In Malaysia you can say ‘noir’ to refer to men whose actual names are Anwar; hence we have an Opposition leader who can be called Noir Berahim. But in French it means ‘black’. Specifically, it refers to films and pulp fiction that flourished from the 1930s to 1950s in the US of A.
There were haunted men on the run, sexy women with secrets, cities that were steeped in corruption and existential despair. The most succinct two-word synonym would be ‘crime melodrama’. The films were in moody monochrome and had titles like Kiss Me Deadly, The Asphalt Jungle, Touch of Evil, Night and the City, The Dark City, While the City Sleeps…you get the drift.
The French scribes who coined the term ‘film noir’ saw a common streak of romantic pessimism brought about by economic depression as well as the psychological effect of proximity to violence (caused by rapid urbanization with its spiraling crime rate, as well as the deadlier scourge of the two World Wars). There was also the Criss-Cross (another title) of gender roles as women were suddenly more prominent in the workforce; the men were away fighting. The latter phenomenon mutated through a sensationalist fever-dream into the femme fatale – women who resorted to the most sinister and carnal means to stay ahead of the game, but never at the expense of their hairstyles or nails.
A central icon of the noir novel: the world-weary, square-jawed male private eye. Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe had seen almost everything and trusted almost no one. But the idea of the private dick is not terribly indigenous to Malaysia – so can we say there is such a thing as ‘KL Noir’? Could the very architecture of KL evoke the sense of spiraling dread that, say, Sweet Smell of Success created for New York or Sunset Blvd. for Los Angeles?
Well, let us cuba try test.
The idea for this book came about when the charming man-of-letters Jérôme Bouchaud suggested a KL version of the anthology Bangkok Noir. Of course KL isn’t as old, big or notorious as Bangkok but (and I say this with pride) we can do crime and sleaze, too!
The height of noir expression in black-and-white KL cinema is P. Ramlee’s Dr. Rushdi (1970). One of his last films, it’s a gorgeously cynical thing of shadows, guilt and entrapment. There’s adultery, murder, suicide, crashing waves, lightning bolts and – as if all of this weren’t striking enough – the first movie appearance of the Pekeliling Flats (which has since been abandoned; how quickly things disappear here!) In the color era, the most sustained noir effort would be Adman Salleh’s vice-drenched Bintang Malam (1991).
‘KL noir’ elements abounded in the Malay pulp novels of the late 1960s, most of which are now out of print. They included Dahaga (1966) by Yahya Samah and Kuala Lumpur Kita Punya (1967) by Abdullah Hussain; you should SEE the anxiety of Malay literary critics decades later in explaining how the latter ‘immoral’ book could have been written by a man who then became a National Laureate.
Although brothels, opium and gangsters were as much features of early KL as tin, it seems that its architecture started to accommodate noir stories (which require a certain weariness) only in the late 1960s. This is because in the preceding decades, Singapore was a more prominent story source.
I will not give away much about the 15 items you are about to read. Just to say that, unlike in the ang moh noir tradition, we in the exotic Orient have ghosts, since supernatural beings are not immune from the grudges and mayhem that noir can thrive on. Lovers of local showbiz gossip will chortle knowingly at one tale; habitués of shopping malls (which is another way of saying KLites) will recognize the loneliness of being in our crowds; the immigrant labor that the middle-class, in our wannabe First World entitlement, willfully ignore gets a rightful narrative voice; hijabsters may have reason to pause; the loan-shark business will never seem so dangerous; we even have a cop narrator although he is closer to the creepy protagonist of The Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson (my favorite pulp writer) than the relatively ethical beacons of hardboiled crime yarns.
You will recognize places – KLCC, KL Sentral, Asian Heritage Row, Mid Valley Megamall – though who knows how many of them, in a couple of decades, will be gone with the winds of change like the Pekeliling Flats? As a town (and later city) hacked out of a malarial jungle, KL rewards survival. We are not (or not yet!) an overcrowded megapolis like Bangok, Manila or Jakarta. Our class disparities aren’t as stark; perhaps the desperation that noir needs isn’t as harsh. But we have our unique ambiguities; a particularly telling one is the recent controversy over whether KL was ‘founded’ by a Chinese headman or a Malay aristocrat.
All noir stories are, at heart, barbed valentines to our cages. I shall leave you with a quote from a favorite film noir, Detour (1945). The doomed couple is trapped, just like P. Ramlee and Sarimah would later be in Dr. Rushdi. There seems to be no way out. She hisses: “You don’t like me very much, do you?” And he snaps back: “Like you? I love you!” And you have never heard that four-letter word spat with such disgust.
14 February 2013
* KL NOIR: RED can now be ordered online. The launch is at Kinokuniya KLCC tonight 8pm; it will also be in other shops soon.