|The Amber Sexalogy
Reviewed by: Benjamin McKay
(The following review contains certain spoilers.)
Azharr Rudin has worked as an editor on Amir Muhammad’s films Lelaki Komunis Terakhir (The Last Communist, 2006) and The Year of Living Vicariously (2005) and his skills in this area are certainly evident throughout the six short films he has assembled together under the title The Amber Sexalogy (2006). Indeed one might argue that the manner in which he connects these six short films is in itself an act of editing. The Amber Sexalogy is a suite of six interrelated but markedly different DV shorts. Charting certain stages in the relationship between Harris, a young man played by a series of different actors and Amber, a young woman played by Melissa Maureen Rizal, these very different short films work as a unified suite and eventually build up to a master narrative that unfolds fully in the moments of reflection after watching the entire 61 minutes.
Azharr has utilised distinctly different visual styles in each of the shorts that make up this suite. The visual styles are thematically linked to the individual tone of each short and as a collective whole they bring nuance and visual relevance to the journey we are charting. Combined they are also somewhat of a showcase for the evident talents of this young Malaysian filmmaker.
The first film in the suite opens as something of a conclusion, although we are not aware of this at first. Forgetting Amber firmly places the film in Kuala Lumpur with sensitively captured temporal changes in the skies above Brickfields. Harris (who in this film is simply credited as “Man”) is silent and alone throughout except for a shot of Amber shown on the TV set and taken from the later short Loving Amber. There is a subtle play here on the idea of whether what we capture can retain its meaning – the video that captured love is no longer a reality or an immediate truth. The struggle to reconcile memory with the reality of the end of a relationship is quite beautifully drawn in Mark Teh’s silent performance. The combined motifs of the video sequence, the digital camera and the mobile phone all work to establish a continuing theme of our struggles to connect and engage and the manner in which we often clumsily fail to do so. James Lee shot the footage for this film and imbues it with lovely strokes of red and green and a sunset that perfectly relates to the exhausted despair that Mark Teh gives to his performance.
Meeting Amber relates most closely to a later film in the suite, Desir; indeed they appear to mirror each other in a whimsical play on language and translatability, with the first of the two in English and the later film in Malay. The action takes place on KL’s monorail and a beautifully captured silkscreen-like backdrop of the city is framed in motion in a garishly rich palette of greens, reds and blues through the windows of the moving train. This film was shot by fellow indie filmmaker Woo Min Jin and cleverly manipulates light, colour and speed in a digitally drawn backdrop to our foreground action. Here we discover the awkwardness of random public encounters and we witness the clumsy attempts at human connectivity as Amber meets Harris, and then both encounter the real/reel life Amir Muhammad, who plays himself quite nicely. The film also utilises other people we are familiar with in both the independent film and music scenes in Kuala Lumpur. Filmmaker Tan Chui Mui plays Amber’s friend and the busking musician is poet, singer and songwriter Jerome Kugan.
Loving Amber is briefly linked to the previous short as our two young lovers now disembark from the monorail at Bukit Bintang and embark on a bus journey out of KL. The sense of transience and dislocation builds as we move with Harris’ eyes through kampungs [Malaysian villages.-Ed.] and bus stops en route to the resort island of Pulau Perhentian. The two characters never appear to know where they actually are on the way there. It is interesting that Azharr Rudin credits himself as the “compiler” of this film and the camerawork is attributed to the “characters” Harris and Amber. This is a very deliberate home movie of capturing love and youthful obsession through the gaze of Harris. He captures a newly confident and playful Amber while also recording his own obsessiveness and the manner in which this irritates the object of his desire at times. Interestingly, the island paradise is heavy with clouds and grey overtones and the film finishes with a long still shot of rain falling on the island landscape.
