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With the rules of censorship in Malaysia becoming increasingly inexplicable, it's no wonder that Malaysian filmmakers have plenty to say about it. An overview of the Malaysian shorts and Amir Muhammed's needlessly controversial "The Last Communist" at VC FilmFest 2006.
The VC FilmFest's program of Malaysian filmmaking provided a who's who of the core group of independent filmmakers who have been making waves with their prolific output on the local and international festival scenes in the past five to six years. Known for their collaboration on each other's projects, filmmakers such as Amir Muhammad, James Lee, Tan Chui Mui and Woo Ming Jin, among others, often appear in the credits of each other's films -- and the batch of digital short films curated by Muhammad himself was no exception. Muhammad was in attendance to present the nine short films alongside the screening of his own work, the feature-length documentary The Last Communist. Despite only a smattering of spectators to take in such a digital feast, those who were there caught glimpses of the spectrum of issues that current independent Malaysian filmmaking tackled, from extreme violence to the heartbreaking anatomy of a relationship, to the tudung.
The tudung is the head scarf worn by Muslim women in Malaysia, and the first five digital shorts chosen by Muhammad were entries to the 2005-2006 "Tudung" short film competition. For Muslims and non-Muslims alike, the shorts presented an array of opinions and perspectives offered by men and women on the politics (purposes) of wearing or not wearing the tudung in the form of a straightforward documentary (Free Hair), a vintage Malay musical (Sweetheart/Tudung Hati Buah Saji), a visual/semantic metaphor (Tudung) and a narrative (Tuesday be my Friend). Chong Chan Fui's Tuesday be my Friend, the winner of the "Tudung" competition, proposes the scenario of a young Chinese girl who devotes her Tuesdays to collecting and admiring her secret cache of tudungs and decorating her dolls with them instead of hanging out with her friends. As the camera pans affectionately across the multi-coloured head scarves and the dolls in close-up, Chong provides a quiet approach to the issue of cultural/religious differences in Malaysia between the ethnic Chinese and Malay Muslims and points to a liberating aspect in wearing the tudung: in the end, the Chinese girl finally realises her desire and dons a tudung, smiling at her striking image in the mirror.
The diversity of the images of Malaysians in front of the digital/cinematic mirror is equally striking because rather than put forth a uniform notion of Malay-ness, they examine and explore the different cultural, visual and discursive forms and spaces in which Malaysia -- and more specifically, Kuala Lumpur -- from which a majority, if not all, of these filmmakers hail and work. Aaron Chung's Wicked is an over-the-top visual essay on the oft-made conclusion that television viewing spawns violent behaviour. He leaves no room for ambiguity (after all, we're talking about a three-minute short) in the time it takes the camera to go from a woman watching television to a dislocated eyeball hanging on the furniture. The answer to the question "Does TV cause violence?" lies in the trajectory.
On a different note, in Woo Ming Jin's poetically titled It's Possible your Heart Cannot Be Broken, a young woman's loneliness in the midst of Kuala Lumpur's metropolitan sprawl triggers a tenuous relationship with a naïve salesman who has a tendency to please and over-emote. Woo alternates images of the development and doom of the relationship in all its uncomfortable nakedness with interviews with the man and woman about the relationship and each other in both a comical and tragic way. As the film that provoked the most positive reception from most of the spectators present at the screening, Muhammad's comment afterwards that the actors/filmmakers thought the project odd and even ridiculous made Woo's film even more interesting, especially in the sense that its style and subject was not wholly unfamiliar to American audiences. The film is driven by the honest and charismatic performances of Tan Chui Mui and Liew Seng Tat, both of whom are active filmmakers, proving that the talent exists both in front of and behind the camera.
In fact, one runs against the thread of collaboration time and again throughout the shorts: Tan Chui Mui, said to be the most prolific woman filmmaker, organiser, collaborator and actress in Kuala Lumpur, appears in another short film in the program, James Lee's Sometimes Love is Beautiful; Liew Seng Tat is co-director of Tudung; Lee was the cinematographer for Azharr Rudin's Majidee, and Muhammad supplied the English translation/subtitles. The latter film is an interesting piece as it is a 15 minute one-take through the sidewalks of Kuala Lumpur: the camera follows a man walking from the Pudu Raya station to the Central Market, only to be joined by a stranger who engages him in a conversation as circuitous as the route they take. They find out that they come from the same region and with this as his theme, the stranger recounts his current difficult situation to the young man and elicits his generosity in the form of train fare. The two men eventually separate to continue their respective lives, leaving each other, as well as the spectator, in a semi-trance of wonder at what just happened. Was it a scam or the stranger sincere? Majidee is an example of the ways in which digital/media and the dynamism of the short film interrogate spaces down to their most banal and commonplace, transforming the banal and commonplace into something enigmatic and intangible. During the one-take, the path from Pudu Raya station to Central Market is sifted from its ordinariness almost to the point of attaining a Benjaminian "profane illumination." Interestingly, Rudin wanted initially to shoot the one-take at night and produced a "night" version as well, but decided upon the "day" version instead. One can imagine an Impressionist-like series of Majidee premised on the particular degree of light/darkness at a given moment, each of which would produce a one-take with its own set of sounds, encounters, dialogues and sights distinct from the others. Of course, these nine short films provide just that, in either one or multiple cuts, and represent not just the short film form but the filmmakers' chameleon-like ways as they move from digital to film, short- to feature-length, behind the camera to in front of the camera or vice versa, and from documentary to musical or -- as in Muhammad's The Last Communist -- combinining the two genres.
