12 Malay Movies

*by Norman Yusoff.

While Amir Muhammad’s book ‘120 Malay Movies‘ covers selected Malay films from 1948 to 1972, I can only offer a trifling, derivative write-up on 12 Malay films (chosen at random) of the 1980s. Why 1980s? It is the decade in which I managed to watch ALL Malay movies that were released. From Raja Ismail’s stale, unwitty satire ‘Aku Yang Berhormat’ (1983) to the overly-hyped military aviation drama produced by Julie Dahlan, ‘Wira Angkasa’ (1987). You name it; I must have seen it.

‘Abang’ / ‘Big Brother’ (1981, Rahim Razali). Rahim Razali, Noorkumalasari, Ahmad Yatim, Ahmad Tarmimi Serigar, Fauziah Ahmad Daud, S. Romainoor
I am less interested in the reflective perspectives offered by scholars and critics in terms of the film’s critique of the nouveau-riche Malays of the NEP (New Economic Policy) era. The film is about homecoming. After being abroad for many years, Fuad Din finally returns home to ameliorate his interactions with his Creator (God), other human beings, and nature. The last few scenes when Fuad returns to his family’s kampong as to reclaim his roots – Fuad’s intimate affair with nature, in particular – can be read as his attempts to sanctify his status as the viceregent of God on Earth. What I love most about this film is Rahim’s ‘theatrical’ approach (criticised by many, though), ranging from his minimally-edited visuals to stylised performances (replete with heightened, exaggerated acting styles, and fiery rhetorical dialogues). ‘Abang’ features some of the country’s best actors who exude sheer charisma and are a savoury pleasure to watch.

‘Anita Dunia Ajaib’ / ‘Anita in Wonderland’ (1981, H. M. Said). Hail Amir, Asmah Hamid, Aznah Hamid, Norizan, ASP Roslan Ahmad, Haji Arshad
A nouveau-riche married couple’s wish to have a baby is fulfilled when their newly-hired, mysterious maid takes them to an ominous cave. During the childbirth, a series of fatalistic incidents occur, with the baby being abducted by the maid. Besieged by the police whilst trying to escape, the maid drastically metamorphoses herself into a futuristic costume a la Flash Gordon, ascending to the sky with the baby, approaching her male partner – who declares that they come from outer space. Whilst many things are left unanswered, the film ends with a caption, hinting at a sequel: Tunggu ketibaan ‘ANITA 2’ (Wait for the arrival of ‘ANITA 2’). Heralded as Malaysia’s first sci-fi, the film immensely suffers from its meandering script (the first half of the film revolves around the husband desperately looking for a loan to start his movie business). ‘Anita Dunia Ajaib’ is such an epitome of grade-B aesthetics – a half-baked, schlocky horror that disguises itself as a sci-fi.

‘Bila Hati Telah Retak’ / ‘When the Heart Breaks’ (1983, Rahman B.). Rubiah Suparman, Rokiah Shafie, Ismail Din, Abu Bakar Omar, A. Rahman Aminuddin, Hasnah Ibrahim
A divorced government-trained nurse Rohana is sent to serve in a village where traditional healthcare is still being practised. Rohana becomes the envy of Mak Lijah – a traditional midwife whose popularity is on the wane among kampong folks – who goes all out to slander her. At times, the film almost veers into cloyingly sentimental territory, especially with its lachrymose protagonist, and the accompaniment of its pulpy, mushy theme song replicative of traditional Malay tunes (beautifully and mellowly rendered by our legendary songbird – the late Saloma). But, the film is saturated with feminist undertones, nevertheless. The finale which shows Rohana rejecting her former philandering husband’s wish for reconciliation signifies her disassociation with the proverbial rice crust. Albeit propagandic (especially highlighting the government’s earnest intention in developing public healthcare in rural areas), Bila Hati Telah Retak is certainly the best melodrama produced by Filem Negara Malaysia in the 80s (compared to Dayang Suhana, Gelombang, Ke Medan Jaya and Sindrom: Mana Anakku).

‘Cikgu Sayang’ / ‘Dearest Teacher’ (1983, Z. Lokman). Suhana Yahya, Mokhtaruddin, Rose Iskandar, Rokiah Shafie, Ahmad Merbawi, Norehan Yaacob, M. Shahdan
Idayu, an urban teacher arrives at a secluded, remote island called Pulau Dinawan to serve at a school teaching a bunch of illiterate adults. Funny things happen in the classroom as the students are incorrigibly ignorant; eventually, only a few manage to see the ‘light at the end of the tunnel.’ Nonetheless, such good premise, with its gist recalling ‘Plato’s cave,’ gets bogged down by the lame, hackneyed romantic plot between Idayu and one of her students, a shepherd with rough-hewn machismo, as well as Z. Lokman’s shoddy filmmaking. The narrative also deals with sexual repression, as many of Idayu’s male students appear as Peeping Tom (voyeur); yes, Idayu’s sultriness (particularly seen in a swimsuit on the beach) throws the whole island into moral disarray. However, their sexual perversity is rather punished, as manifest in the form of ‘male castration;’ one of her students experiences an ‘accidental circumcision’ during a fight. Inexplicably, Z. Lokman’s fixation with ‘male castration’ can be witnessed in his other works, the feminist-inflected sexual melodrama ‘Jauh di Sudut Hati’ (1984), the inter-ethnic romantic comedy, ‘Minah Manja’ (1984), and the semi-road movie-comedy ‘Bas Konduktor’ (1986).

