written by Hassan Abd Muthalib

This article was written for publication by the organizers of the first Hua Hin International Film Festival in Thailand held from 27-30 January, 2012.

From the first film made in 1933 to the golden age of films in the 1950s and 1960s, and to contemporary cinema up to the end of the 1990s, Malaysian cinema had always been a Malay cinema. Films were only made in the Malay language (Bahasa Malaysia) and aimed at a Malay audience. Digital technology put paid to all of that and beginning in 1999, a revolution of sorts descended on the film community when films began to be made in a multitude of languages that, for the first time, truly reflected the multiethnic nature of the country.

The Malaysian film industry is made up of players who are divided into three major groups. The first are the studios who fund themselves. The second are the independent producers who procure loans to make films, usually from a government fund. The third are the motley group of young filmmakers (dubbed The Little Cinema of Malaysia or simply, ‘the indies’), with very little budgets and who shoot on digital cameras using a minimum crew mostly made up of their friends. Though the studios and independents have long been entrenched in the industry, it was the indies who brought widespread attention to alternative Malaysian cinema from the year 2000 onwards, and winning accolades at international film festivals to boot. Their cinema was grounded in realistic portrayals of the nation and its peoples with stylistics that were lacking in the majority of mainstream films of the day.

The seeds of the change actually began in the 1980s with the emergence of a new group of filmmakers who brought alternative storytelling with mainstream sensibilities. Directors such as Rahim Razali, Hafsham, Shaharom Mohd. Dom, Nasir Jani, Mansor Puteh and Shuhaimi Baba brought new approaches to storytelling that were paradigm shifts for local cinema. However, then (and also now), a film literate audience was lacking, one that could appreciate their works. The 1990s saw many more serious directors entering the fray with deeper explorations of national and ethnic identities as well as observations on the socio-political problems of the country. These films’ narratives and narration were consonant with that of world cinema and, as a result, many of them made it for exhibition or competition at international film festivals. The highlight was U-Wei Hajisaari's Kaki Bakar (The Arsonist, 1995) which was selected for the 1995 Cannes Film Festival's Un Certain Regard section.

With the turn of the century, more directors cast their critical eyes on rising social, cultural and political issues in Malaysia. Hishamuddin Rais was the more radical one in calling for changes among youths in the country. In his one and only film, Dari Jemapoh ke Manchestee (From Jemapoh to Manchestee, 2001), Hishamuddin called on Malay youths to do away with everything that was holding them back from taking control of their own lives, be it Malay culture or national politics. Teck Tan became the first to foreground Chinese issues and problems. Returning from a long stay in Australia, he made Spinning Gasing (Spinning Top, 2000), about parental conflicts and a love affair between the male Chinese protagonist and a Malay girl. He ran into numerous obstacles with the authorities, not least because of a gay scene in the film (even though he had tried to tone it down by treating the two characters humorously). The film was finally allowed to be screened after numerous cuts.

U-Wei Hajisaari has few films to his name but is a highly-respected director locally and internationally. His controversial Isteri, Perempuan dan… (Wife, Woman and…., 1993) wash a sociological study of the Malays that was sexually frank. Almost every one of his films has been a loose adaptation of short stories or novels. Kaki Bakar (The Arsonist, 1995) was based on William Faulkner’s Barn Burning. Jogho(The Champion, 1997) was based on Malaysian novelist, Osman Kelantan’s book, Champion, while Buai Laju-laju (Swing my Swing High, My Darling, 2004) was inspired by James M. Cain’s, The Postman Always Rings Twice. His big-budget epic, Hanyut (Castaway) draws on Joseph Conrad’s novel, Almayer’s Folly and is the most expensive film ever shot in Malaysia (to date, about US$5.5 million). It is currently in post-production.

