by Norman Yusoff

In recent years, Malaysian cinema seems to be undergoing a ‘masculinising’ process. KL Gangster (2011, Syamsul Yusof), for example, has broken the record for Malaysian films, having grossed the top box-office figures ever. Another film, Bunohan (Return to Murder, 2011, Dain Said), which premiered at the recent Toronto International Film Festival but is yet to be released in Malaysia, has just been bought by an LA-based sales company Traction Media (with rights pre-sold to Universal Pictures). Both KL Gangster and Bunohan mark a significant achievement for Malaysian cinema, the interesting fact being that both films are primarily ‘action films’ dealing with youth masculinity, brotherhood and violence, although I will suggest that the label ‘action films’ is open to dispute. Prior to KL Gangster, another type of ‘action film’ (a genre interspersed with comedy) called Kongsi (2011, Farid Kamil) also emerged as one of the biggest box-office hits.

All of this seems to augur well for the ‘action film’ genre particularly at a time when contemporary Malaysian cinema has been inundated with a plethora of horror films. A columnist attached to one of our English-language dailies expressed her great relief when KL Gangster attained enormous commercial success, seeing it as a welcome break from the slew of horror movies that local filmmakers have been inflicting upon moviegoers of late. She went on to question the producers’ penchant for horror movies, claiming that the commercial success of KL Gangster proves that horror is not the only genre that attracts Malaysian moviegoers.

Perhaps discussion of the action genre beyond Hollywood films needs not necessarily to include fast-paced narratives emphasising physical action, e.g., the chases, fights, stunts, crashes and explosions which often take precedence over dialogue and character development. I argue that even the term ‘action film’ is problematic given that it encompasses a wide variety of films and sub-genres including, for example, gangster films, adventure, swashbuckling, war films, social problem films, buddy movies, crime films, thrillers, westerns and sci-fi, among others. The fact that some of the above genres/sub-genres are built around a combination of all of these elements renders the term even more problematic for all of these films target male audiences. Thus, for the purposes of this discussion I would regard ‘action’ as a mode rather than a genre – in the manner in which melodrama, comedy and horror are regarded as modes.

Take Bunohan, for example. I find it somewhat fascinating that international critics have commented upon the film’s complex approach to genres. Giovanna Fulvi of the Toronto International Film Festival notes that: “Dain Said has developed his fascination for hybrid cultures into a highly original film — one that is difficult to situate within the usual genre boundaries … Balancing action with insight and the fascinating account of a culture at a cross­roads, Dain offers a complex story of dark passions poised between modernity and tradition.” John Anderson of Variety observes: “Bunohan serves up a feast of archetypes and violence amid a story that twines like a basketful of cobras to deliver a movie that's ripe as a mango for a U.S. remake. The border-hopping Malaysian plotline defies pigeonholing -- it's a fight film with echoes of King Lear, and a ghost story about living people who occupy the edge of existence.”

When it comes to world cinema, my favourite action cinema includes the following Hong Kong films directed by John Woo: A Better Tomorrow (1986), A Better Tomorrow II (1987), The Killer (1989), Bullet in the Head (1990), Once a Thief (1991) and Hard Boiled (1992). The Killer, for example, which features Chow Yuen Fatt, is particularly unique due to its convergence with melodramatic mode (portraying a melancholic hero) – a perfect blend of art, action and comedy. I also love Japanese director Takeshi ‘Beat’ Kitano’s films such as his stylish action-packed Hana-Bi (1998) and his arty yet extremely brutal Boiling Point (1990). Kitano has an almost uncanny ability to mix action, comedy and attitude. Besides his work, I am also a big fan of French director Jean-Pierre Melville’s quirky, highly stylised gangster films, e.g., Bob le Flambeur (1955), The Godson (1967) and Le Samourai (1967).

In the context of Malaysian cinema, I propose the appellation ‘masculine’ for this genre of films because ideologically, all of them accentuate male power, prowess and privilege via the mediums of physical action and performance. This type of film has its roots in purba films featuring the traditional Malay warrior (pendekar) and martial arts silat. Among these films, some of the more notable include Jalak Lenteng (1961, Salleh Ghani), Hang Jebat (1961, Hussain Haniff), Megat Terawis (1960, Dhiresh Ghosh), Kanchan Tirana (1969, P. Ramlee), Dua Pendekar (1964, Hussain Haniff), Panglima Besi (1964, M. Amin), Darma Kesuma (1967, S. Kadarisman) and Lanang Sejagat (1969, Omar Rojik). In these films, the oft featured ‘action’ purba heroes are variously played by Nordin Ahmad, Jins Shamsuddin, Aziz Jaafar, Ahmad Mahmud, Hussein Abu Hassan and Ed Osmera. Unlike their Western/Hollywood counterparts, who are known for their broad, muscular physiques (e.g., Victor Mature and Burt Lancaster), ‘action’ purba heroes only have a medium to lean build. Their lanky, toned bodies are often associated with silat masculinity and images of the traditional Malay warrior.