‘Dendam Dari Pusara’ / ‘Revenge from the Cemetery’ (1983, Ahmad Mahmud). Ahmad Mahmud, Mariani, Nora Shamsuddin, Rashidah Jaafar, Hilal Azman, Ahmad Merbawi
Dollah, an ex-prisoner is haunted by his dreaded past, as he invented a love potion by doing incantations over the oil taken from a female corpse’s chin. Dollah is ostracised by the villagers, and later accused of impregnating his stepdaughter which has the whole kampong ablaze with gossip. Indeed, the film is a fascinating study of repression in regard to Malay-Muslim sexuality – an underlying theme that percolates throughout; evidently, many characters in the village appear as Peeping Tom, too. So, you can expect the recurrent deployment of POV shots, albeit not in a Hitchcockian sense. Whilst not featuring any monstrous figures, ‘Dendam Dari Pusara’ manages to serve a few chills which should provide less-sophisticated horror fans a cheap scare or two. Ahmad Mahmud’s thematic preoccupations with sexuality, repression and voyeurism are evident in his subsequent works such as May 13 aka ‘Korban Hari Raya’ (1984) and ‘Komplot’ (1985).

‘Jasmin 2’ (1987, Kamarul Arifin). Noraini Jane, Johari Zain, Anton Samuri, Umaiyah Haji Musa, Valerie Al-Bakri, Mustapha Maarof
Kamarul Ariffin’s directorial debut which serves as a sequel to Jamil Sulong’s Nadrah-inspired ‘Jasmin’ (1984). Jasmin, brought back by her biological mother, Mrs Brown to England, now returns to Malaysia after 15 years. Whilst her romance with an Indonesian doctor, Budi is about to blossom, Jasmin eventually meets her former husband, Johar whom she believes is dead – is now married to a Muslim Thai girl. Kamarul infuses the film with bourgeois sophistication, not to mention its ‘international’ appeal. I still remember few scenes that take place in the UK, for instance, feature largely bohemian-looking British characters (further contributing to the film’s ‘international’ look). However, ‘Jasmin 2’ truly lacks the agility and energy of its predecessor (Jasmin) due to Kamarul’s banal and sophomoric treatment, particularly in terms of its soapy narrative trajectory. However, the film’s poster on which the figure of the blonde Noraini Jane is emblazoned looks classy, elegant and ‘international.’

‘Kami’ (1982, Patrick Yeoh). Sudirman, Zul Zamanhuri, Osman Zailani, Ho Kwee Leng, Ibrahim Din, Azmi Mohamad
Tookoo, a runaway teenager seeks shelter in an abandoned, dilapidated building in Kuala Lumpur. He later forms an unlikely friendship with a homeless young boy named Din. The film has some of the virtues of an Italian neo-realist work. However, it still oscillates between its neo-realist sensibilities and melodramatic modes (yes, the inclusion of several heart-rending pop songs such as Sudirman’s ‘Pelangi Petang’ does contribute to the film’s sloppy sentimentality). First-time director Patrick Yeoh has crafted a gentle, poignant parable of camaraderie, survival and dream between two homeless individuals struggling in the concrete jungle of the city. Kami was underrated, and received lukewarm response upon its release, perhaps due to its grittily realist approach, refusing itself from being another effort in the glut of ‘Malay melodramas’ in the 80s.

‘Kolej 56’ / ‘College 56’ (1988, Ahmad Fauzee). Ahmad Fauzee, Salwa Abdul Rahman, Shah Rezza, Erma Fatima, Ariff S. Shamsuddin, Sulaiman Jasin, Nor Albaniah
With ‘Kolej 56’, Ahmad Fauzee revives the bona-fide musical genre after a decade long hiatus (with the last one being Jamil Sulong’s ‘Cinta dan Lagu’, produced in 1976). However, the basic premise of ‘Kolej 56’, to be honest, is more or less similar to that of ‘Grease’. It follows a group of students at an exclusively elite school, Putra College, from their enrollment to graduation. The film is made in the manner of – whilst paying homage to – the old Malay films of the golden era, while including many a cameo from stars of the golden era of Malay cinema (such as S. Shamsudin, Yusof Latiff, Kemat Hassan, Hasyimah Yon, Omar Suwita, etc.). The period details are lovingly rendered, although the film pays less attention to substantial storytelling. What could have been a viscerally entertaining musical is hampered by the transient songs (mostly rock-n-roll-flavoured tunes) that lack pulsating vigour, as well as its lackadaisical musical sequences which would only remind us of RTM’s ‘Mekar Sejambak’.

