Friday 29 August 2008

My piece in The Star

I was asked to write a short, feel-good article for The Star's Merdeka focus on "independent movies." It was nice to be placed alongside two guys I like greatly: Woo Ming Jin and Liew Seng Tat.

Guess how much The Star paid? Zilch!
And this is the most profitable paper in the country! The MCA's days really are numbered, or should be.


I started making movies as a respite from the boredom of life. Now that movie-making is starting to bore me, I will retire until I get my mojo back.

My first few movies were made with no permits and no censorship approval. My motto was: Other people can do it better, but I can do it cheaper. The first time I submitted something to the censors was in 2006 for Lelaki Komunis Terakhir. When that got unceremoniously banned, I was, at first, upset. Then I looked on the bright side: at least I became more famous.

There is a lot of self-righteous guff when it comes to indie movies. Expecting a film to be more sincere just because it’s independently made is like expecting a man to be good just because he’s poor. I have met quite a few nasty impecunious people in my life; give me a pleasant millionaire any day!

My final feature-length movie is called Malaysian Gods. It is made to mark the 10th anniversary of Sept 20, 1998, which saw a massive demonstration in KL just a few hours before Anwar Ibrahim got arrested. It is a long essay that takes the form of a walk through KL, precisely the 70 leisurely minutes it takes to get from the National Mosque to PWTC (Putra World Trade Centre). If it gets passed, it will screen for only one day (Sept 20, of course) at GSC 1 Utama.

I also just produced a movie, Punggok Rindukan Bulan (The Longing), that was set in Johor Baru’s working-class Bukit Chagar flats just before they got torn down. It is directed by the sensitive and soulful Azharr Rudin.

This was a movie that needed to be made because it gave a human face to a social landmark that would otherwise be gone with the winds of change.

The main change I’ve witnessed is that I am now interviewed often by college students (some of them are very cute indeed) who see me as some kind of elder statesman! I like starting things but certainly don’t want to get ossified into respectability in that way.

They seem to think “indie” is some kind of genre but it’s really just a way of doing things. And they always ask for advice, too. I just tell them that when I was their age, I certainly didn’t listen to advice.

In a twist to that Warhol dictum, it only takes 15 minutes to become famous now, because that’s about how long it takes to upload something on YouTube.

We now see many more Malaysian films at international film festivals. This is good because these festivals are organised and attended by people who love movies. But that certainly should never be the be-all and end-all of things. The indie movie I respected the most recently is Fahmi Reza’s 10 Tahun Sebelum Merdeka, and he didn’t want to screen it overseas at all until I literally posted the DVDs on his behalf.

On the festival front, I think we will be overtaken by Indonesia and the Philippines anyway, because they take more risks; you can see it in their politics. We are still very bourgeois in our thinking.

Wednesday 27 August 2008

Birth of a nation

LEGACY by Shahriza Hussein (Editions Didier Millet, 359 pages, 2008).

Last week, we looked at how Kee Thuan Chye’s play We Could **** You Mr. Birch deconstructed Malaysian history by taking the infamous Perak Resident’s murder as its starting-point.

It seems that JWW Birch will not leave us alone, as this week’s novel Legacy has a lot to do with him, too. True, he kicks the bucket after page 18, but his spirit (sometimes quite literally) haunts the rest of the book. The novel, written in a more conventional style than the play, aspires to the ‘sweeping’, multi-generational scope of a saga like The Thorn Birds.

And what an entertaining read it is! I finished it in less than 48 hours, and I’m normally such a slow reader.

Shahriza Hussein is 65 but this is his debut novel. I hope we don’t have to wait long for his next one.

The main character, Mastura, was the young widow of Perak’s Sultan Jaafar. She also had a great fondness for Birch. Although the author is discreet about just how far this fondness went, she is greatly affected by his death. She comes into possession of his time-piece, and she vows to return it to its rightful place. This novel literally takes us right to the moment when this becomes possible, over eight decades later.

