Wednesday 2 February 2011

Why are our Chinese movies more cheerful than our Malay movies?

OK, I am basing this only on the four movies that have been released so far in 2011. My favourite is this:

Great Day is a feel-good tale about the pleasure of family. Even if some of the younger people don't have as much time as they would like to spend with their elders, the movie does not condemn. It is a warm cinematic embrace of compassion. A particularly poignant moment had a little girl (unused to the Roman alphabet) mistaking the 'Alor Setar' sign for the 'Arau' one. It brings home the point that Malaysia is a land of overlapping cultural discourses; if we don't see the 'signs' we can relate to, it's up to us to create these 'signs'.

Funnier but also waaay schmaltzier, Homecoming is a Singapore-Malaysia collaboration that makes great use of the comic presence of Jack Neo (in drag) and Afdlin Shauki. There's much frantic hand-waving, toilet humour, and plot contrivance, but it posits that Singaporeans and Malaysians are part of a big family. Although (to comply with Singapore language restrictions) the Chinese dialogue is all in Mandarin, I am told that 'diversity' is still sneakily celebrated by having many different slang/dialect forms of Mandarin.

Khurafat shows that Syamsul Yusof can direct! There's a neat twist in the end, and the night scenes look great. But it's also unrelentingly gloomy, right down to its cynical, almost masochistic denouement. On one level, it's about the failure of Malay patriarchy: Shamsul in an early scene is shown 'leading' women in prayer, but in a later scene 'following' the women at a funeral procession. The traditional moral authority is reversed, but what comes in its place? It starts from lust and black magic, and the movie revels in recrimination: it's too late for regret.

Haq is similar to Khurafat in that it's also obsessed with guilt and sin. It moves at a more lugubrious pace, but what's dismaying about this movie which claims "the application and promotion of Islamic concepts" is the absence of redemptive hope: The 'bad' are simply born 'bad' and remain 'bad' and deserve to be killed. The scenes of luxury are well-depicted, but oddly funereal: Why aspire to success if your life becomes an empty shell? And in marked contrast to the two Chinese movies, family members (even when supposedly close) don't seem comfortable together.

The recent news that local films not primarily in the Malay language can now be classified as 'Malaysian movies' and receive the same valuable tax breaks is a good one. If these four films are any indication, watching only Malay movies can be seriously damaging to one's sense of cheer. Let's have a bit of life-affirming variety, before cinemas start giving out free razor blades with the popcorn.


Pet Shop Boys said...

agree. Why eh?

A Bookaholic said...

Thx for the post Amir! Can't wait to watch Homecoming! It's like on all of my friend's 'highly recommended' list! :))

dheep said...

I think it's unfair to give such statement based on a sample of 4 movies only.

Malay movies can be improved, true but doesn't mean they are all creepily sad. Before the horror trend, we had a steady supply of feel good movies.

Pisau Cukur, Papadam (both i watched in cinema) are excellent and heartwarming.

fadz said...

bro, Ice Kacang Puppy Love, Sanctuary, Love Conquers All, all gloomy ok!

Amir Muhammad said...

kah kah kah.

Naddy said...

the malay drama also has nightmarish elements like if you defy your parents orders you will face doom.

if you go out alone you will get mugged, raped and killed.

which fictionalizes all the cover stories of Metro.

TMBF said...

Well no, not all Malay films are dark and depressing. But those that aren't are insanely stupid "komedi masyarakat" from the likes of Razak Mohaideen and the Senario gang.

I think you have a point, in that whenever Malay filmmakers try to be "serious", they inevitably end up making something preachy and mean-spirited. Watch Bohsia - Jangan Pilih Jalan Hitam, if you can stomach it. That's a movie that creates the most unpleasant characters, then spends its entire running time making them suffer the worst of fates. Syamsul Yusof made it, by the way.

(Oh, and Ice Kacang Puppy Love wasn't gloomy at all.)

Amir Muhammad said...

Thank you for getting the point ;-)

I think I will watch all local films made this year. And at the end of every month I write about the films of each month as if they represented all local films ever made! It will be a dazzling experiment.

TMBF said...

Also, to answer your question: Because Malaysian Chinese aren't constantly subjected to religious guilt trips. ;)

(They are, however, occasionally subjected to cultural guilt trips. Homecoming is an example, as is the past 3-4 Petronas CNY ads.)

Amir Muhammad said...

A fascinating blog-post would be: The similarities between the cultural/familial guilt trips as portrayed in Malaysian Chinese films and American Jewish films. Go for it!

Ara's Darlings said...

what i hate in malay dramas :

1) watching uberly meek good ppl being bullied

2) marriage as something scary (cheating husbands, violent husbands, adulteries, moms-in-law interfering in sons/daughters marriage, moms-in-law practising black magic on daughters-in-law she hates)...directors, please.