Here are six Malaysian films that have (probably) not been seen by many Malaysians. Most have had some kind of a general release, theatrical or on TV, but one is a short film that has probably only played at film clubs or special events. But all of them are good films that should have been seen by more people.
KAKI BAKAR (1995)
U-Wei Hj Shaari’s powerful little film is always mentioned in revered tones. Don’t believe me? Just bring up the film during a conversation with film lovers, and see their reaction. Kaki Bakar and I have a very strange history. When it was released theatrically in October 2001, I went to see it at the cinemas (with, like, three other people in the hall) … and came away terribly disappointed. You see, the film was transferred from Beta, and someone did a massively screwed up job with it. The visuals were horribly blurred, and it was like watching a VHS copy blown up to theatrical size. Then a strange thing happened.
U-Wei himself called me up after my very negative review was published in the papers.
I forget how he managed to track down my phone number, but beware, reviewers! They know where you live! I’m kidding. U-Wei was very gracious and polite, and we had a long conversation where he tried his very best to explain to me why I should perhaps re-evaluate his film. And he succeeded. I went for a second viewing the next day, and this time, managed to get over the bad-transfer issues, and saw the film for what it was – a masterpiece.
The New York Times, in 1996, wrote:
“The Arsonist” is lushly photographed, with rich shadows at night and vibrant colors (of rugs and fabrics as well as trees) that shimmer in the harsh sunlight.
I really wish I could have seen the film in all its proper visual glory. I haven’t seen it in years, and can’t remember details anymore. But there is yet another strange thing about the film and I.
Kaki Bakar, a kind of “western” about hereditary human flaws, is an adaptation of William Faulkner’s Barn Burning, and back then I had never read Faulkner. Today, however, I’m a huge fan of Faulkner’s, after reading Light in August, itself also a masterpiece. Now, I really wish I can see the film again, with the new eyes of a Faulkner admirer.
I DON’T WANT TO SLEEP ALONE (2006)
I first met and interviewed Tsai Ming-liang in the early 2000s, and it was a very long chat we had, our discussion encompassing his entire career at the time. He was also very much unknown in Malaysia back then, a sad fact that was rectified some years later.
If memory serves me right, I met him again during What Time is It There?, or thereabouts, and probably one more time. Because by the time I met him again for I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone, he pretty much knew my name and my face. In an earlier interview I had asked him if he would ever come back to Malaysia to make a Malaysian film, and his answer was pretty much yes. Little did we know, he would make a Malaysian film as prescient as I Don’t Want. Prescient because the film takes place in Kuala Lumpur during the worst case of the haze, and look at us recently.
I Don’t Want is probably known in these parts for only two reasons – it was almost banned, and it turned a kuih seller in a back alley into an actor who travelled the world. Norman Atun is a very handsome kuih seller in the Leboh Ampang area that was my college-days stomping ground. He ended up going to festivals with Tsai and his muse Lee Kang-sheng.
I would believe not many people saw the film in its limited release. It was not banned (the offending scenes were cut), but the deal eventually had it shown in only one cinema hall or something like that. I think it was seen by a lot of college students because the people involved in the film went out to market it themselves by selling tickets practically door-to-door at colleges.
Norman plays a Bangaldeshi worker who rescues Lee Kang-sheng’s character after he is beaten up by a mob, and they end up having an “interesting” relationship.
We all know Sharifah Amani as a fine actress and the late Yasmin Ahmad’s ingenue. But do you know that she is also a very capable film director?
She made the short film Sangkar as part of the HerStory Films Project that brought together five women artistes and had them make five short films about women’s issues. It’s a very impressive debut, a very accomplished work for a first-time director. She acted in it herself, as a young woman in love with her schoolmate, but who has to eventually make a big sacrifice marrying into his family. The film has a lilting pace, much like a lot of her mentor Yasmin’s work, but it also has a rather shocking twist at the end.
It’s about what it means to be a Malay-Muslim woman in Malaysia, and about the conflict between ambition and duty. It’s a story close to her heart (and was written by Susan Bansin, because HerStory pairs up a storyteller and a filmmaker). She told me at the time:
A part of me wants to break free, but I have a duty, as a young Malay woman in this world … So I can’t give everything up and do whatever I want. It’s about a young girl who knows what she wants and what she has to do to get it. But she is also duty-bound. It’s all part of being a woman. It’s about choices ultimately.
You should see it if you ever get the chance. It’s a very beautiful and moving film.
RAIN DOGS (2006)
I’ve often repeated this like a mantra: Ho Yuhang is the most internationally awarded Malaysian filmmaker. And he’s still sweeping up awards even today, just recently in New York for his short film Trespassed.
Rain Dogs was his third feature, after Min (2003) and Sanctuary (2004). Technically, those earlier two films should be the ones on this list, but I like Rain Dogs best, and also I don’t believe that many people saw it during its theatrical run and screenings on TV (if any at all).