In the intervening years, Mastura took another husband (a commoner!) and presided as matriarch over the next two generations. The final vow is not actually fulfilled by her but a descendant.

I actually found the business of the time-piece to be one of the less interesting things in the novel; it is an unusually arbitrary McGuffin. But what really resonates in Legacy is the rich portrait of how a family progresses along with the nascent nation.

Mastura and her husband Mansur form the moral centre of the story. Enterprising and generous, they chafe at the restrictions of Malay feudalism, form alliances with Chinese tycoons, and regard the British as mostly benevolent protectors. Theirs is as essentially conservative worldview that has no time for the ‘radical’ and ‘impatient’ left-wing politics of the time.

What a main character posits is that the British made Malaya. Without the intervention of Birch and his like, people here would continue to be victims of petty conflicts between Royal or clan despots. The way the British eradicated Malay slavery within a decade is one example of progressive politics.

It’s not fashionable in Merdeka month to have a sentimental view of the colonials, but Legacy has a generosity of vision, at least when it comes to capturing the sympathies of this particular landed Malay family.

We get a real sense of the nation being physically built – being hacked out of the jungle, as it were: the roads, buildings, plantations and water systems all bring dramatic momentum. And of the attitudes being shaped, too: It’s wonderful to read of rich Malay families relaxing over port and sherry, and of Mastura’s daughter valiantly attempting to become the first local woman to drive a car in public.

The obvious historical landmarks would be the two World Wars and the Emergency, and we also get smaller but locally significant events like the sensational murder trial of Ethel Proudlock in 1911, the Touchang Riots of 1912 (where people were killed because of hair) and the devastating KL flood of 1926.

Actual historical personages walk in and out of the drama. Aside from Birch, you get to meet Frank Swettenham, Loke Yew, Chin Peng, counter-intelligence expert CC Too, as well as Victoria Institution’s first headmaster Bennett Shaw. Oh, and The Malay Mail is heavily featured, too.

I’ve said that this novel has a conventional style, but that’s not to discount something remarkable it does: It moves episodically, with each chapter separated by a few years. These ellipses mean that important events such as deaths always seem to happen off-screen, and we get only references in conversations later. I think this is what makes it so unputdownable: You‘re always trying to catch up.

That, and the fact that some of the characters are so wonderfully drawn that you miss them when they’re gone. Because they – with all their imperfections and ticks – have become family.

(Malay Mail, 27 August 2008)

Monday 25 August 2008

Censorship update

We called the censors today to find out if there is a result for Malaysian Gods.

The spokeswoman said: "They are now watching it for the second time."

This can be seen as good news because, if they wanted to ban it, they certainly wouldn't need to see it more than once.

But the bad news is that maybe they found it as confusing as some people found Susuk!

We hope to have the result by Wednesday.

Thursday 21 August 2008

Invitation to bloggers and media types :-)

Come along kalau free!

The Punggok Rindukan Bulan press preview is Wednesday, 27 August from 10am at GSC Midvalley Hall 14.

The movie is directed by Azharr Rudin. It features Saeful Nazhif Satria, Sahronizam Noor & Maya Karin. All four will be present.

Seating is limited, so please confirm your attendance to

Wednesday 20 August 2008

Fingering history

We Could **** You Mr. Birch by Kee Thuan Chye (Kee Thuan Chye, 1994, 83 pages).

I was recently at a 99-year old secondary school in Ipoh. The auditorium had those boards that listed the sports champions through the years. I was surprised to find that one of the sports teams was named Birch.

Birch! I wonder how the kids assigned to that sports house would have felt. (I would have been perversely proud). JWW Birch, the first British Resident of colonial Perak, is not usually a name to be celebrated. Here was a man who did not understand ‘our’ customs, insulted ‘our’ traditions, and was suitably punished by being murdered in his (rather than ‘our’) bath.

