Thursday 31 July 2008

What did I just give to Asia Argento's father?

I don't normally have pictures taken when I go overseas because: I don't have a camera; I don't like leaving evidence; and I prefer things to remain in the hazy realm of memory without prompters.

But a highlight of the recent Pesaro Film Festival is when I got to meet Italian horror maestro Dario Argento, who was being honoured with a retrospective. I have admired his films ever since I first saw them on VHS (yes kids, there was such a format!) over a decade ago. I started with Suspuria. And in Pesaro I got to see his Opera on the big-screen, which is really where his work should be seen, as his brand of delirium loses a lot when writ small.

Agento was a big influence when we were making Susuk (others were Brian De Palma and Almodovar, if you can imagine that). Trust Fadz to notice. So I grabbed this opportunity to pose for a big cheesy picture with him:

The DVD we are holding is an Indonesian slasher movie by my old pal Paul Agusta, which I gave as a present. Paul's movie is very low on rupiah but high on creepiness, grit and chutzpah. I hope to organise a screening of it in KL soon, with the director in attendance of course. Bring hot dogs with extra-red ketchup.

Wednesday 30 July 2008

PAS with flying colours

ISLAM EMBEDDED: The Historical Development of the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party PAS 1951-2003 by Farish A. Noor (MSRI, 2004, 840 pages, two volumes)

You can’t attend the Inul concert, so stay at home and read this gripping book on PAS instead.

It’s true that if parliamentary seats are the sole measure, PAS is no longer the nation’s biggest Opposition party. But recent rumblings remind us that it’s still a force to be reckoned with. So ignore it at your peril!

When PAS started out, there was not enough money even for a typewriter. But now it is very much a part of Malaysian life. Even its new headquarters are smack in the KL city centre, a turban’s throw from the red-light district – an indication that the sacred and the profane can indeed mix.

What’s the secret of its success? To put it crudely, some members would be willing to die for the party; this is more than you can say for any other political organisation, unless we can find an Umno member who really, really loves his APs.

This great loyalty comes, of course, from the equation or equivalence of PAS with everything Islamic. Although its leaders would cringe at such a secular-capitalist concept, PAS has successfully branded itself, at least to some, as the repository of religious virtues.

To its enemies, PAS is a bunch of raving, backward, bearded lunatics (and those are just the women). To its loyalists, the party has been following a fixed and unwavering path to divine glory through the profane means of national political struggle.

The truth, as demonstrated in Islam Embedded, is more complex. And this is good for us, the reader. An 840-page tome on a political party that seeks merely to glorify or denounce would be a tough read. What we get, instead, is a colourful chronological account of the party and the nation, with instructive parallels to similar movements in other countries.

And what a rich, Dickensian cast of characters! People from all political stripes helped or hindered the journey of PAS over the decades, and they are given ample space. These include past leaders Burhanuddin al-Helmy (the book’s ‘hero’ for his progressive, non-dogmatic ability to accommodate differences when it came to building alliances) and Asri Muda (reactionary, ethnocentric, not a good egg).

The full scope of modern Malaysian history is refracted through the events and personalities of PAS – which, we learn pretty quick, was never a monolithic, static entity but a dynamic force composed of sometimes wildly disparate individuals. You get to hear of Konfrontasi, Khomeini, Memali and Reformasi – and those are just some words that end in ‘i.’

It’s quite an adventure, as the internal and external conflicts of the party create nail-biting suspense: Who’s going to win? It’s not for nothing that the informal milestones in this book are the General Elections, all of which come with tables and statistics.

This book is quite moving. Not for any florid melodrama, but for its generosity of spirit. One of our top public intellectuals, Farish A. Noor is not a PAS member but a nattily-dressed secular democrat. The fact that he can ‘see’ Malaysian history through the eyes of this party just proves how rarely the rest of us dare to venture outside our own comfort zones.

He can readily denounce ethnocentricism and religious chauvinism where he sees them, but he also admires the party’s success at sustaining a movement that exists beyond the mainstream of comfortably received ideas.

