cinema, culture and identity. I’ve kept it specific to Malaysia and Singapore (pre-independence) since this was also the Festival’s focus. The conference itself saw the most intriguing tensions arise in the context of how one can define “Malaysian” cinema. Suffice it to say, I am not an expert in Malaysian cinema. However, the debates proved to be useful in contemplating the larger issues and I have kept my responses specific to two films and what I have read so far.
Ask P. Ramlee: Pluralism and Malaysian Identities
When he was asked about his two most recent films, Tokyo Magic Hour and The Year of Living Vicariously (2005), filmmaker Amir Muhammad summed them up rather aptly as “Malaysian” films first, however else they may be categorised and understood.
Made in the same year, one is ostensibly a eulogy and a visual poem tracing the beginnings and demise of a relationship (Tokyo Magic Hour). The other film is a documentary located in the context of Indonesian filmmaker Riri Riza’s new production Gie (2005), where students and various people on the set comment on the state of their country.
Though apparently confusing at first, one realises Muhammad’s decision to define them as “Malaysian” films is neither an attempt at being cryptic, nor stylishly postmodern. Instead, it shows that the efficacy of film history isn’t lost on the filmmaker. Put in simpler terms, it seems like Muhammad is paying tribute, quietly and unequivocally.
So who is receiving the kudos?
Some pieces clicked into place during the Screen Singapore Festival’s screening of P. Ramlee’s Labu Dan Labi (1962). The film is a riotous comedy in which two servants, Labu (M.Zain) and Labi (P.Ramlee), lead lives of miserable subservience to Haji Bakhil (Udo Omar). Bakhil (which means “stingy poker”) is a caricature tyrant who hoards his wealth, refusing to part with it even when his daughter needs a little extra cash to keep her sewing business going. Labu (the cook) and Labi (the driver played by P. Ramlee) drift off into a world of fantasy one night, lying out on the porch and conjure up scenarios in which the master-servant relationship is reversed.
The film then segways into the various possibilities their fantastical imaginations create. Suddenly, Labu is a souped-up magistrate and Labi is a doctor. The two meet in a snazzy jazz bar where a cool-looking band play sexy numbers (and the acquiescent guy serving the drinks is Haji Bakhil).
Songs include Consuela Velasquez’s Besame Mucho, now made famous by Cape Verde chaunteuse Césaria Évora. Models representing every ethnic group (Anglo, Chinese, Malay and Indian) strut down a catwalk and the dramatic emcee keeps the mood up. Labu and Labi break into a hilarious, satirical version of rich, established aristocrats – complete with English-accented Malay and plenty of English words thrown in for good measure.
As if this sequence weren’t absurd enough, Ramlee’s comedic but wry narrative takes us through every cliché imaginable. The two men play out Tarzan in the jungle (an almost Animal Farm like parody of our animalistic, primordial need for power); the classic western; noir and melodrama complete with marriages, murder attempts and jealousy.
The audience can either dismiss it as the mad desires of two servants or an excuse for Ramlee to engage in some freewheeling warm-ups in various cinematic genres.
What stood out most dramatically at the end of this great comedy is P.Ramlee’s message that in the end, it is a Malaysian film. In it, Malay characters can be anywhere and anything – both in an economic and cultural sense. They can become what they desire and also parody the outcome. Gin and tonic, sexy baju kurong, status and prejudice – it is all there and it all evokes laughter.
In an article called P.Ramlee Bridges the Ethnic Divide (January 21, 2005, New Straits Times), Muhammad says just as much in response to the growing tendency in some circles to reify Malaysian (and Malay) cinema - a dubious act of “reclaiming identity” if there ever was any. He critiques one particular writer, Ayu Haswida Abu Bakar’s take on Malay cinema. To quote from the article:
“Malay cinema is described as "kuat dibelenggu oleh budaya India" (tightly shackled by Indian culture) and our audiences "dibuai momokan imaginasi pengarah India" (lulled by the spectre of Indian directors' imagination) before our hero P. Ramlee came along and "berjaya melenyapkan pengaruh budaya India" (successfully wiped out the influence of Indian culture) from local cinema”.
Ms Bakar also presented a paper at the conference in Thammasat, titled “National Identity in Malaysian Cinema”, where these same issues were once again raised.
Ms Bakar states, “films must portray Malaysia’s dictum being ‘Our film, our image’” (2005: 2). There are two implications to be drawn from this somewhat ambiguous statement. Firstly, there is an assumption that “our image” is cohesive and homogenous. What little mention of plurality there is in the paper, is only given a cursory glance at best. Indeed, Indian directors like P.L.Kapur, B.N.Rao, B.S.Rajhans or L.Krishnan are hardly mentioned, with the exception of Rajhans. Instead, Ms Bakar states, “Ironically, it was the Malays that took hold of the dying industry and began its restructuring” (ibid: 6). Unsubstantiated, this supposed economic fact is turned into a piece of historical revisionism, effectively denying the pluralism and cultural syncretism that was evident in the cinemas of Malaysia and Singapore at the time. 
The second assumption is of course, that film must conform to an apparently homogenous cultural reality. Ms Bakar only substantiates this by quoting herself: “The influence of popular culture must not be treated lightly as its powerful impact is piercing into our society amidst modernization and urbanization and ultimately into our cultural heritage” (2005: 8). This statement practically borders on alerting Malaysians to an impending threat.
Additionally, the idea that a government must play a paternalistic and interventionist role in determining the content of cinema as it ties into issues of “national integration” is dangerous at best.
In his essay tracing the historical development of cinema in Malaysia, M. Shariff Ahmad summarises that the National Film Development Corporation Malaysia (FINAS) was set up to regulate film activities, “to monitor and guide the growth of the industry so that its economic profile could be clearly seen within the context of the overall economic growth of the country” (2000: 55) . This somewhat broad objective likely has its attendant problems and advantages. If it is a tool to curtail pluralism in Malaysian cinema because this would be seen as a hindrance to the nation’s attempts at integration and growth, this is both narrow-minded endeavour. It seems that this is how Ms Bakar interprets the role of such an institution.
Why belabour this point?
In a considerably better and more astute paper, Malaysian academic Norman Yusoff examines hybrid identities and pluralism, delving into the works of cultural theorists such as bell hooks and Stuart Hall . Yusoff recognises how new Malaysian cinema problematises attempts to define a monolithic idea of “national cinema” and how some portrayals of inter-cultural relationships or ethnicity may be in line with the nation’s ideas of multiculturalism, or a challenge to it.