Having a sports group in independent Malaysia named after him would be like having a team in a Taliban madrasah named after Kamal Attartuk. Or so it would seem. But were things really that simple? Was Birch the unrepentant rogue we have been led to believe?

When I got back home I dug up the text of this play. Now here’s a funny story: The original title was We Could Kill You Mr. Birch. But the licensing authorities of 1994 thought the word ‘kill’ was too rude. So the playwright Kee Thuan Chye changed it to four asterisks. The authorities approved, not realising of course that the title now seemed much ruder.

In case the cheeky title doesn’t give it away, this is not a straight-forward depiction of history. It’s more like a satirical interrogation. Actors play multiple roles and jump in and out of character, sometimes addressing the audience directly. It is post-colonial, post-modernist and has many quotable quotes that you can save on Post It notes.

Most of the action takes place during the last days of Birch in 1874. Some of the characters are based on real people but others are blatantly fictional. We know they are fictional because the characters helpfully tell us.

The idea of using composite or made-up characters to make us understand a historical era better is, of course, valid and good. This play also does something else: it invites us to reinterpret commonly held ideas and prejudices, including a surely crowd-pleasing one about comparative genitalia.

There’s a bit where someone cuts off not his genitalia but his middle finger. The digit then appears in a royal dream. It would appear than the play is also like a finger. A finger can do many things, not just tickle.

If Birch were such a bad guy, why did he want to free the slaves? Lest we forget, slavery was very much a part of Malay society then. How could a society that condoned such a barbaric practise claim the moral high ground? And were the noblemen who objected to him really concerned about customs and values, or were they just thinking of the taxes they wouldn’t be able to collect once his centralized system came into place? But on the other hand: did Birch’s piecemeal innovations cancel out the fact that he was part of a racist colonial machine?

Royalty played a big part in the machinations of that era. The choice of ruler was not something divinely ordained but born out of political negotiations, back-stabbing and blackmail. In this context, it is doubly amusing to read now even of liberal intellectuals who keep thirsting for the latest proclamations from this fundamentally undemocratic institution. What gives?

There are some deliberate comic anachronisms and uses of words that reflected the political scenario of 1994 (like “recalcitrant”) because the play is about an issue that continues to matter today: How do we ensure that those in power don’t simply get away with anything? (In an aside, the Federal government’s takeover of Sabah in the early 1990s is used as contemporary parallel. But the play script says that this can be adapted and updated to any suitable event).

It’s a subversive play in both form and content. Lest the audience be let off the hook, the ending takes place squarely in the present day, in a kind of existential capitalist hell, with the characters buying and selling shares. Which makes you wonder if we are any freer than we were back then. But lest we get all dour about it, the play seals its critique with a dance beat.

(Malay Mail, 20 August 2008)

Tuesday 19 August 2008

The Big Durian DVD

It returns this week, with the nice cover by Shahril Nizam!

The DVD can now be ordered HERE.

This is the trailer as edited by Azharr Rudin:

Saturday 16 August 2008

Interview avec moi

A few months ago I served on the jury for a film festival in France. I was interviewed by some journalists at the hotel lobby about (if I can recall) Malaysian short films, and the result is here.

What's discomforting is that the photo of me bears such an uncanny resemblance to the late Loloq (who was a great guy, by the way). What gives?

Wednesday 13 August 2008

Off to the censors it goes

My new movie Malaysian Gods will be sent to the Malaysian Film Censorship Board today, together with the requisite RM50 fee.

I hope there will be no problems! This is the synopsis:

On 20 September 1998, the recently-sacked Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim headed a massive anti-government demonstration in Kuala Lumpur. A few hours later, he was arrested at his home. Ten years later, an unnamed man walks along the same path that the demonstrators took. He reminisces about the past and notices the buildings and people around him. It starts to rain but he keeps on walking. Will he reach his destination?

Duration: 68 minutes

Budget: RM10,000

I wanted to return to the low-budget starkness of my 6horts. It is a very direct way to communicate but there is (I hope) fun to be had along the way.

