Saturday, July 12, 2008


In the 60s and early 70s, the Malay film industry was not pressured to produce Malaysian films. They produced what they felt the public wanted and what the directors and writers came out with. There were hits and misses, but what came out of it was a pool of classic Malay movies - a pool of very Melayu film.
Yet, the Malay-ness of these films are what made them unique and endearing. P. Ramlee movies were loved by non-Malays and so were the other classics. When we see this movie, we don't think them as bad clones of other movies - they were uniquely Melayu.
Then of course, there was an erosion of self confidence. 
When Hongkong and Indonesian movies became box office hits, there seem to be a need to copy-cat the formula.
It was the beginning of the death of the Malay films. 
The silat in movies, for example, became a mish mash of bad kungfu. The stories too were xeroxed from old Hongkong movies remade with a kampung background. Even P. Ramlee fell into a rut and made bad copies of Hongkong and Japanese movies like his atrocious Enam Jahanam.
Shaw, through the Merdeka Film outfit in Hulu Kelang, then came out with movies like Loceng Maut and other bad black-and-white movies (when imported movies are in full color) that hardly made any impact in the box office. So when this happen, moviegoers  prefer the original Hongkong movies and not badly made copies in black-and-white.
Now, the monopoly held by Shaw Brothers and Cathay has ended - at least in the production side (They still own the most theater chains together).
Ever since Sabah Films became one of the first independant film producers to appear after the closure of Merdeka Studios, it's been a love hate relationship between Malay movie producers and the Malay movie going public.
Movies that were big hits are actually those that manage to identify with the public. Bad as the movie may be in terms of aesthetics and overall quality, movies like Anak Mamee do attract moviegoers in droves - and one of the main reason is because of its localised and very Melayu 
/or Mamak content or canvas.
Even the mega hit Jangan Pandang Belakang works because it brings back the stories one hears during childhood as told by grandparents, uncles, brothers and cousins. 
In fact, apart from the art direction and language in the Thailand hit Nang Nak, that movie was very Melayu in heart. I found most of the local fears and practices in regards to ghosts and vampires, very similar to us Malays - and it took the Thais to actually do it properly instead of our local filmmakers.
Most local movies (except maybe for Cicakman which was an aberration of sorts) are 'plastic' and non-Malay. It touches on issues that locals could not fathom nor identify. If the Malays cannot identify with their own movies, how could the rest of the world? In our misguided pursuit to produce Malaysian movies (thinking that Malaysian movies would attract universal audience), we miss out of Malay values that would attract audiences.
Don't they realise that Satyajit Ray became famous and loved not because he tried to emulate Western themes, but instead because it was true to his soul as a Bengali or Southern Indian filmmaker - his films lifted itself from being ordinary Indian films to the level of 'pure cinema'.
Even here in Malaysia, we can see the influx of new and creative independant film makers who are not interested in producing Malaysian movies but in pursuit of 'pure cinema'. They are producing movies close to their heart - the Chinese community in Malaysia and therefore they are not Malaysian movies. There are Chinese movies - but Malaysian Chinese movies. And because they are true to heart, simple yet complex, the festival circuits adore them. 
It (the movies) is something they do not see anywhere else - they are not clones of Hongkong or mainland China movies, and they are vastly different from movie coming out of Singapore - they are instead new Malaysian Chinese-centric movies. 
As Malaysian we should be proud of the achievements by these filmmakers. However, as a Malay filmmaker I am a little envious but also I am more disappointed with my fellow Malay professionals for not being able to produce movies of similar quality.
After all these years, I have yet to see someone producing the quintessential contemporary Malay movie that would take the industry by storm and the global festival by surprise. Personally (and I hope I am wrong), I don't think Yasmin Ahmad would be the one to do it. Eventhough she loves cinema and we should already thank her for her success in making some strides into the international arena, her movies are still somewhat estranged from the Malay psyche.
Meanwhile, we hope that amongst these bodies -Finas, Filem Negara and even RTM (of course TV3 and Astro too) - someone can play their part in finding this elusive treasure that we call the Malay movie.
Developing Malay movies is not just merely setting up a RM30 million dolby audio post facility( which the local film industry cannot afford nor have use for) in Hulu Kelang. One need to first address the quality of practitioners in the industry - you need to identify the few directors whom you think are exceptional and help nurture their careers. These creative directors are there - but they do not have the proper backers nor channels nor knowhow - to accomplish their goals. They need to study how the non-Malay independant filmmakers manage to break into the international circuits and festivals - they need to go back to basics and produce filmmakers whose love for the cinema are sound and true.
And then maybe, one day, we will see a Malay filmmaker, walk up the rostrum in Cannes one day to receive the Palme d'Or (and not just participating in the Un certain Regard category).

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