It’s a pity that not many people have read this book, for I think it’s Farish’s best piece of writing. You know him as a vociferous polemicist, whose prolific missives on current affairs often have a tone of eloquent exasperation. This book is more patient and expansive. It allows him to develop themes and follow trajectories at graceful ease. Some of the footnotes take up most of the page, and these are often wonderful pen-sketches of personalities and organizations, some of whom were only of glancing relevance to the main PAS story.

The two-volume hardcover retails at RM360, which puts it out of the reach of petrol-conscious Malaysians. An updated paperback including this Islamic party’s most recent history would make an ideal Christmas present, if you’ll forgive the inter-faith suggestion.

Meanwhile, the current incarnation is available in selected places such as Silverfish Books.

(Malay Mail, 30 July 2008)

Friday 25 July 2008

I've never been to Bali

Or to a writers festival.

So this is my chance to do both at the same time!

I wonder how different a writers festival is from a film festival. I should find out in less than 3 months. Can't wait.

Thursday 24 July 2008

The first controversy?

Susuk is not even out yet but it is already criticised for going against Malay culture.

Strangely enough, the scenes of murder and the occult in the trailer are fine, but in the future I must make sure no undead characters wear the inappropriate colour.

Wednesday 23 July 2008

Who stole the moon?

Rudra Avatara: Kumpulan Cerpen Bahasa Malaysia by Uthaya Sankar SB (Uthaya Sankar SB, 2008, 120 pages)

Just as politics is too important to be left to politicians, the Malay language too should stop being identified as the preserve of Malays. That's the only way for the language to grow. And it's embarrassing that some citizens still get 'complimented' on their national language skills when we all should know better.

Uthaya Sankar SB can tell you all about it. He has been one of our most prolific and consistent creative writers for over a decade. In fact, his story Yang Aneh-Aneh (1997) remains one of the best things I have ever read: a twitchy, surrealistic odyssey of detachable body parts and pollution scandals. This book is his third for this decade and like the other two, it is self-published. There are even four pictures of the author in case you want to see how he looks like.

Uthaya is enough of a name to be published by an august body like Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka but, you see, there was a bit of a tiff. He is a strong advocate of the term Bahasa Malaysia and was appalled when DBP changed all instances of it, in a manuscript he submitted in the 1990s, to Bahasa Melayu. He thinks that the decision to revert back to Bahasa Melayu (when Anwar Ibrahim was Education Minister) is ethnocentric. And so he doesn’t want his books to be published by anyone that insists on that term.

(Although I can't help noticing that National Laureate A. Samad Said, that crafty old fellow, here uses the term 'bahasa tanah air' (language of the land) in his handwritten Introduction, and so sidesteps the controversy altogether).

The title story speaks of reincarnation and Hanuman. It's amazing to read about Hindu beliefs and iconography –narrated, as it were, from the inside ¬– in the national language. It makes you realise how free of iconoclasm, and therefore how neutered and 'circumcised', the language has been over the decades.

If Uthaya were merely a spokesman for his race, this would not make him an interesting writer. What counts for more: His supple and surprising uses of plot and perspective, his sense of irony and the absurd, his occasionally breathtaking endings. All the stories have been published earlier, but they have been carefully selected, because several of them have 'doubles' or 'sequels' in the same volume.

The stories tend to be in the first person, and often addressed to a second (kau). The dynamic between these two characters often provides a kind of tension; it can veer from the vindictive to placatory. Although he has won the requisite sastera (literary) awards, Uthaya has an almost potboiler sense of pace and momentum; not surprising when you consider John Grisham is one of his favourite writers.

Another favourite would be RK Narayan, and like him Uthaya creates fictional locales (Siru Kambam rather than Malgudi) peopled with lightly eccentric and talkative folks. It's a fictional world that keeps playfully replicating and commenting on itself, as when a character visits the place after reading a book called Unknown Facts about Little Known Siru Kambam.