The censors will get back to us by 28 August.

The year that shook the nation

FACE OFF: A Malaysian Reformasi Diary (1998-9) by Sabri Zain (BigO Books, 2000, 198 pages)

If you’re the type to follow the news (well, you must be, since you’re reading a newspaper) you might be experiencing a rush of déjà vu. That is, if you were alive and sentient during the sacking of Anwar Ibrahim almost exactly ten years ago.

You may choose to recall the events of the time by gathering your grandchildren around and regaling them with heart-warming stories, such as “The first time Grandpa heard the word sodomy mentioned on TV was…”

Or you can read this book. Face Off is a compilation by someone who was hitherto not known as a journalist. The word ‘blogger’ didn’t exist then either, but the Internet did, and it’s the Internet that made Sabri Zain’s name.

He was an ordinary Joe, with no party-political affiliations, who happened to be present during those anxious months. He would often post his reports on reformasi demonstrations and ceramah within hours of the events. I used to read them on the Sangkancil mailing-list, where the other stalwart was the late MGG Pillai.

Although the wonderful Pillai often indulged in conspiracy theories, Sabri’s was a more ground-level gaze. His very first posting, A Spark Is Lit, is an account of the massive demonstration in KL on 20 September 1998, just a few hours before Anwar got arrested. The article immediately got forwarded all over the place and was printed in the alternative print media.

The reason it was so widely read: People started to really distrust and even hate the TV and newspapers. Utusan Malaysia honcho (who would later become Information Minister) Zainuddin Maidin defended himself thus: “We’re biased. But we don’t tell lies.”

But it was Utusan Malaysia that accused all women at a demonstration of being prostitutes. And so it’s up to Sabri to wonder if the actual prostitutes were not the ones who wrote the report.

What distinguished Sabri from the many other commentators at the time was that he could write. Each article unfolds like a keenly observed narrative with suspense, pathos, and not occasional humour. He is particularly good at capturing the ground-breaking camaraderie and optimism of gathered crowds, when people of all stripes came together to express their disgust. When an all-Malay panel can convene at the Chinese Assembly Hall, you know the country’s in for an interesting time.

Nowadays, if we want to feel like ‘we were there’, most of us would resort to Youtube. Sabri could give you that rush purely with words, and this is what makes Face Off probably the finest example of Malaysian first-person reportage in book form.

This is not to say that Sabri was unbiased. Who was it that said, “Objectivity is a kind of ignorance?” He was fully behind the people who would start Parti Keadilan and does not apologise for it. But, compared to the system embodied by Zainuddin, he came across like a shining voice of reason. I am sure his tone – passionate but measured and witty – managed to convert quite a few to the cause.

Sabri has been living overseas for some years now. I don’t know if this has anything to do with the libel suit against him by a justly-forgotten personality of that era. But in his place there are many others who now bear witness, just not as consistently, eloquently or urgently.

His last article in the book takes place exactly a year after the first.. You can’t quite imagine that so much was packed into those 12 months; it’s like the nation is still reeling from it.

Reading Face Off now might make you sigh, because you miss the time when certain personalities existed more as icons than mere, fallible politicians. But you can’t stay pessimistic for long, because, as it emerges, the true heroes in this book are not the adored leaders but the ordinary people who demonstrated courage and resilience in the face of a massively entrenched, hegemonic system.

This book is currently out of print. But the good news is that all the articles in it can be found online, which is where they started. They form a valuable portrait of a time when Malaysians decided to not be so afraid.

(Malay Mail, 13 August 2008)

Tuesday 12 August 2008

Deleted scene #2

This cameo by film producer David Teo (the one on the left) was fun to do, fast to shoot, but also fell to the cutting-room floor!

It was to take place very early (after we see Suzana singing in the radio station).

By cutting out this scene, we dissolve straight from Suzana singing to Soraya singing to the old woman, which works much better.