‘Mawar Merah’ / ‘Red Rose’ (1987, Rosnani Jamil). Raja Ema, Mustafa Nor, Razis Ismail, Noraini Hashim, Zu Ghairi, Fauziah Nawi
This forbidden love story has an underpinning affinity with Arthur Miller’s play, ‘A View from the Bridge’. What mesmerises me is the terrific acting by the late Mustafa Nor. He is in such a perfect role playing Sufian, a sophisticated KL yuppie who accidentally falls in love with his pretty teenage niece from Jakarta, Kartika. Mustafa endows the character Sufian with melancholy pensiveness and brooding intensity (when I was young I truly admired Mustafa’s performances in a handful of TV shows such as ‘Opah’, ‘Maria’ and ‘Rumah Kecil Tiang Seribu’). The film’s charm is also augmented by Raja Ema’s nifty performance, who evinces youth impetuousness in the character Kartika, replete with her seemingly convincing, impeccable Indonesian accent. When Sufian and Kartika have to deny and suppress their feelings towards each other, both characters create almost unbearable tension and joy. Unfortunately, the film is marred by Rosnani’s formulaic, Bollywood-like approach including the incorporation of singing-and-dancing scenes, as well as the presence of several newcomers with stilted acting.

‘Pertentangan’ / ‘Conflict’ (1983, Salleh Ghani). Rubiah Suparman, Mokhtaruddin, Fadillah Wanda, Yusof Latif, Raja Ismail, Rahim Jelani
Zabidi, a secular, morally-decadent yuppie divorces her hijab-clad, pious wife, Zainab. Zabidi is jailed after committing a murder. After being released, he repents, turning over a new leaf. Zabidi, Zainab and his son search for another son left under the care of Zabidi’s employer, OKB. To their utter shock, their son has been brought up as a Christian (Prior, Zabidi had no clue that OKB was a Christian). In the non-Machiavellian climactic scene, Zabidi bluntly says to OKB: “Aku kira kau orang Melayu” (“I thought you’re Malay”); OKB hostilely replies, replete with anti-Semitic analogy, perhaps in one of the most powerful lines in Malay movies ever: “Kalau kepada Israel kau serahkan anak kau, Israel-lah jadinya! (“If you give your child to the Israeli, he will of course end up being Israeli”). The film, whilst proselytising us about Islam, reminds us about the encroachment of the ‘enemy of Islam’ – with their nefarious machinations – that can appear in the form of our modern capitalist employer.

‘Ranjau Sepanjang Jalan’ / ‘No Harvest but a Thorn’ (1983, Jamil Sulong). Sarimah, Ahmad Mahmud, M. Jamil, Puteri Salbiah, Marlia Musa, Melissa Saila
Adapted from Shahnon Ahmad’s acclaimed novel, the film concerns a poor farming family – Lahuma, his wife Jeha, and seven daughters ploughing through their hardscrabble life, further assailed by a chain of catastrophic incidents. The ensemble cast creates characterisations that inexorably draw us into the urgencies of their harrowed lives, in spite of the film’s predisposition to be Sarimah-ised ‘star’ vehicle, and corny melodrama. Panned by many critics on the ground that the cinematic version hardly retains the essence of the literary text (but, why on earth they wanted to appraise the film from literary perspective?), ‘Ranjau Sepanjang Jalan’ went on to inspire a Cambodian-French production, ‘Rice People’ / ‘Neak Srey’ (1994, directed by Cambodian director Rithy Panh) where the story is transposed to a rural Cambodian landscape during the post-Khmer Rouge era.

‘Rozana Cinta ’87’ / ‘Rozana Love ’87’ (1987, Nasir Jani). Helmi Hussaini Ali, Bibiana Loyola Lee, Erma Fatima, Kamarool Yusof, Pyan Habib, Izzaidah Khairan
Nasir Jani’s angry, entertaining and provocative teen love story that aroused controversy upon its release due to its homoerotic depiction between two female characters. This musically-oriented film focuses upon a romantic relationship between Din and Rozana. Complications arise when Rozana’s former schoolmate, Nomi is attracted to Rozana. The film offers a radical departure from other local teen-romantic flicks of the time (such as Azura and Gila-Gila Remaja), by representing teenagers who are artsy-fartsy, critical and anti-establishment. Stylistically, the film at times has that raw, experimental look that pretty much resembles works of, say, USC or NYU film school students. However, the scene in which the male protagonist in his bedroom is listening to a religious harangue on homosexuality on the radio, appears a tad contrived and didactic. My favourite scene entails Pyan Habib’s poetry recital at the Central Market, KL, where he suddenly drops some of our politician’s names (such as Samy Vellu).

*Written by Norman Yusoff, and republished with permission from the author. You can read our review of ‘120 Malay Movies’ here.

Featured image credit: Fusion Magazine

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