The most controversial among the millenium’s filmmakers was undoubtedly Yasmin Ahmad. She also became the most awarded director internationally for her socially-aware cinema. Her entry into the film industry brought about what can be termed as the middle cinema where she dabbled in engaging stories with a cast of well-known names in the industry who acted alongside unknowns. Her stories were humourous and tragic at the same time in the style of the legendary actor/director of the 1950s, P. Ramlee. Though most of her films received a lukewarm reception at the box office, her style, however, became acceptable to a non-Malay audience – and of course, to cineastes and critics. Her first cinema feature, Sepet (Slant-eyed, 2005) was about an inter-racial love between a Malay girl and a Chinese boy. Her forte became the exploration of sensitive subjects like interracial relationships and the practice of religion. She followed up with more critically-acclaimed films likeGubra (Anxiety, 2006), Mukhsin (The Boy, Mukhsin, 2007), and Muallaf (The Convert, 2008). Family and interracial relationships and education of children at home and in schools was a constant theme in all her films .In Talentime (2009), her last film, Yasmin signaled hope for family, race and nation by depicting the country’s three dominant races (represented by Malay, Chinese and Indian youths), interacting and discovering a common ground. Almost every one of her films have received awards locally as well as internationally. Mukhsin became the first Malaysian film to have limited runs in France and New York. Her death in 2009 cut short a productive life as well as a badly-needed breath of fresh air in Malaysian cinema.

In the decade immediately after the millennium, the local horror movie genre which had been banned since the 1980s (being deemed 'unIslamic'), came back into vogue, thanks to the lifting of the ban by the Malaysian Censorship Board. No one could have predicted the ‘tsunami’ of horror films that was to follow. In a span of six years up to 2011, more than 60 horror movies have appeared that included horror comedies - a popular draw. Mainstream films began to make money unlike any time in the history of Malaysian cinema and the trend appears set to continue into 2012 with many more horror films lined up. The following are the gross takings for local films nationwide:

2005 - RM217 million (US$72 million)

2006 - RM235 million (US$78 million)

2007 – RM289 million (US$96 million)

2008 – RM381 million (US$127 million)

2009 – RM403 million (US$134 million)

2010 - RM518 million (US$172 million)

2011 - RM473 million (US$79 million) (up to October).

(Source: National Film Development Corporation, Malaysia, 2011).

Economically, Malaysian cinema has been successful but mainstream films did not reflect the vision and aspirations of the industry players as a whole. Out of the sixteen feature films produced and screened in 2003, ten were comedies. Almost a decade later, one of the biggest box office hits was Hantu Kak Limah Balik Rumah (Limah’s Ghost Returns Home, 2010), a comedy with tongue-in-cheek horror. Metrowealth Films was a late player but has since become the most prolific and successful compared to the other three studios, Tayangan Unggul, ASTRO Shaw and Grand Brilliance. Metrowealth produced a flurry of comedy, romance and action movies. Almost every one of them was a hit. Though most of the films were sorely lacking in terms of narrative quality, they tended to resonate with a certain segment of the Malay audience through good promotion and marketing. Tayangan Unggul and ASTRO Shaw belong to the same parent company. Like Grand Brilliance, they have provided opportunities to young filmmakers to make films with indie approaches in an attempt to attract the young urban demographic. However, the filmmakers are still obliged to follow the conventions of popular genres such as horror, action and the teen flick. The most commercially successful of this bunch has been James Lee with his witty horror movie, Histeria (2009) that grossed RM2.8 million (US$900,000).

Smaller in scale, but also consistently successful, is Skop Productions with one hit after another. Skop’s Syamsul Yusof made it big with his fifth film, KL Gangster (2011), which took in an unprecedented RM12 million (US$4 million) at the box office, making it the highest-grossing Malaysian film of all time. The film was an audience pleaser about gangsters in conflict with each other but carried no comments, subtle or otherwise, about any serious issues prevalent in the country. Among the successful mainstream directors is Mamat Khalid who has carved out an interesting niche for himself by making quirky, sometimes satirical parodies that always have something to say. As a result, some of his films have been invited to international film festivals. Most of his films flopped but his most recent one, Hantu Kak Limah Balik Rumah (Limah’s Ghost Returns Home, 2010) was a huge, unexpected success, grossing almost RM8 million (US$2.65 million). Stylistically, his most fascinating film isKala Malam Bulan Mengambang (When the Full Moon Rises, 2008), a black and white, neo-noir homage to the 1950s Malaysian studio movies. The film included elements of the detective story, romance, horror and wartime intrigue into one delightfully oddball package with some sly comments of the political scene.