Spoilers galore!

If you'd like the entire plot explained to you, read the positive review in today's Utusan Malaysia. (If the link has trouble loading, you can read it here).

But if you don't like spoilers, don't read it lah.

I personally don't mind spoilers all that much. I have seen quite a few films including murder mysteries and The Sixth Sense after the endings were blabbed out to me, and I still enjoyed them. If anything, I felt like I was watching the films for the second time and noticing little clues.

Monday 11 August 2008

The numbers

Susuk grossed RM865,000 in its first four days of release. Alhamdulillah.

It was the second most-watched film in Malaysia over the weekend, after The Mummy 3.

On its opening day (Thursday) it grossed RM145,000. We thought it would drop the next day, which happened to be the opening ceremony of the Olympics. But it instead increased to RM165,000. Saturday was much better: RM276,000.

We expected another drop the next day, because conventional wisdom would have it that more people watch films on Saturday compared to Sunday. But we were pleasantly surprised when Sunday brought in RM275,000, a drop-off of not even 0.5%.

This is a stronger opening than any of the past five Malaysian films to be released.

Not many people expected it to do this well, especially after the best-selling Malay newspaper Harian Metro titled its early review 'Tak Faham Jalan Cerita,' and another newspaper Kosmo accused it of being a sleazy exploitation flick – and made me out to be some kind of pimp. But the fact that it has consistently pulled people in shows that folks are not that confused or, erm, offended.

No, it won't break any box-office records, even by the standards of local films. But a least Grand Brilliance, which spent RM1.23 million on it, won't be too embarrassed. And it has generated quite a lot of discussion (some people really hate it!) which to me is even better.

So thanks :-)

Sunday 10 August 2008

Deleted scene #1

We had to cut out many scenes from the film because we didn't realise that a 97-page screenplay would end up being a first edit that was much longer than two hours.

This scene, a cameo by Jaclyn Victor, takes place right after Suzana lustily eats steak for lunch – and just before Soraya arrives backstage ... where she recognises the TV host Yasmin Yusoff. It would have been the film's only English-language scene.

More deleted scenes will follow!

Thursday 7 August 2008

Second essay received

It is by Andrew Ng, a world specialist in Gothic literature, and the title is "A Cultural History of the Pontianak Films in Malaysia." It is over 10,000 words long, with pictures, and might end up hogging 40 pages in the book :-)

Woo hoo!

I still have not been to Brazil, alas

But at least there's an article about me in Portuguese! This was on the occasion of my 6horts (2002) screening at a film festival there.

Wednesday 6 August 2008

The dark knight returns

DI BALIK MALAYSIA: Dari Majapahit ke Putrajaya by Farish A. Noor (ZI Publications, 2008, 226 pages)

SOME scholars believe that Homer (the Greek, not the Simpson) was actually several different people. I sometimes wonder the same about Farish A. Noor.

This is not to suggest that he’s schizophrenic, but I don’t see how anyone can be so prolific. Those of us who need to lie down with a wet towel over our foreheads after choosing just the right emoticon for an SMS can feel only awe at his vast energy and erudition.

Not a day seems to go by without him swooping down to correct a wrong. Batman has nifty gadgets inspired by S & M paraphernalia, but Farish has his arsenal of words and references. His crusade is (to paraphrase another superhero’s motto) for truth, justice and the Malaysian way.

Last week, we looked at his 840-page tome on PAS. Now let us celebrate his first Malay-language collection. True, most of the pieces are actually translated from his earlier articles in the books The Other Malaysia and From Majapahit to Putrajaya but the fact that they are now in the national language is significant.

(Equally significant is an essay here that argues that we don’t actually have a national language, in that there is no lingua franca that we can comfortably call our own. But I shall let you read that yourself).

It is apposite that this book is dedicated to the memory of Rustam A Sani as there is some batonpassing here. With all due respect, Rustam’s stature as a public intellectual was slightly compromised by his party allegiance (to PKR) later in his life. While Farish puts himself beyond the reach of many Malaysians because he writes mainly in English.