Fail Merah: Konspirasi Membunuh Sasterawan Pulau Cinta is an only lightly fictionalised work in which Uthaya takes on the people who want to kena (sabotage) him over the whole Bahasa Malaysia issue. Abrasive and self-aggrandising, this succeeds if you treat it like a parody of a paranoid thriller, right down to its twist ending. Otherwise it falls victim to the unfortunate tendency of much local fiction to preach too much.

When the satire is applied with a lighter touch, as in the reformasi-era Cat, the results linger longer. The ambitious cat aside, the most memorable character here is the boy who wants to get into The Malaysia Book of Records by staying underwater for 22 hours.

The best piece might be the very last one, which asks a simple question: What happened to the moon? It has somehow disappeared! A wondrous family tale with striking imagery (I can see the movie right now!) Cerita Paurnami achieves homespun magic. A satisfying way to end a collection that’s already more than some of its parts.

• For details on how to order this book, go here.

(Malay Mail, 23 July 2008)

Tuesday 22 July 2008

The upcoming Festival Filem Malaysia has a category for Best Poster

Do you think we have a chance? :-)

The model is Ida Nerina. The photographer is Sue-Anna Joe. And Yee I-Lann helped to conceptualise it.

Wednesday 16 July 2008

Kak Juwie's amazing adventure

Dengan Seribu Cinta by Juwie (Pena, 1983, 75 pages)

Sexuality has invaded our politics, but this doesn’t mean we know much about the politics of sexuality. One could, of course, go through the Western canon and start fingering Freud, craftily quoting Krafft-Ebing or picking on Paglia. But we shall instead look at a local book.

Juwie was born with the name Abdul Jalil Salleh and she is now one of the best-known figures in the Malay entertainment scene. She has been writing for the pop scene, both as print journalist and song lyricist, for decades. This, her first book, came out when she was still in her 20s and considered ‘Kak’ rather than the ‘Mama’ Juwie of today.

Growing up, he could feel he was different from the other boys. His teenage years included a suicide attempt and a spell at a psychiatric ward. Although he wanted a sex-change, his parents wouldn’t hear of it, so he is still legally male. She considers herself to be a spiritual hermaphrodite rather than a woman or a drag queen, so it’s apposite for this column to switch gender pronouns rather than stick to just one, don’t you think?

The terms khunsa (hermaphrodite) and mak nyah (transvestite) are used almost interchangeably in this book, which takes the form of a picaresque journey through several locations and boyfriends. Rantau Abang is not just a geographic spot, you know. And how many boyfriends? Although Juwie confesses to having had thousands of lovers, these 75 pages couldn’t cram in all of them, so we get around six.

Juwie’s style as a lyricist is proudly jiwang (sentimental) and sure enough, if the ink had been in colour, that colour would be blazing. She wears her heart on her sequined sleeve and leaves it dripping there like a red, red rose.

We are given relatively precise anatomical descriptions of how she is different from a regular hermaphrodite. Although only her male genitalia is visible, she doesn’t consider herself to be a gay man but a member of the ‘third sex.’

Most gay men have the option of ‘passing’ in heterosexual society, and have done so since the year dot. But interestingly enough, third sexers have always had some kind of place in many Asian societies. This place may not always be a high one, but it’s there.

Juwie’s book is probably the first Malaysian testament by a ‘third sexer,’ and by a known person, even a celebrity of sorts. She challenges you to smile or even laugh at her story, but predicts (not inaccurately!) that you will feel like crying too.

Dengan Seribu Cinta starts off by saying that ‘sweet love’ is temporary and repetitive, while ‘bitter love’ stays with you and makes you an adult. She has tasted more bitter than sweet, since no man is willing to settle down with her. His rampant promiscuity is explained as a mechanism to stay sane (since he makes his urges sound very urgent indeed) and also so that he won’t be beholden to any one man.