Another gem appearing amidst the dearth of quality movies is first-time graduate filmmaker, Wan Azli Wan Jusoh’s Budak Kelantan (The Boys from Kelantan, 2008) about the angst of migrant youths to the city that also questioned the role of religion in properly molding them. In terms of genre, the new kid-on-the-block is the adaptation of love stories from popular novels. The first to resonate with the audience was Sharad Sharan’s Lagenda Budak Setan (The Tale of the Impish Boy, 2010). This was followed by Kabir Bhatia’s Nur Kasih the Movie (The Light of Love, 2011), based on a successful television series. An unexpected major hit is Osman Ali’s Ombak Rindu (Wistful Waves, 2011) that grossed RM11 million (US$3.8 million). With these successes,, the industry is definitely set to move into the area of adaptations of popular novels.

Between 2003 and 2005, the indies had made waves at international film festivals. Amir Muhammad’s acclaimed mockumentary, The Big Durian, won a Special Mention at the 2003 Yamagata International Film Festival. In 2003, three indie films were featured at the Torino Film Festival: Room to Let (James Lee), Rabun (Yasmin Ahmad - in competition), and Min (Ho Yuhang). The latter film was also shown in competition (the first time a digital video film had been accorded the honour) at the Festival of Three Continents in Nantes, France, where it won the Special Jury Prize. The entry of young, talented indies into the mainstream was history in the making. Among them was James Lee (who had made the indie feature, Beautiful Washing Machine, 2004). Lee directed the horror feature, Histeria (2008). Woo Ming Jin (who had made The Elephant and the Sea, 2008) came up with a mainstream feature, Salon in 2005. Amir Muhammad collaborated with Naeim Ghalili, to direct Susuk (Talisman, 2008). Ho Yuhang has ventured on to the international scene, first with Rain Dogs (2006) and then with At the End of Daybreak (2009). Produced by Focus Film of Hong Kong, Rain Dogs was about a young man’s search for his brother in the city and of his coming to terms eventually in the village with the brother’s death. The film has won numerous awards. Daybreak was a crime drama about ill-fated characters with the young protagonist headed for an uncertain destiny vis-a-vis the social reality in Malaysia.

The digital filmmakers were now not only showcasing issues and problems related to the Malays, but also of the other ethnic peoples. Among the prominent directors were James Lee, Deepak Kumaran Menon, Woo Ming Jin, Khoo Eng Yow, Ho Yuhang, Tan Chui Mui, Liew Seng Tat, Chris Chong, Ng Tian Hann, Desmond Tan, Santosh Kesavan, Yeo Joon Han, Azharr Rudin and Charlotte Lim. Two outstanding films wereLove Conquers All (Tan Chui Mui, 2006) and Flower in the Pocket (Liew Seng Tatt, 2007) that have won numerous awards and screened at prestigious international film festivals. Both films were about young people and obliquely questioned the status and place of the Chinese in Malaysia. Two filmmakers who did the country proud on the international scene were Yeo Joon Han and Chris Chong with their debut features,Sell Out! (2008) and Karaoke (2009), respectively. Sell Out! world-premiered at the Venice Film Festival and became the only commercially-released Malaysian film in Canada. The film was a humourous take on filmmaking and bureaucracy but was, at the same time, a serious comment on the position of the minority races and their place in the country. Karaoke made history by being the second film (after U-Wei in 1995) to screen at Cannes in the Directors Fortnight in 2008. It focused on the fate of a Malay youth who returns to his village in an oil-palm estate but finds he is unable to apply the formal training he had secured in the city.

On the animation scene, seven features have been produced: Silat Legenda (Legendary Silat Warriors, 1998), Nien Resurrection (2000),Putih (The Girl, Putih, 2001), Budak Lapok (The Raggedy Boys, 2004), Geng: Penggembaraan Bermula (Gang: The Adventure Begins, 2009) andSeefood (2011). War of the Worlds: Goliath, a 2D stereoscopic movie is in the final stages of post-production and is slated for release in 2012 (together with Seefood). Nien Resurrection was the first 3D movie but was only sold in the video compact disc format (VCD) locally and internationally. So far, only Geng (the first cinema 3D feature) has been a huge box office hit grossing RM6.3 million (US2 million), and was screened in India after being dubbed into the Hindi language.