Have we seen the last of the 'communist'?
The theme of collaboration continues as Rudin is the editor of Amir Muhammad's The Last Communist. Unfortunately, the Home Affairs Ministry cannot be included in such a collaboration. Muhammad had the displeasure of sharing with the audience before the screening of his documentary that the Ministry banned it due to the lobbying of the ultra-conservative newspaper, Berita Harian. The censors had initially approved The Last Communist without any cuts, which would have made it the first locally produced documentary to be distributed/screened in Malaysia. Despite the fact that the "last communist" in question, Chin Peng, does not make one sole appearance in the documentary, the lobbying won over the censors to deem it subversive enough to be banned -- the effect of which reached as far as the funding for the 2nd annual Southeast Asian Cinemas conference to take place this December. Quite a sad turn of events concerning a film whose objective is to counter "master narratives" of post-colonial Malaysia (especially given the fact that no one from the Berita Harian newspaper had even seen the documentary before declaring it offensive). However, its countering of a narrative imperialism as projected by UMNO (United Malays National Organization) emerges even more strongly in the overtly politicised context in which it now finds itself -- and to boot, publicity that has more Malaysians clamouring to see the documentary. If the lobbyists had not seen the documentary, what were the grounds upon which the censors agreed to retract their initial approval of the film?
Answers to such a question, unlike the one about TV causing violence as found in Chung's short film Wicked, go beyond the actual space of Muhammad's film. Certainly the film's images and dialogues are provoking, but in the way they invoke a multitude of Malaysian perspectives that, at times, have no connection to Chin's biography outside of the city/town in question where Chin had lived, studied or hid. Again, Muhammad decided not to include Chin in the film or use archival footage of the time of Chin's boyhood or when he became colonial Britain's public enemy number one, in order to emphasise the continuity of Chin's experiences as a laudatory-turned-"dangerous" communist to the politics of present-day Malaysia. On the one hand, the film does recount Chin's life: his political formation, his leadership in the Communist Party of Malaya (CPM), his fight against the Japanese during the Second World War and afterwards, for Malaysian independence from Britain, his exile in southern Thailand. Most surprising of all in viewing The Last Communist was the amount of reading required by the timelined events in Chin's life (outside of the subtitles) as captions, sometimes humourous, appear like a Pop Art Power Point presentation with images of the relevant sites in the background. On the other hand, the interviews conducted with people who had/have no connection to Chin outside of living or working in places such as Perak or Sitiawan where he had taken residence of some sort, contest the limited spacing and temporality of a biography as a "closed" and chronological story, which brings a bicycle store owner, a pomelo seller, and former Chinese communists alike in front of the camera. What's more, the musical interludes performed and sung by Zalila Lee comment quite seriously on the rhetoric of Malaysian patriotism and the rationale for identification cards that springs directly from CPM's activities as the scapegoat. With each new interlude, the comical gives way to disturbing.
Admittedly, The Last Communist is not an outstanding film; its diffuse examination of Chin's life recalls Muhammed's earlier documentary, The Big Durian, on racial tensions surrounding the 1987 incident of a Malay army private who ran amok with an M-16 in a Chinese neighbourhood, but which deals more effectively and animatedly with breaking open official discourses on a political event or figure that does not rely on the past as something separate from the present, all the while remaining accessible to non-Malaysian spectators. The Last Communist reinforces the continuity of the past in the present -- which dictated Muhammad's decision not to use archival footage since he feels that it produces a feeling of safety, as if separate and irrelevant to the present -- but requires much more effort from the (non-Malaysian) spectator to maintain its accessibility as it takes on the historical trajectories of Malaysian politics from colonial to post-colonial times and the present through indirect conversations. Instead of just asking, "Who was/is Chin Peng?" the film opens itself to ask other questions that are just as equally pertinent to Malaysian histories and cultures. This alone makes it worth seeing.
Date Posted: 5/25/2006