Another group of action films set in the modern day era, i.e., the Jefri Zain films (touted as Singapore’s James Bond) such as Gerak Kilat (1966, Jamil Sulong), Bayangan Ajal (Summons to Death, 1968, Lo Wei), and Jurang Bahaya (1969, Lo Wei), all featured Sean Connery wannabe Jins Shamsudin as the debonair spy Jefri Zain. In 1967, Hong Kong’s Shaw Brothers produced a Malay-language movie featuring Nora Zain, a female version of James Bond (Nora Zain: Agen Wanita 001): the lead role of Nora Zain was played by Malay actress Saadiah.

Other productive and well-loved genres have waxed and waned according to public preferences and cultural trends. Genres that were once well-established (the culturally-specific purba films, for example) have declined to be replaced by others considered better suited to contemporary tastes. In contrast, despite periods of threatened stagnation and decline, Malaysia’s ‘action film’ or ‘masculine film’ has consistently been revitalised, either by new forms of action films or by variations on existing forms of action cinema, sometimes combined with elements of other genres.

In the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s, Malaysian cinema was dominated by more ‘feminine’ genres such as women’s films, family melodramas and romance. Only a handful of masculine genre films continued to be made due to the fact that they were not very popular. Some were made as purba films highlighting the Malay warrior and martial arts silat: Loceng Maut (1976), Pendekar (1977, M. Amin), Sumpah Semerah Padi (1980, M. Amin), Ribut Di Hujung Senja (1982, Ed Osmera), Anak Sulong Tujuh Keturunan (1982, Malek Selamat) and Serampang Tiga (1982, Ismail Sasakul). All of these films were made in the manner of the purba films of the 1950s and 1960s, with some following the formulaic pattern of Hong Kong martial arts films (particularly the kung fu pedagogy films). In the 1980s, a further group of ‘action films’ emerged consisting of war or military films imbued with elements of melodrama and romance. Among them were Raja Laut (1981, Z. Lokman), Bukit Kepong (1982, Jins Shamsudin), Darah Satria (1983, Aziz Satar) and Wira Angkasa (1987, Aziz Jaafar).

The 1990s witnessed the emergence of more definitive – if not bona-fide – ‘action films.’ This may have been influenced by the immense popularity of the Hollywood and Hong Kong action films of the 1980s and 1990s. However, with the exception of Yusof Haslam’s police/crime dramas titled Bayangan Maut (1991) and Pemburu Bayang (1993), most of the films of this genre failed commercially. The success of the two films referred to above was due to the fact that Yusoff combined his police/crime stories with elements of melodrama, romance and music (the use of contemporary pop/rock numbers).

Other ‘action’ films made in the 1990s oscillated between police/crime stories and martial arts films: Jaket Biru (1991, Mohd Ariff Shah), Juara (1991, Yusof Kelana), Operasi Cegah Jenayah (1991, Eddie Pak), Kelisa (1992, Ahmad Ibrahim a.k.a. Mat London), Rimba Malam (1992, Zulkiflie M. Osman), Red Haired Tumbler in Malaya (1995, Eddie Pak) and Azam (1997, Z. Lokman). There were also a number of Hollywood-like ‘action’ films (with transnational status using both local and international actors) such as The Dadah Connection (1990, directed by Australia’s Toby Russell), Ops Belantara / Operation Jungle Storm (1993, Rodzee Razak) and Deadly Disciple (2001, S. Mohan). In retrospect, most of these 90s action films could be considered weak in terms of narrative and lack of substance, with too much emphasis placed on ‘action.’ All were commercial debacles, and whether or not their failure was attributable to their weak narratives remains to be determined. The way in which these 1990s films were billed strongly indicated that they were ‘action’ films. For example, the poster for Ops Belantara / Operation Jungle Storm was emblazoned with the tagline: ‘Kehebatan Filem Aksi Sensasi Terkini!!’ (lit. ‘The Greatest Contemporary Sensational Action Film!!’); the poster for Operasi Cegah Jenayah read: ‘Filem Eksyen Yang Teragung’ (lit. ‘The Grandest Action Film!’).

The new millennium has witnessed the emergence of a group of what I would call ‘action-oriented films’ which have performed quite well commercially. All of these films seem to valorise working class youth and masculinity. Director Badaruddin Haji Azmi’s 2002 film KL Menjerit (KL Screams) focuses on working-class bikers (Mat Motor) confronting life’s challenges in metropolitan Kuala Lumpur. This film not only attained commercial success, but also won many awards at the Malaysian Film Festival in 2002 including Best Film, beating the state-funded historical film Embun (directed by Erma Fatima). After KL Menjerit, Badaruddin went on to direct a host of action-oriented films that highlight youth masculinity, violence and gangsterism, e.g., KL Menjerit 1 (2005), Gangster (2005) and Castello (2006).

