Welcome to Malaysia! – 10 Canonised Contemporary Malaysian Movies for Foreigners

maya-karinSome time ago, someone left a comment on one of the posts here, asking me to give a few recommendations of films to watch for those unfamiliar with Malaysian cinema. I spent some time thinking about it, and eventually did get back to the person personally, but I figured since I spent a fair amount of time on it, it might be fun to share with you what I wrote.

I’ve been thinking about this for a while, wondering not only who to recommend in terms of Malaysian films and filmmakers who are worth watching out for, but also how those outside of the country would be able to get their hands on them (legally). There is still the matter of subtitles, should less legal means be turned to; it’ll be pointless for me to put in a good word for ‘Sepet’ without others understanding a word (or three) of it.

Then I thought, “Shut up, Fikri, just write.” And so I did.

I’ve limited it to ten films, and they’re contemporary in the sense that…well, these are the ones made during my lifetime, and reflects not only my own personal tastes, but also offers a glimpse of Malaysiana as I know it.

John Woo's 'A Better Tomorrow' was just too captivating...
John Woo’s ‘A Better Tomorrow’ was just too captivating…

‘Sepet’, ‘Gubra’ and ‘Mukhsin’
All the above are part of the same trilogy, telling simple, yet incredibly sweet and sentimental stories. ‘Sepet’ in particular caused plenty of debate in Malaysia, because its subject matter (a Malay girl and Chinese guy falling in love with each other) is still considered taboo to many people interested in protecting and maintaining pure racial lineages. It is a lot of rubbish, since most Malaysians are mixed somewhere along the line to begin with, but enough of socio-political reflections for now. ‘Gubra’ also invoked much bluster, including as it did a scene which had an imam touching a dog. I do not include ‘Mukhsin’ in these controversies, though, because it is more of a ‘first love’ kind of story, and it was very nice. The style is also very minimal, which makes for easy viewing, and all are by Yasmin Ahmad, who also made…

‘Muallaf’ (‘The Convert’)
As you can see from the translation of the title, it touches on religious issues, though as I have written on my blog, no one is actually converted from one religion to another. Don’t worry, that’s not a spoiler, merely more of an assessment of what the movie is. The whole religion thing is the cover, but at the core is a film that might want to make you call up your mother and tell her that you love her, just because you can. As evidenced by the director’s jibe, I made a mistake in my review of it. But she called me ‘sayang’, so that’s OK. 🙂

The marketing team behind the soya bean machine is all smiles.
The marketing team behind the soya bean machine is all smiles.

‘Sell Out!’
The best Malaysian film I saw last year, and one that has recently been released in Malaysia after doing its successful round on the festival circuit. Unfortunately, it didn’t quite set the box office on fire, which was extremely disappointing for me. If ever there is a film that puts a mirror up to Malaysia in a comedic way, this is it. It’s actually pretty much an unrequited love story, but at the same time, it’s a little more complicated than that. It’s made by Yeo Joon Han, who’s quite the newcomer on the scene, actually. Don’t let that put you off; I’ve seen almost all of his works (I’m tempted to say all, including the shorts, but I might have missed a few), and they are all incredibly funny. It will really push your buttons if you understand the Malaysian context.

‘Budak Kelantan’
A low-budget film I saw recently in Malaysia. Two childhood friends meet up again after having been apart for so long, and they see how different they have become. It flopped in the cinemas (what’s with all these films flopping?), but don’t let that fool you. The direction is incredibly clear, and there are conflicts between social and moral values, religious piety, and love, among others, all very well characterised by the two lead actors. In the review, I wrote that it is a strong film, “one that deserves to be described not just as a very good Malay/Malaysian film, but as a very good film worth watching.”

‘Dari Jemapoh Ke Manchester’
A bit of a classic. A guy from the rural area wants to go to Manchester to meet his idol, George Best, and watch them play. As you do, they borrowed a car, and set off on their journey without even a hint of planning (they don’t even know where Manchester is). It’s not incredibly technically competent, but it’s got a lot of heart, and it’s easy to like because of it. Dreamy, too. I first saw this on a VCD my father bought, and was attracted by the long list of film festivals it has entered. I suppose the poster designers didn’t have those leafy little logos of film festivals. Good thing, too…it would have run out of space, for sure. That was perhaps my first exposure to such a VCD cover.

Before Najib, there was the Puteri...
Before Najib, there was the Puteri…

‘Puteri Gunung Ledang’
Blockbuster based on one of the local legends from Malaysian history. Most expensive Malaysian film ever. It’s actually not that great as the budget might suggest (RM16 million to RM20 million, depending on who’s doing the quoting; the average Malaysian commercial film costs a couple of million ringgits, tops), though it is very well made, and I thought I might as well recommend something different. Just to show that we can.

A horror movie, but one that stands out because: 1) it is incredibly vicious, and 2) it actually is rather scary for me, compared to a lot of other, less scary Malaysian horror films. The director, James Lee, has made plenty of indie films worth checking out as well. I wrote about it in a preview here, and I did end up watching it, but by the end my schedule cleared enough, I just couldn’t find the inspiration to write a review for it. Needless to say, it is what Malaysians would say ‘ganas giler’, which can be loosely translated as “Oh dear God, there’s a lot of blood! No, it’s coming at me! Go away! NOOOOOOOO!”

The head lice pandemic induced a lot of panic.
The head lice pandemic induced a lot of panic.

‘Flower in the Pocket’
A low budget indie film about two boys who’s constantly left to their own devices pretty much most of the time. A fun little film that proved to be a big hit with the audiences in Malaysia as well. “The most important thing for me,” Fazil said, ” about this film is not what the story is trying to tell, but how it is able to provide an insight into the lives of the poor.” That’s coming from a man whose movie sensitivities means he would usually pick “a car getting flipped over a woman preparing for her sister’s wedding.” And the producers couldn’t be that poor afterwards: it did very well on the international festival circuit. “Trophy in his pocket, haha,” was how one fellow Malaysian filmmaker so eloquently put it during an eye-opening dinner session.

Top five people who...err, are not on this list.
Top five people who…err, are not on this list.

Hope that helps to kick start an interest in Malaysian films. Of course, there are other films well worth watching. This list, after all, is made up only from the films I have actually seen. I limited myself to ten because otherwise I’d be here all night. There’s a lot more where that’s coming from; I haven’t included any of Amir Muhammad’s films. Or Tan Chui Mui’s. Or even Ho Yuhang’s.

Sorry guys. Maybe next time? 🙂

Fikri hates Googling for pictures of Malaysian cinema; there aren’t many decent generic ones. So you’ll just have to settle for the really-very-lovely Maya Karin instead.

Featured image credit: iPoll


3 thoughts on “Welcome to Malaysia! – 10 Canonised Contemporary Malaysian Movies for Foreigners

  1. hehe thanks I was looking everywhere for good Malaysian films took a while to find this site but again thanks for the suggestions, will try and watch all of these.

  2. Don’t forget Gadoh, it’s a good Malaysia movie as well. It potrays the reality school / gangsterism in Malaysian quite real as it can be. Sadly it was banned from the cinema.

    1. At the time of writing, I had not seen Gadoh. Having said that, the film is readily and legally available online and in selected outlets, like Silverfish Books.

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