Some would find it incongruous for Juwie to frame many of his arguments in religious terms. Particularly memorable is when she likens herself to a unique painting; if you insult this painting, you are actually insulting the creator, or rather Creator. The more prurient among you might also be interested to know that she has never ‘gone all the way’ sexually. But who among us will cast a stone and say that her journey isn’t ultimately also a spiritual one?

As a sexual and gender minority, Juwie is uniquely placed to point out the hypocrisies of heterosexist society, and he does so with gusto. But she also speaks in the vernacular of mainstream Malay society (she even drinks orange juice while dating!) and has a greater impact than NGO press statements.

This isn’t a heart-warming tale of self-acceptance; it’s rather more pathological and lurid. She hurts so she can feel, and she is almost coldly aware of this. If you can connect in some way, then that is the basis for some shared humanity. But you’d never know what it’s really like for Juwie unless you walk a mile in those sarung kemban she keeps mentioning.

Postscript: This book is sadly out-of-print. An expanded reprint would be in order, methinks.

(Malay Mail, 16 July 2008).

Sunday 13 July 2008


This hushed and intimate feature by Azharr Rudin, which is all about separation and longing, will screen from 25 September on four GSC screens. It was shot almost entirely in Johor Baru's Bukit Chagar flats last year, that have now been torn down. In the meantime this is a taste:

Wednesday 9 July 2008

Blue shoes and happiness

KASUT BIRU RUBINA: Koleksi Fiksyen Pop Untuk Jiwa2 Hadhari Vol 1 by Sufian Abas (Sang Freud Press, 2008, 76 pages).

Had enough of politics? Oh, all right then. Let it never be said that this column ever bucks a trend, so this week’s book has nothing to do with politics at all.

Oh wait. The subtitle contains the word ‘hadhari.’ Does this imply some sort of veiled critique of our Prime Minister’s Islamic civilisational efforts? Not necessarily so.

Kasut Biru Rubina is a collection of shorts stories. It is slim, just like a ransom note. Many of the stories are barely a page long.

In an interview, the author says that he was inspired by the ‘disposable fiction’ of Jewish writer Hermann Broch. How naughty of this Malay writer to admit to a Jewish influence! Not content with that, he throws in another reference: Israeli writer Etgar Keret.

I have not read either of those gentlemen, not due to any anti-Semetic leanings, but simply because I am not as well-read as Sufian is, or claims to be. But his fiction does remind me of the work of Saharil Hasrin Sanin, as collected in the book Lagi Cerpen-Cerpen Underground (2002).

Saharil had some great stories that were only a paragraph long; he called them certot, which is a combination of the words cerpen (short story) and kontot (stunted). So I am sure Sufian was inspired by this book as well, although he is too shy to admit it.

Kasut Biru Rubina
juxtaposes, with studious glee, the pop-inflected banality of contemporary life with inspired surrealism. Some of the stories are melancholy but most are either macabre or misanthropic; the best combine all three.

Ponder the fate of Melah, for example. She wants to get to university, but isn’t sure her SPM grades are that good. She starts to fantasise about university life, replete with a TV drama-inspired romance with a rich but idealistic young guy with a penchant for big bikes. This fantasy is richly detailed – you can just hear the muzak – right up to its tragic denouement, which gets all confused in Melah’s mind with the arrival of an actual letter from the university folks.

Another story has a different (or the same but older?) Melah who wakes up without a body, while her husband is missing his head. They have a conversation to try resolve this dilemma, and the ending is as twisted but sweet as any Tim Burton tale.

Sufian’s sardonic sense of humour, and his keen eye for the ridiculous and hypocritical, actually reminds me of another Jewish bloke, the American filmmaker Todd Solondz, whose film Happiness was such an entertaining parade of – you guessed it – misery. Perhaps someone can write a thesis on the unexpected commonalities between Malay and Jewish humour? A form of persecution complex might lie at the heart of both.

One of the stories is set on Valentine’s Day, so you know it’s not going to be happy. Suraya finds a Coca-Cola bottle floating in the Klang river. The macho bottle asks to be rescued, and so Suraya thinks she’s got a hot date. Little does she know that this bottle turns out to be a beer-guzzling cheat.