And what a film it is. It was also his first feature to get a theatrical release. I think it remains his best film, but of course, he would disagree with that. And if I say it’s a powerful look at what it means to be a Chinese Malaysian, he would vehemently disprove that. But that’s just him.
Rain Dogs is a gritty coming-of-age tale, and has a soulful edge that I think Ho never recaptured, or bothered to recapture. I saw it again recently after many years, and I found I’d forgotten just how formally rigid the early Malaysian New Wave films were. But this style lends well to the episodic nature of Rain Dogs.
It’s an important film that captures the alienation and disconnect of, not a stranger in a strange land, but a stranger in a familiar land. In this case, it’s a young man trying to make his way through the world the best he can, but always coming up short. It’s the idea of being rooted ethnically and culturally elsewhere, but being spiritually displaced in the present. And there’s a haunting shot of a graveyard from behind a barred window that I really love and which I think really encapsulates the whole film.
Here’s a film that indeed very few have seen. It was originally made for TV3, never released theatrically, but had a good run at film clubs, festivals and retrospectives. And it was Yasmin Ahmad’s feature debut. Yes, you read it right. Sepet (2004) wasn’t her first film, although it is the best known of all her work.
Rabun, about an elderly couple disillusioned with city life and looking for peace in the countryside, is lesser known but is no lesser work. Yasmin’s personal stamp was already on it, and her storytelling style was very much evident. Unfortunately some took issue with the bathing scene featuring the two elderly characters played by M. Rajoli and Kartina Aziz. For some reason, they found the scene to be perhaps too sexy. I don’t really know anyone who gets turned on by an elderly couple.
Anyway, I believe Rabun did get shown on TV in the end, possibly with the “erotic” scene (I’m being sarcastic) taken out.
Yasmin always said she made films to entertain her parents. In this case, she made a film about her parents, whom she used to describe as always playful and youthful at heart. Rabun is not only the least seen of her films, but also the least mentioned. Everyone remembers the bus-stop scene in Sepet, the head-shaving scene in Muallaf (2007) and the dog-petting scene in Gubra (2006). But hardly anyone recalls that iconic bathing scene in Rabun. Hopefully more people will get to see this wonderful little film.
$ELL OUT! (2008)
I saved the best for last. Sell Out! was simply the best Malaysian film of 2008/2009, and one of the all-time best Malaysian films. I saw it in the cinemas no less than four times – twice in Singapore and twice in Malaysia. Yes, it’s that good.
Unfortunately, only about 17 other Malaysians saw it. OK, I exaggerate, but the fact remains, the film was criminally under-seen. There has never been a Malaysian film quite like Sell Out!. For one, it has an exclamation mark in its title like the Zucker brothers’ comedy films. Secondly, it has extremely funny, absurdist humour, again like the Zucker brothers’ comedies. Thirdly, it’s a musical.
Yes, a musical. Where characters suddenly break into song. Like the Zucker brothers’ Top Secret!.
At all the four screenings where I saw it, audiences were practically rolling on the floor laughing hard. And during the karaoke sequence (yes, a karaoke sequence, another first for a Malaysian film), the audience sang along.
Now, why wasn’t it a big hit? I don’t know. What I do know is, it was not well promoted. I know that the director Yeo Joon Han (who also wrote and produced the film and composed the songs) and some of the cast went to the cineplexes to promote it themselves and meet the fans during the film’s very brief run. They really worked hard to get it seen, while I was behind the film a hundred percent trying to get word of mouth going.
Sell Out! is full of sharp observations about Malaysian quirks and oddities, playing them out against a backdrop of a bustling urban universe of absurdities that are often too real. It pokes fun at everything from indie arthouse films to evil corporations and media voyeurism.
Its lead, Peter Davis, then a well-known model, plays a timid inventor who tries to sell his idea for a soymilk-making contraption to the Fony Conglomerate, but somehow ends up having his doppelganger appear as a competition. Today, Davis is far from timid, having become one of Asia’s popular mixed martial arts fighters.
Everyone who’s seen Sell Out! still remembers it well. I say this because till today, there are still calls on social media for a DVD release, which the film never had. It’s truly baffling. Just take a look at the list of awards it won:
Young Cinema Award for Alternative Vision Venice Film Festival 2008
NETPAC Award Taipei Golden Horse Film Festival 2008
Best Film of the Venice Critics Week 2008 – Italian Critics Poll, Cineforum
Special Mention at the Barcelona Asian Film Festival
And it had its world premiere at the Venice International Film Festival, one of the top three festivals in the world.
It’s really a mystery that today the film has all but disappeared into thin air, but fortunately not from the collective memory of those who saw and loved it.
And Sell Out! has also become even more relevant today. I submit a video of a musical scene from the film. Mind you, it’s not a music video but an actual sequence from the film. Enjoy.