2011 and Beyond

A record 41 films were released in 2011 with a number of them becoming unexpected successes. A recent trend that is emerging in mainstream cinema is the production of films entirely in the Chinese language. One of the most interesting was Chiu’s Great Day which became a high-grosser with RM4.5million (US$1.5 million), easily surpassing most Malay-language films. Produced by Astro Shaw, this poignant and cinematic seriocomic film was about family relations in conjunction with the Chinese New Year celebration. The director had earlier made the comedy, Tiger Woohoo in 2010, and it had also been a hit. The success of Ice Kacang Puppy Love by Ah Niu and Tiger Woohoo, (both made in 2010 but with Ice Kacang Puppy Love screening in 2011), showed that a mainstream Malaysian film need not necessarily be in the Malay language. This was further proven right when Namewee’s entertaining parody of Malaysian filmmaking, Nasi Lemak 2.0 (Glutinous Rice 2.0) in 2011, made RM7 million (US2.5 million). Due to pressure from the Chinese producers, the government decided to revise its earlier definition of 'local film' (which now need no longer be at least 70 percent in Malay). The advantage now is that these films would not be taxed as if they were 'foreign films' as had been the case before this. However, the relevant government Minister has only given lip service to the issue with it yet to be translated into action.

A highly-hyped film was Hikayat Merong Mahawangsa (The Malay Chronicles, Yusry Abd. Halim, 2011) by KRU studios. It was a big-budget epic made with a government subsidy and was based on an old historical text that combined fanciful myth with history. This tale of Roman soldiers and Chinese princesses, leading to the formation of the early Malay kingdoms of Langkasuka used very extensive CGI in an effort to seem 'Hollywood'. More artistically articulate, although made with a much tinier budget, was ... Dalam Botol (…in the Bottle) by first-time actor/filmmaker, Khir Rahman, a film graduate. It had strong performances, excellent use of visual metaphors and use of framing. It generally received positive reviews but did not do well at the box office. The film was about a gay relationship that goes awry. In a hasty and impulsive moment, the protagonist has a sex change operation only to discover that his partner preferred him as a man. The film bravely explores gay relationships as well as family, religious and cultural issues. …Dalam Botol surprisingly passed the Censorship’s strict codes and this appears to be a harbinger of more serious and sensitive subjects that could be explored.

James Lee amusingly mocked cinema audiences’ penchant for horror movies through his Sini Ada Hantu (There’s a Ghost Here, 2011). It was intelligently crafted but suffered at the box office because it did not have ‘name stars’. In Songlap (Abduction, 2011), Effendee Mazlan and Fariza Isahak explored the tribulations of two brothers who get involved in a baby-selling syndicate. It received critical acclaim for its gritty narrative, stylishly-done visuals and strong performances from the actors. Relationship Status (2011), is an interesting digital feature by Khairil M. Bahar, depicting various couples, both married and unmarried, whose lives are intertwined and then affected by their postings on Facebook.

The year 2011 saw only six films that stood out in terms of narrative and stylistics: Sini Ada Hantu, …Dalam Botol, Great Day, Nasi Lemak 2.0, Songlap, and Relationship Status. These films have been made by a new generation of Malaysians. The ‘tsunami’ at Malaysia’s general elections in 2008 heralded the emergence of this new generation seeking to transform the social and political landscape. Digital cinema and satellite television have made the indies’ films more accessible to a wider audience, including on the Internet through YouTube. But to have a greater impact on the local audience that is geared to a populist cinema, there is a need for the films to be less personal, less ambiguous and a little bit more engaging. For the mainstream filmmakers, their films have to have more substance and thinking before they can make any headway into the international arena, be it for commercial screenings or to be accepted into film festivals. This doesn’t seem possible in the near future as producers are too motivated in making profits and competition between them is rife for a share of the market. But until all this can happen, Malaysian Cinema will continue to be as vibrant and colourful as the motley group that is now active in it.

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