Kasut Biru Rubina successfully fashions a bouncy idiom that parodies contemporary ephemera: the language of chat-shows, flirty TV serials, hyperbolic commercials, pseudo-pious exhortations and, yes, political sloganeering. Even the Introduction reads like those Nigerian email scams we’ve all received.

But it isn’t all jokes; there is some unexpected pathos amidst the manic grins, a pathos that derives from the loneliness and unfulfilled hopes of its characters, who just want to get by but are frequently mocked by the symbols of success around them. But there’s not much danger of sentimentality, since something blackly grotesque is bound to happen on the next page.

This slim, handsome paperback is ideal for reading on the LRT. And if, in the crush, you happen to accidentally leave the book on the seat with your frayed umbrella (even though you remembered your take-away nasi lemak), well, you can always chalk it up to experience. Perhaps another soul will pick it up and start reading it, which might mark the start of another surreal adventure. I envy the person who finds it!

(Malay Mail, 9 July 2008).

Monday 7 July 2008

6horts coming back atcha!

After being out-of-print for over a year, the 6horts DVD returns! It can be ordered here.

* Design by Liza Manshoor (Eclectic Design).

Friday 4 July 2008

Guerrilla girl

(Part of my column in TELL magazine about old Malay movies).

Matahari (1951) is significant for being an early Malay movie to deal explicitly with recent history. While most of the Malay cinema that had come before were set in non-specific times and places (and functioned almost like fairy tales) Matahari is set firmly in the Japanese Occupation.

The credit titles (in English) scroll down over an image of the rising (or setting) sun. This is the first instance of many where the sun is invoked. Rather incongruously, the song we hear is a whistling rendition of Rasa Sayang Eh. Was this a popular wartime anthem?

More to the point: How is it that Malayan society back then could deal with a film set in a traumatic time just six years prior? While we in 2008 have never seen a film even of, say, the reformasi of 1998.

You might say that reformasi is politically sensitive and fractuous in a way that the Japanese Occupation was not. You would be wrong, because this film deals with the thorny issues of local collaborators and also guerrilla fighters.

A series of stock footage swiftly defines the time and trauma. Matahari is the heroine, played by Maria Menado before her pontianak days. She is a headman’s daughter. When news of the marauding Japanese reaches the village, it is decided that all the women would be taken to the hills to avoid meeting a fate worse than death.

When the imperialist pigs invade, most of the village refuses to cooperate. An ignoble exception is Umai, played by Salleh Kamil as the kind of roguish villain he would personify. He even tells the Japanese to torture the headman to reveal Matahari’s whereabouts!

The village is a Malay one with one Chinese family. This family meets a worse fate than the rest, which goes with accounts of how the Japanese did treat the locals.

There are harrowing moments of torture and attempted rape. Matahari’s father is killed. What follows is quite remarkable: Matahari heads a guerrilla army! She rallies the rag-tag group: “Let them (the Japanese) kill when the sun rises, and we will retaliate when the sun sets!”

This portrayal of active armed resistance is gutsy and thrilling compared with, say, the titular character of the government-financed Embun five decades later. Even the choice of symbolic name is significant: The dew is no match for the sun! Unlike Embun, Matahari is not gonna sit around and be a victim for long. She will steal rifles and give fiery speeches to incite the masses.

Tellingly, her speeches are anti-Japanese but never anti-British. She refers to the pre-Japanese time as the time of ‘kemerdekaan’, since you could listen to the radio and all. This attitude might be explained by the conservative social mood of 1951 which saw British rule as inevitable. There might even have been British reprisals if a film dared to posit independence to mean freedom from not only the Japanese but the mat salleh.

This quirk aside, the historical figure she would most seem to resemble is Shamsiah Fakeh who was, of course, part of the communists. But Matahari is not allied to a larger political cause; she does not receive instructions from anybody. To an audience of the time, however, the type of anti-Japanese army she led would surely have been identified as leftist if not actually communist – and we are invited to see her as completely correct. Maybe that’s why Matahari isn’t shown often on TV?

