Monday 4 February 2008

Pretty poison

(The second part of my year-long column on old Malay movies, in the February issue of TELL magazine).

In a departure from the fairy-tale atmosphere of previous Malay movies, Racun Dunia (1950) is set in contemporary Singapore. And what a different world it is! Siput Serawak is now a scheming vamp. She’d be called a femme fatale if someone actually died. She smokes cigarettes, swims in a bikini and shouts that she doesn’t care if a child dies – but to be fair, she does not do all these things at the same time.

She has a partner, P. Ramlee, who exudes corruption as an insurance agent. His hair looks like a small oil-slick.

Insurance is an interesting subject, no? Insurance is the reason that Britain never openly declared war against the communists, but instead dubbed it an Emergency. Properties damaged in warfare could not claim insurance for loss of earnings. And quite a bit of property was by now being damaged.

Sir Harold Briggs would be appointed Director of Operation Malaya in March 1950. He had a Plan. True enough, it became known as The Briggs Plan. It involved shepherding the locals, especially Chinese, into heavily guarded New Villages. This is to ensure they could not help the communist guerrillas. Many existing villages were razed to the ground.

But for a happily married urban couple (played by Osman Gumanti and Kasma Booty), life is dolce. They have been together six years. They seem to have it all. But Osman will soon prove that Malay men get that itch a full year before their American counterparts; blame it on the tropical heat.

Siput and Ramlee insinuate their way into Osman’s life, and the poor guy will never be the same. “Kita patut tinggalkan segala yang kolot,” says Siput when they go for a late-night stroll – and boy is he up for it. This terrible twosome entices him into a life of fun while draining him of cash. He leaves his office to go swimming with them, and starts to get really impatient with his whining wife and kid. Why, he even stops wearing his songkok! His father is so aghast that he sputters with rage, sputters some more, and then drops dead – but even that doesn’t deter Osman for long.

Kasma and kid are unceremoniously booted out of the house. But Kasma is such a damp squib – she sounds like she’s whining even when’s she’s not – that you’d need a heart of stone not to laugh at her misery.

Osman, Ramlee and Siput live together and it’s a curious ménage: who’s doing whom? This was way before Jules et Jim! The comical servants disapprove, to no avail.

But it’s the servants, bless ‘em, who ensure that all’s well that ends well.Osman comes to his senses and boots out Siput and Ramlee. But will Kasma take him back?

She not only does, but absolves him of all blame. It’s just the wicked city life that did this to him. “Lupakan saja yang sudah-sudah,” she says in that whine of hers. “Kita bersyukur pada Tuhan.” What a doormat!

Were women really that submissive then? Women were already active in politics and the economy – although there were a few jobs, such as teaching, where they were paid less for equal work.

But then again, look at it from Kasma’s side. It had been only five years since World War 2 and the Japanese Occupation. She would yearn for stability. She’d had enough of air raids, confiscations, and tapioca. She just wanted to get on with life, not be harassed by greedy insurance agents and their hussies. Is that too much to ask?

Racun Dunia plonks itself down in the socio-economic reality of its time; Osman even blames ‘harga getah jatuh’ when he is cash-strapped. The trappings of slick modernity include new-fangled concepts like insurance. Siput even swears in English: “Bloody fool!” she hisses to the maid Siti Tanjung Perak, who is then comically aghast that someone called her a “baldi pool.’”

In the end, the domestic unit is restored and Osman goes back to wearing his songkok. We never see where Siput and Ramlee end up, but it’s safe to say that, like birds scenting carrion, they are circling around their next victim. Ladies, lock up your husbands!


Amir Muhammad said...

Have seen about a third of the 73 short films in the competition here in Clermont-Ferrand. All the jurors are having fun!

Anonymous said...

Were women really that submissive then?

Hmm. True story. One of my wife's cousin did the same exact thing as per the plot of the movie noted here and the wife reacted and said about the same thing as the celluloid wife. This happened, oh, about a month or so ago.

The full works too, with regards to the man. Sex orgies in Thailand. Mistresses in Singapore. UNMO(sic) contracts 'corrupting' his village malay mentality. Funny.

It did happen in Ipoh, tho, if that helps explain it much. Mebbe Anita Sarawak can do a show on the topic. He he. "Men who cheat on their women, the women who take them back, the evil city ways that corrupted said men in the first place".

Anonymous said...

Such is the life of the malays,dulu kini dan selamanya......

rara_avis said...

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Anonymous said...

Great essay! I really love the historical context in these short essays. I think I'm going to start calling people baldi pools when I'm vexed.

-- Preeta