First off, this is not a list of banned local films. Actually, there are only two local films that are banned, a fact that may be surprising to some. And those two films are both documentaries – Lelaki Komunis Terakhir and Apa Khabar Orang Kampung. There are also P. Ramlee’s Gelora and Ragam P. Ramlee, both of which are banned from Malaysian TV. The former is because it’s kind of like the local version of The Graduate, where Sarimah plays a sexy cougar who has a hot affair with a younger man. The latter is because of a segment in it entitled “Mintak Nombor Ekor,” which is self-explanatory as to why the censors took issue with it. And clips of both can be found on YouTube anyway.
No, we’re only interested in films that cannot be seen by anyone for reasons other than censorship. And here are five of them.
JOHNNY BIKIN FILEM (1994)
Director: Dr Anuar Nor Arai
This film is legendary among cineastes, even though it may be relatively unknown to the casual film lover. Over the years it has gained an almost mythical reputation, exactly because very few eyes have seen it. There are many stories about JBF, ranging from simple hearsay to conspiracy theories. Some say the film was never finished because the budget was completely used up when the director shot too much and went overboard.
But one thing’s for sure, the original cut was 5 hours long. You see, the late Anuar Nor Arai managed to secure RM700,000 from University Malaya where he was an Associate Professor, and he basically had a free hand. The result was this epic noir film about a gangster who wanted to be in the film business.
And guess what? I’ve seen the film.
Just a few years ago, I’d wanted to write about JBF for the newspaper I was working for. It took some legwork to finally find someone who could get me into a private screening. It was all quite cloak-and-dagger, exactly like film noir, in fact. Secret meetings at mamak eateries, hushed conversations, and finally I got to sit down and see the legendary epic.
Let it be known that I’ve survived quite a few long films before. I sat through Lav Diaz’s 11-hour long Evolution of a Filipino Family, and I absolutely love Bela Tarr’s seven-and-a-half-hour Satantango. Still, I found JBF to be quite a challenge.
There are a few reasons for this. Firstly, the DVD copy I saw suffered from a bad transfer. Secondly, because of that, the audio was mostly muddled, and I couldn’t really follow the story. Yet, I could still see that it is a gorgeously shot film, with great use of shadows and light. It is also a highly stylised film, almost pure cinema with the story being told mostly through gestures. JBF is a product of the collaboration between professionals and students, and it shows in the unevenness of the result, especially the acting. Jalaluddin Hassan and Erma Fatima are both obvious standouts, being pros among student actors.
The film had gotten mixed reactions from the few who have seen it. Some think it’s unwatchable, while others like historian Hassan Muthalib think it’s brilliant. You can read Hassan’s essay on it here.
Some years ago, circa 2008, there were plans to release the film in the cinemas. Mahadi J. Murat, a friend of Anuar’s, was tasked with editing a two-hour version. But in the end, the Vice-Chancellor of University Malaya decided not to release it after seeing that almost every character in the film smokes like a chimney.
And so, Anuar passed away in 2010, without ever seeing his one and only film presented to the general public. Also, as far as I know, they never kept the negatives of the five-hour cut, so the original version is lost forever.
But here’s a trailer anyway.
Director: Dain Iskandar Said
This is one of the most famous Malaysian movies ever, and ironically the general public has never seen it. Dukun, a supernatural thriller about a witch doctor on trial for murder, is allegedly based on true events. And this is where things get tricky.
There was an infamous murder case in the early 90s that made headlines for a while. A parliamentary assemblyman was murdered by a couple after he had brought along a big sum of money to be paid to them for black magic services. His chopped up body was found near the couple’s home and the couple were later convicted and hanged. Now, the case was widely publicised for a few reasons, one of it being that among the convicted was Mona Fandey who was once a popular singer. Another reason was the ghost stories surrounding the prison where Mona was held.
This is all ripe for a fictional film. And the pre-publicity for Dukun all pointed to the fact that it was based on that real-life case. I don’t claim to have all the facts; the only people who know the truth are those directly involved in the film. But the word going around at the time was that there were family members of those involved in the case who were not happy with the film being based on the case. It was said that the producers then emphasised that Dukun was only “inspired by” the Mona Fandey case. By then, it was all too little, too late. Dukun was pulled from its release, allegedly by nervous hands, and left in limbo till today.
And we, the public, never got to see what would have been quite a thriller, judging from a nine-minute video compilation of clips from the movie that was leaked online sometime ago.
