The Elephant and the Wins
Over the past weekend, a Malaysian movie won an award overseas. Roll out the kompang, beat the flag, wave the bunga manggar, or combinations thereof! But wait, it wasn’t one movie, it was two. No, I lie again (what’s wrong with me today?) It was three different movies.
All three were made on very low budgets (less than RM150,000 each) but managed to beat more expensively mounted productions from more developed countries, so this should make us feel all warm inside.
James Lee’s Before We Fall in Love Again won the Best ASEAN Feature Film award at the Bangkok International Film Festival. He had won the same award in the same festival two years ago for The Beautiful Washing Machine. Deepak Kumaran Menon’s Dancing Bells won the NETPAC (Network for the Promotion of Asian Cinema) Award at the Osian’s Cinefan Film Festival, New Delhi. And Woo Ming Jin’s The Elephant and The Sea won two separate awards at the inaugural Cinema Digital Seoul festival.
The first two movies have already received limited release in Malaysia. The third has never been seen here, which is why I want to talk about it.
The Elephant and The Sea marks a leap forward from Woo’s debut, Monday Morning Glory and also his “commercial” venture Salon. (The word is in quotes because the film did not actually make money). Many lesser people would have given up after Salon. But the California-trained Woo is, to quote a theatre performance title of some years ago, “bullish on bouncing back.”
It is set in a coastal town where a strange epidemic has just occurred, requiring quarantine. There are these two men, a young slacker and an older fisherman, each seemingly hopeless but actually in search of precisely “that thing with feathers.” The two never actually meet but experience parallel journeys.
What strikes you first is the visual beauty; aside from the small town, the landscape includes an almost surreal primordial jungle retreat. And then you notice the quiet dignity of these seemingly deadbeat characters. Gradually, the movie’s sense of humour kicks in.
Although set in a depressing locale during depressing times, there is an offbeat, frisky energy, such as the running gag of the expensive fish with the lucky lottery numbers. There is a scene where the young man needs to make up for an awful transgression to a young woman that must count as some kind of masterpiece.
There is very little dialogue, it’s kinda slow, and it might therefore fit into the cliche of the “everybody suffers, including the audience” perception of arthouse flicks. But it has a special feel to it that is devoid of both modish cynicism and cheap sentimentality, and that’s more that can be said of most flicks. You even get to see a real elephant, unlike that Gus Van Sant film that was called Elephant, so there!
Yes, they will be people who will whinge that The Elephant and The Sea, Dancing Bells and Before We Fall in Love Again are not “real Malaysian” productions because they don’t happen to be in Malay. But such people are welcome to kiss these awards.
The only festival I attended personally was the New Delhi one. There was even a panel discussion on the topic of “cooperative filmmaking”. It seems that the Malaysian model (of people helping out on each other’s shoots) is considered so inspirational that it needed to be introduced to young Indian filmmakers.
So we talked about our experiences. My quotable quote was, “If you don’t have money, you might as well have friends.” Along the way, we dished on how certain segments of our media have labelled these films as being “an insult to national sovereignty” for their choices of language, and therefore “for failing to portray the correct image of Malaysia.” As if all the ghosts movies we are now being served are a correct image of our reality!
But even while talking, I couldn’t summon up outrage. The truth is, the attacks have become amusing more than anything else. So I said, “The reason we stick together is so that we can annoy these bigots even more.”
When I got back, we got an email from the panel organiser. He said that our session had an invigorating effect and was much discussed. For this we can be glad.
Merdeka with The Simpsons
I wonder if any of our public-funded programmes for this month can come as close to articulating Merdeka as The Simpsons Movie.
Homer’s own bumbling actions get he and his family kicked out of Springfield by a vigilante mob. Swearing never to return, he is nonetheless persuaded that he will only be complete once he loves others as much as he loves himself.
Through the machinations of a ruthless politician, the town gets sealed by a giant dome. The image of townsfolk being held literally captive by “a man on a giant TV” is a brilliant parody of media control. In countries where the media is not so autonomous, it can also mean other types of control.
True enough, it is the combined strengths of these outcasts that saves the day. Like any self-respecting blockbuster, it pits ordinary mortals against overwhelming foes. The difference this time is that these mortals are yellow, bug-eyed and seemingly dysfunctional.
The portrait of grassroots resilience against occupation is stirring, but the heroes are not placed on pedestals. The Simpsons has always had a healthy irreverence for authority, recognising instinctively that veneration can create a culture of corruption. And instead of saying that evil only comes from the Other, it knows that oppressive power structures can easily be replicated anywhere, even in your own home.
These small-time heroes are not without flaws. But Springfield is capacious enough to embrace all its citizens; any spurts of anger are short-lived, because everyone realises, at one level, that they are all in this together. Everyone feels they have an equal stake in the town, which is why they can come together despite surface differences.
Despite its 2D images, the film is rich, and only a Mr. Burns type will leave the cinema without a happy grin.