It is stark proof (as if any were needed) of the cowardice of the Malay-language media that his articles are not printed there but are instead translated for Sin Chew Jit Poh.

Although there is no such thing as a dumb language, a language risks being dumbed down if different ideas are not introduced into it. Just like Uthaya Sankar SB, Farish insists on the term Bahasa Malaysia because he sees the potential for the language to be truly inclusive.

The word “crossroads” is often used by Malaysian political pundits but Farish’s speciality as historian and social scientist is to look at the road not taken.

Specifically: How did the concept of ‘Malaysia’ get to be hijacked by greedy politicians who often seek support only by championing their own ethnic and communal interests? How did we get placed in neat little boxes and told to be wary of one another? Where are the voices (you can call them ‘the Other’ or ‘the subaltern’) excluded from the official narrative?

He argues that ‘race’ itself was a convenient colonial administrative tool that has been further exacerbated by the post-colonial elite. The 1970s were a particularly virulent time, because Umno and started engaging in a race to out- Muslim and out-Malay the other.

So now we have come to a system with a very bloated and expensive religious bureaucracy that seems to devote more time to skodeng (peeping tom) vigilantism than issues of greater national importance; and where we, the citizens, are constantly reminded of the superficial differences rather than deep commonalities between us.

These differences, once regulated and codified, then become so entrenched that we can’t imagine looking at ourselves and neighbours in any other way. It is this paralysing inertia that he wants us to break out of. Some of his prescriptions are surprising indeed: Read the second half of Hikayat Hang Tuah and figure out why certain aspects of that mythical hero never got acted out by M. Nasir.

Trawl the Net and you will find much hostility (often anonymous) to the ideals of progressive liberalism espoused by Farish. (Well, his type of sarcastic exasperation is sometimes very easy bait for hate-mail). I thus look forward to the discussions about this book.

Di Balik Malaysia is handsomely produced but the translation is a bit stiff; the sentences often still sound English. It should also have included some of the light-hearted articles such as the ones on Ning Baizura or Ibrahim Ali, two personalities who exist to give us cheer. But there is more to come, I am sure: the various ‘Malaysias’ are a gift that will keep on giving.

(Malay Mail, 7 August 2008)

Tuesday 5 August 2008

The second controversy?

This article seems to imply that Susuk received 8 nominations because I am on the jury of the same film festival.

Cis! Fitnah!

Full disclosure: I am indeed on the jury.

But for the categories of short films and documentaries.

And I can assure you that I did not have anything to do with the five finalists in both categories. For documentaries, they are: Making The Cut, The Woodsmiths, Kami Yang Disyaki, Restoring Merdeka and The Perak Man. And for shorts, they are: Hasrat, Tiffin, Burp, Eyefinger and Kopitiam Kurang Manis.

I had nothing to do with the feature-film jury (and don't even know who some of them are).


Sunday 3 August 2008

8 nominations

Susuk has received eight nominations for the upcoming Festival Filem Malaysia.

The nominees are:

Best Actor (Adlin Aman Ramlie)
Best Cinematography (Daven Raghavan)
Best Music Score (Hardesh Singh)
Best Production Design (Kek Ting Lam)
Best Sound Design (Add Audio)
Most Promising Actress (Diana Rafar)
Best Costume Design (Mohd Zaini Abdul Rahman)
Best Poster (yes!)

Unfortunately the film could not be nominated in 4 key categories: Story, Screenplay, Directing and Editing because the FFM rules state that the nominees have to be Malaysian citizens. My co-writer and co-director Naeim Ghalili is American, and our editor Zalee is Singaporean. Similarly, Sepi this year and Cinta last year could not be nominated for Best Director because Kabir Bhatia is Indian.

Oh well. Congratulations to all the nominees! The results will be announced Saturday night.