Of Identity and Vibrancy: The Real Cinema of Malaysia

Hassan Muthalib, one of the most knowledgeable authorities on Malaysian cinema, writes in an essay on its history:
“Malaysian cinema began in 1927 with the production of Xin Ke (The Immigrant, Guo Waochen), using a Chinese film cast and crew. But from 1933 onwards with Leila Majnun (Love-struck Leila, B.S. Rajhans), there was a multiethnic cast and crew as well as an international involvement in its helming. The films enabled Malaysian cinema to go on to reflect the multifaceted aspects of the country in terms of its peoples, cultures, narratives and grappling with the tensions of modernity that came into conflict with traditional values.”
  Over 80 years later, nothing much has changed. Malaysia remains a country that is searching for its own identity – somewhere between tradition and modernity, the local and the global; a multiethnic and multicultural nation with 137 living languages and a vibrant mix of Indigenous, Malay, Chinese, Indian, British, Portuguese and Arabic influences. Malaysian Cinema is as colourful as its country – and that is a great thing. I cannot claim to understand either of the two (despite having lived in Malaysia for almost four years). But both fascinate me. Both have an innocent vibrancy, a youthful energy, a positive attitude – but at the same time a fascinating identity crisis. Where do I begin? Maybe in 1995 – when U-Wei Haji Saari became the first Malaysian filmmaker to show a film, The Arsonist, at the Cannes Film Festival. U-Wei’s films often tackle difficult questions around sexuality and the Malay identity, pushing boundaries of how much social realism is allowed in Malaysian cinema. The release of Amir Muhammad’s Lips to Lips in 2000 brought the beginning of what became known as The Little Cinema of Malaysia. For everyone who wants a case study of the power of digital technology, look no further. In a country of obvious and deeply rooted racial differences, young filmmakers of all ethnic backgrounds came together and used digital technology to make films outside of the government controlled funding and distribution system, causing international film festivals to take notice of Malaysia and its stories and raising important questions about the identity of the country and its people. Tan Chui Mui’s Love Conquers All and Liew Seng Tat’s Flower in the Pocket won the New Currents award at the Pusan International Film Festival in 2006 and 2007. Amir Mohammad’s The Big Durian became the first Malaysian film at Sundance. The short film collection 15Malaysia brought 15 Malaysian filmmakers together. Circumventing government censorship through online distribution, it quite openly demonstrated against ethnically motivated policies and for unity and togetherness among the people. Yet, none of the above found much success at the local box office. James Lee’s The Beautiful Washing Machine makes this point even clearer. Not shown commercially in Malaysian cinemas, it was the first Malaysian film that secured distribution in Korea. Yasmin Ahmad’s Sepet, about interracial love and the many obstacles such relationships face in modern Malaysia, is one of the most talked about films in Malaysian film history. It brought young, multiethnic audiences together and was highly recognised at international film festivals. Domestically, however, it was seen as ‘unislamic’ and treated unfavourably by distributors and exhibitors, resulting in an underwhelming box office performance. In 2016, Shanjhey Kumar Perumal’s Jagat was considered as a nominee for Best Film at the 2016 Malaysian Film Awards, only to be removed by the jury because the film is not in the national language. It is a Tamil film – a language that 10 per cent of the country’s population calls its mother tongue. The removal caused a public outcry, after which, the film was re-nominated for Best Film…and won. Jagat is just the latest example of a cinema and a country continuing to search for their identities. Despite these complexities around content and identity, or maybe because of them, contemporary Malaysian cinema is potentially at its most vibrant stage. Maybe ironically, government support plays an important role. In 2010, the Malaysian government launched its Economic Transformation Programme as a catalyst to accelerate the country into high-income nation status by 2020. The programme focuses on 12 strategic sectors that have been identified as key drivers of economic growth. With Communication Content and Infrastructure as one of the sectors, Malaysia has introduced a 30% tax incentive for high quality international and local film productions – globally, one of the highest financial content creation incentive – with the aim to not only attract international productions and investments but also to train the local industry and therefore increase the quality and competitiveness of its output. Four years earlier, in 2006, Iskandar Malaysia was established – an economic development region three times the size of Singapore. Iskandar Malaysia promotes six key sectors of strategic growth. With the Creative Industries being one of these sectors, Pinewood Iskandar Malaysia Studios was opened in 2014. On a 20-hectare site, with 5 sound stages, 2 television studios, numerous service companies and a 30 acres backlot of natural forest, Pinewood Iskandar Malaysia Studios is a fully integrated and one of the most modern media production facilities within the Asia-Pacific region. Finally, investments have been made into education, to help grow the talent needed to support the developing infrastructure. EduCity, part of the Iskandar Malaysia project, comprises of a growing number of local and international educational institutions that are all linked to one of the six growth sectors of Iskandar Malaysia. Multimedia University, Malaysia’s first private university, is supporting the creative industries through its Faculty of Cinematic Arts. The faculty works closely with Pinewood Iskandar Malaysia Studios and Rhizophora Ventures – the latter, an equity investor into local content for the global market, supporting the faculty through funding into scholarships, training and infrastructure. The last Director General of Malaysia’s National Film Development Corporation, Kamil Othman, once decried heavy government funding and an entitlement to be screened at local cinemas as the main reasons for a lack of competitiveness and therefore a lack of quality that hinders Malaysian films from travelling to international film festivals or access overseas markets. Local box offices are dominated by what Hassan Muthalib terms the ‘mainstream’: made for the local market, with usually low quality storytelling, technical execution, directorial vision, and performances. The ‘independents’ (who Hassan Muthalib quite rigorously distinguishes from the ‘mainstream’), on the other hand, were never supported by government funding, and hence made for and sustained by international festivals. In recent years, excitingly, these two worlds started coming together. New filmmakers have been trained better and grown up influenced by the independents. Investments into film education, the success of the independents – most notably The Little Cinema of Malaysia – and investments into the infrastructure are slowly enhancing the quality of films in Malaysia and push them into the local mainstream. These are the films the Malaysia Show Case at Griffith Film School wanted to celebrate. Starting from U-Wei Haji Saari, one of the fathers of independent, socially-aware, realist cinema in Malaysia, covering international festival successes such as Bunohan, Lelaki Harapan Dunia or the short films of Edmund Yeoh as well as respectable local box office performers like Jagat (the highest grossing Tamil film in Malaysian film history) and Nova; ending with the new voices of young Malaysian documentary filmmakers. This is a new generation of Malaysian filmmakers. A generation that continues to struggle with its identity – as individuals within the cultural, ethnic and religious complexities of Malaysia, as young women and men in the digital age, as Malaysians in a globalised world. This is a generation that celebrates these struggles through a socially more realistic cinema, that focuses on showing the real Malaysia, with all its quirks and contradictions. This is the generation that revolutionises the country’s film culture. The Malaysia Film Show Case wanted to show this generation of Malaysian filmmakers – and through them, the real Malaysia; a place of complexity, searching for identities, beauty and youthful vibrancy.
Nico Meissner’s article first appeared in the catalogue of the Malaysia Film Show Case at Griffith Film School. The text was slightly amended for this blog.