The popularity of KL Menjerit inspired other producers and/or directors to make a similar type of film. Ahmad Idham directed the commercially-successful Remp-It (2006), which portrays working-class youth motorcycle gangs Mat Rempit as a social menace in the public sphere. To the understandable chagrin of the authorities, Ahmad Idham’s film, along with others that focus upon Mat Rempit, portrays them as heroes. This is very interesting because somewhat conversely, the image of these Mat Rempits in the press coverage has been almost entirely negative, presenting the youth as barbaric monsters personifying the most vicious of threats to civilised society. In the films that highlight them, they are represented more positively or at least more ambiguously. Farid Kamil (the actor and screenwriter of Remp-It) went on to direct V3: Samseng Jalanan (2010), another film about Mat Rempit. The global success of films such as The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift (2006) prompted directors such as Ahmad Idham and Syamsul Yusof to embark upon making street racing action films including Impak Maksima (2007) and Evolusi KL Drift 1 & 2 (2008, 2010) respectively.

In 2008, acclaimed director Osman Ali directed Anak Halal, an action film replete with melodramatic overtones and elements of friendship that remind one of certain Hong Kong action films, particularly crime and gangland dramas such as the Young and Dangerous film series. New director Wan Azli Wan Jusoh made Budak Kelantan (2008), which deals with youth masculinity by addressing male bonding (elements from buddy movies), social problems, crime and violence. Prior to KL Gangster, Syamsul Yusof directed an action-oriented youth film Bohsia: Jangan Pilih Jalan Hitam (2009), which depicts bohsias, ‘easy’ young girls with loose morals with whom illegal bikers (Mat Motor/Mat Rempit) tend to have sex. In all of these contemporary films, youth masculinity is rendered through images associated with raw, rough-hewn machismo and rugged physicality.

In the new millennium, director Yusof Haslam continues to make ‘cop story’ films such as the Gerak Khas The Movie trilogy based on his popular TV series Gerak Khas – all of which have achieved considerable commercial success. Perhaps less creditably, other directors who have attempted to emulate Hollywood by making action films have met with disastrous results. Veteran Z. Lokman directed the Charlie’s Angels-inspired Mendam Berahi, a shoddily-made action film (with a meandering plot) that simply plugs women into roles traditionally reserved for men. New director Ambri Kailani Zain made Black Maria (2003), an action film that inserts elements of crime thriller into a family melodrama. Another new director, Young Juwahir, was lambasted for his ambitious debut Misi: 1511 (2006), an espionage action-thriller featuring ‘cheap’ special effects and pyrotechnics. Contemporary Malaysian cinema has also witnessed a handful of ‘action’ period pieces that highlight silat and kung fu: Hikayat Merong Mahawangsa (2011, Yusry Abdul Halim), a Hollywood-like swashbuckling adventure blockbuster, Lembing Awang Pulang ke Dayang (2009, Majid Salleh), a miserably failed attempt to revive the purba genre, and Kinta 1881 (2008, C. L. Hor), a Chinese-language martial arts film.

This year more and more films of this ‘masculine’ genre are being – and will be – made and released. Besides KL Gangster and Kongsi, another actioner Haq The Movie (directed by C. L. Hor and Jumaatun Azmi), although relying immensely on CGI and featuring some stunning cinematography, failed at the box-office. Bini-Biniku Gangster (Ismail ‘Bob’ Hasmi), an action-comedy dealing with female fighters, is currently showing although as yet it remains unclear as to whether it empowers representations of women or not. Other films to be released soon include: Libas (Jurey Latif Rosli), an action-comedy made in the guise of a ‘sport film;’ Apokalips X (Mamat Khalid), a sci-fi action film set in a post-apocalyptic future; Songlap (Effendee Mazlan and Fariza Azlina Isahak), an action-oriented drama dealing with youth, brotherhood and social problems; and, Barajiwa (Osman Ali), an action film that highlights Malay martial arts silat.

The phenomenal success of KL Gangster will certainly urge more productions of the masculine genre. But, while on the one hand, it is good to note that the sum of these films may broaden and diversify the generic range of Malaysian films and hopefully pump a new kinetic energy into the masculine genre, on the other, it is imperative to question the sudden popularity of – and preoccupation with – this ‘macho’ genre in contemporary Malaysian cinema.

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fadz berkata…
powerful writing by Norman.. thx Amy!

i hope he could tell in detail the diff of "mode" and "genre"..