This is a swift, rousing film (directed by a Filipino named Ramon Estella) that is not weighed down by the self-importance of Embun. it has a relatively multiracial cast of characters, too, and helped to bring Malay cinema into a more realistic time. Let the sun shine in!

(TELL magazine, July 2008).

Wednesday 2 July 2008

And now the bad news

Malaysia Human Rights Report (SUARAM, 237 pages, 2008)

One of the least-known restrictions that the mainstream media in Malaysia has to live with is a directive from the Home Ministry informing its columnists to quote from an Anne Murray song at least once a year.

So, I hereby grit my teeth and commit to the following:

Remember that great Anne Murray song where she hankers for “a little good news?” This hypothetical scenario would mean that: “Nobody robbed a liquor store in the lower part of town … Nobody fired a shot in anger, nobody had to die in vain…”

Well, there’s not much good news in the book for this week, I am afraid. The private consensual activities in liquor stores continue to be threatened; the police continue to fire at demonstrators; people continue to mysteriously die under custody. In fact, about the only joy to be found is in the name Lina Joy.

SUARAM is an organization founded in the wake of the Internal Security Act detentions of 1987. So it’s apposite that the ISA will have a special place in this book of outrages, right there on Chapter One.

There’s a chart displaying how many people have been detained, by year, under this obnoxious legislation. The good news (!) is that, since 1999, the figures have all been double-digit rather than triple-digit. (But of course I can hear you now say: “Any digit is too high a number!” True.) In fact, the highest numbers are for 1977 and 1978, with over a thousand each!

What on earth happened in the early days of the Hussein Onn administration to warrant such clampdowns? That’s an interesting matter that will be examined in other books. For now, the target is squarely the Prime Minister in 2007.

When Abdullah Ahmad Badawi took over, we awaited a wave of promised reforms, but these turned out to be not as rapid or regular as RapidKL. By ‘we’, I mean of course the liberal middle-classes – although, as this book points out, violations of human rights affect everyone, not just those of us with Aliran subscriptions.

For example, we all know about the ISA but how many know that there are currently thousands, including minors, detained under the Emergency Ordinance (EO)? These are for a range of alleged crimes including gangsterism; they remain allegations because they are not proven in court. The EO was originally drafted to tackle the 1969 riots but remains in place.

Speaking of ‘alleged’: this book just chokes with the word! The first two paragraphs of pg10 alone has four of them, and these are not long paragraphs. But then again, so much official data is classified as secret that it must be difficult to compile a report like this, so the plethora of ‘allegations’ serve as legal safe-checks. (But a thesaurus would not hurt).

2007 was blessed with many demonstrations so these provide ample photos for the layout. But of course, no demonstration is ever mentioned without immediate reference to police clampdowns. Actually, some photos show a more casual atmosphere than that. Demonstrations are primarily parties to celebrate democracy. Focusing immediately on the repression is almost as big a party-pooping act as over-zealous law enforcement.

But as the folks behind this book would say, their job is to document rather than provide colour. (For that, I recommend another book, Selak, a pictorial journey of the Bersih rally). Since it has multiple authors, the writing ranges from studiously bland to aggressively frigid. Sometimes you feel like you are sharing weak tea with your PhD supervisor; the next you are being heckled a person who seems to be wearing a hemp T-shirt even when they are not.

This is not the sort of book that you will want to curl up with in bed; your sleep will be plagued by nightmares. It should also not be read in the vicinity of dangerous objects, lest you start making attempts at your own life.

The Prime Minister had told us to “tell the truth even if it hurts.” Fast forward to a few days ago, and he says that a matter like ‘the social contract’ (which requires an ‘alleged’ for sure) cannot be discussed. This comment and its context are too late for inclusion in this book, but it will be in the next volume, I trust. The masochist in me cannot wait.

(Malay Mail, 2 July 2008).