Raining Amber, with camerawork again by James Lee, opens with the visually striking juxtaposed symmetries of the KL Tower and a peculiar umbrella-shaped taxi stand. There is no dialogue in this film; it is silent except for the intrusive background sounds of traffic and the occasional birdsong. Shifting between long and medium range shots, this film captures the last attempts by Harris to connect with his lover. Amber sits resolutely silent and in some degree of emotional pain as Harris begins a whimsical dance routine around her and the umbrella-shaped shelter. There is one close-up in the whole film and that is on Amber’s face as Harris attempts to reach out and touch her head. Instead, he retreats and leaves Amber alone, where soon afterwards she has her bag snatched from her in a scene that again captures the random nature of life on the transient streets of Kuala Lumpur. I can’t help but see a filmed reference here to Singing In The Rain – a witty play on silence and sound, umbrellas and dance, as well as of exuberance ultimately tempered. Brief moments of possible connection are lost in Amber’s tears. This is a strong film in its own right, but the full meaning that it resonates is firmly established within its placement in the overall suite of films. On its own, it may work quite differently on an audience and it is a credit to the filmmaker that he has been able to collage these works collectively into another work and create new narratives from an assemblage ofquite experimental filmmaking.
Desir, as I mentioned earlier, is essentially a Malay language reprise of the earlier monorail sequence. There are however differences in the dialogue and in the manner in which our characters connect, and I cannot help but think that this again highlights the tenuous nature of human connectivity – the film may translate into Malay, but it alters it somewhat in the process. Mixed with the sense of random engagement and public awkwardness, this reprise poetically reinforces the subtle differences found in reading and receiving information and in the processes of communicating. Again that only fully comes across having already seen the earlier short film, Meeting Amber. Amir Muhammad again plays himself, and the other performers from the earlier film play their roles with a charming awkwardness that captures the clumsiness of many of our public encounters. The fact that there appears to be a temporal change from the earlier film also hints at the repetitive but nonetheless random nature of many of those sorts of human engagements.
The suite closes with a film that is remarkable in its own right, Majidee. In a seamless one-take shot, we follow Harris through the cityscape where en route, he encounters Hisham, a man who comes from his own hometown of Majidee, a neighbourhood of Johor Bahru. It is again a very random encounter that takes place in transit between two transportation hubs and the film captures the walk through the crowded Chinatown district of KL with handheld verve and energy. The pace is continuous, but as jerky as any walk through those five-foot passageways and crowded sidewalks is in reality. The film lasts as long as the actual fifteen-minute journey on foot from Puduraya to the LRT Station at Pasar Seni. The sense of the city being a clearing-house for a nation perpetually on the move is evoked with great charm and skill in this very intriguing tale. Hisham, we eventually discover, had his wallet stolen at the bus station and needs money to return to his home and his family. As random as that act was, so is Harris’ random act of human kindness to a stranger that he has just met on the street and this film reinforces the sense of trust that Harris has displayed in the previous films in the suite. To negotiate your way through the jumbled carnival of Kuala Lumpur, wherever you may have come from, clearly requires the same degree of trust that is needed in establishing something as universal as a meaningful and loving relationship.
Majidee has been screened to audiences separately from the suite and of all of these short films, it is perhaps the most coherently read on its own. It is a major short film, but as a closure to this suite, it is both transformed and transforms at one and the same time. It gives closure to our sense of the journey that young Harris has experienced, while dramatically linking the themes of transience, random occurrences, and the fragile nature of human connectivity. I cannot recall seeing in any short film such a nicely captured evocation of a simple gesture of human kindness. In weaving this tale with the other films and in managing to make a coherent entity out of so many styles of filmmaking and with so many different actors and crew, Azharr Rudin has achieved a small miracle. His capacity as an editor who assembles rather than merely cuts is demonstrated further by the way he has linked these disparate films into a transformed but cohesive new work as a suite. That he also demonstrates his filmmaker’s instinct and understanding of the language of film across an array of styles and differing tones bodes well for the future of Azharr Rudin as a filmmaker. I trust that his planned feature film set in that great border town of Johor Bahru will receive the funding needed to produce it, as the project has the potential to be an important work in contemporary Malaysian independent cinema.
Like John Torres’ Todo Todo Teros (Philippines, 2006), The Amber Sexalogy stands out for me as a good example of skilled originality as well as a work of intelligently conceived daring.