THE FIGHTER (1995)
Director: Julian Cheah
CORRECTION: The Fighter was wrongly attributed in the article as Julian Cheah’s first feature film. His first was Retribution in 1988. Apologies to Mr Cheah!
Love him or hate him, the controversial Julian Cheah has continued to make films even today, his output more prolific than most other local filmmakers. Some might say it’s quality that matters, not quantity, and that is, of course, correct. But what’s cool about Cheah is that he makes the films that he wants to make, regardless of everything else. Snubbed, criticised, dragged through the mud, he still carries on, persevering through even the harshest words. To me, he’s the real independent filmmaker. (He’s even written a novel!)
I’ve been writing about the film industry here for a long time, and being immersed in it, you hear all sorts of stories about all kinds of people. But I can attest to the fact that no one has ever had a bad thing to say about Cheah. Yes, they criticise his films, but they can’t seem to find anything disagreeable to say about him.
The Fighter was made independently with a small budget. It’s one of those B-grade, campy action films that some will say is so bad that it’s good. But you’ll be surprised to hear that the film has won a cult group of hardcore fans around the world. One of my friends once saw The Fighter on TV, and completely fell in love with it simply because it was so campy.
The movie, about a guy who refuses to sell his cafe to a bunch of thugs and who enlists a friend’s help to fight them off, has been released on DVD in as far as Brazil and Russia. It’s gone so far around the world that Cheah himself has lost track of its path. The last time we met, Cheah told me about how he met a couple of fans in Australia who could even quote lines from his movie.
Today it’s impossible to see The Fighter in Malaysia, unless you can get a Brazilian or Russian friend to track down a DVD for you. I’ve even asked Cheah himself for a copy, but even he hasn’t made a copy from the master in years.
Trivia: The Fighter features the late Playboy Playmate Pamela Bryant, whom Cheah had met in Los Angeles and invited to be in his film.
CLAYPOT CURRY KILLERS (2011)
Director: James Lee
This gore thriller was meant for a theatrical release, but it ran into trouble with the censors. You see, the Malaysian censors have long had a problem with cannibals, those folks with weird culinary tastes. And Claypot Curry Killers is about them (the cannibals, not the censors).
Clearly inspired by Korean horror, the film’s stylings are very much as baroque-ish as its Korean counterparts. It tells the story of a family of females who run a popular restaurant where the famous specialty of the house is … you guessed it, claypot curry. And I don’t even have to tell you about its ingredients.
Somewhere in the film is a potent mixture of female sexuality and gender politics of power. But all that our censors saw was people eating people. And that got the film’s release stalled for a long time, with Lee trying to please the censors by making the (un)necessary cuts. They didn’t have to go to all that trouble, really, because the film never makes good on its promises of being as delightfully sleazy as a Hong Kong Category III film.
Finally, the film did not get a theatrical release, but was briefly shown on Astro.
And now, it’s never to be seen again. No DVD release, no streaming. Just sitting quietly somewhere in someone’s vault, simmering away like a good pot of curry.
Director: B.N. Rao
Now this, this is like the Grand Prix of missing films, the Grand Slam of lost Malaysian films. The first Malaysian horror film ever made, Pontianak was The Exorcist of its day, with reports of people fainting in the cinemas from sheer fright. It was a certified blockbuster, with lines for tickets going round whole blocks, and the film showing in cinemas for three months.
It was massive.
And then something really dumb happened. Producer, and one of Cathay Keris’ owners, Ho Ah Loke, reportedly ran out of storage space in his home, and had to throw out some film prints.
And one of the unlucky films that got thrown into a mining pool was Pontianak. So, ladies and gentlemen, our nation’s very first horror film is presumed lost forever.
Some years ago, I interviewed Maria Menado, the actress who played the deadly female vampire, and she told me how she was distraught when told what had been done to the film prints. I would have been, too! It was the film that shot her career into the stratosphere.
For a while, I personally tried to track down any possible remaining copies of the film, contacting people in Hong Kong and the US. You see, the film had reportedly been shown theatrically in Hong Kong in the 60s, while it was also shown on TV in the US in a late-night showcase of Asian films. But alas, my efforts came to naught. Perhaps the film really is lost forever.
In our chat, Maria had recalled how her husband had written the script late at night in his study, and frightened himself badly. She also told of how she, playing the character of Chomel who is a sexy siren by day but a horrific vampire by night, had to endure hours of make-up that turned her into first an old hag, then the ugly vampire. She had many interesting tales to tell about being a part of film history.
Any film fan would be heartbroken to think that a historic film like Pontianak now resides at the bottom of a mining pool, which is now most probably all filled up with a condominium built on it.