A Spicier Life – Ruminations On Mainstream Malaysian Chinese Films

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An excerpt from an article written in the middle of 2012, this is Fikri Jermadi‘s take on the reception of Malaysian Chinese films at that time. 

The title of this particular article takes its cue from the adage of “variety being the spice of life.” Variety is also the title of a popular film journal, which may make it somewhat relevant to this particular article, but within this context, I wish to focus more of our attention towards the rise of Malaysian Chinese films at the local box office.

Many such articles dealing with the cultural industries of Malaysia cannot fail to include the complex and sophisticated range of influences available within the country itself. I do not wish to tread upon trodden ground, but it is worth mentioning Malaysia’s viewing patterns amongst its audiences. Malaysia’s film industry, like many other areas, is an area where constant negotiations between its peoples are carried out. Within the onslaught of films from without Malaysia, local films have struggled for many years to make things stick.

Largely ignored by many as a space in which non-Malay cultural expressions could be made, ears were perked from the tail end of 2006, when the film ‘Cicakman’ started to post big numbers. It eventually made enough to break a long-standing record, besting the RM6 million took in by the film ‘Sembilu’ way back when in 1994, with RM6.7 million (inclusive of its receipts in Singapore as well).

Your friendly neighbourhood cicak.
Your friendly neighbourhood cicak.

What made it even more interesting was the release of yet another film within the same cycle, ‘Jangan Pandang Belakang’, whose final box office tally took in more money in Malaysia than ‘Cicakman’ did. This is in an industry where the RM3 million is the mark of success, while few films crosses the RM4 million mark. Since then, a string of other films collected similar figures, while 2011 saw two films, ‘KL Gangster’ and ‘Ombak Rindu’, officially break the RM10 million barrier for the first time ever.

Nevertheless, the perception remains that commercial Malaysian cinema is still very much the playing field of the Malays, a local hegemony best left to the natives as Malaysians of Chinese origins look further afield to places such as Korea, Japan, Hong Kong and of course China, amongst others, for their own cultural fulfillment. This extends towards the extension of practical careers, with the likes of Lee Sin-Jie, Christopher Lee, Michelle Yeoh, Viven Yeo and Tsai Ming Liang who left and found success, fame and fortune beyond these borders.

This could very well be termed as a form of transnational cultural appreciation and practice, where the Chinese population of Malaysia consistently consume cultural products made by others who are of similar ilk, but not native to their homeland. Indeed, as Zakir Hossain Raju points out in his research, the Chinese-language films of Tan Chui Mui and James Lee have more in common with those by Tsai Ming-liang and Wong Kar-wai than they do with Malay-language cinema. There is a form of ‘cultural oppression’ being felt here, as many felt the space to reflect and reconfigure their race and culture is being denied.

"And for my next trick...more Eyra Rahman films!"
“And for my next trick…more Eyra Rahman films!”

That, of course, betrays the fact that there is a long and fine tradition of Chinese people of Malaysian origins working in the film industry. From the involvement of the Shaw Brothers all the way through to the rise of the independents such as Ho Yuhang and the aforementioned Tan Chui Mui and James Lee (who have crossed the divide between independent and commercial mainstream cinema more successfully than most), the lack of Malaysian-Chinese films does not reflect accurately the demographic of personnel working behind the scenes; the director of the most expensive Malay film, ‘Puteri Gunung Ledang’, to date is a Malaysian-Chinese, Saw Teong Hin, while one of the consistently profitable producers of contemporary Malaysian cinema is David Teo.

It is an interesting chasm to note, because within Malaysia, the Chinese diaspora is considered to be the most economically powerful, and thus perhaps more predisposed towards the spending of money on entertainment. While that may be a bold statement to make, I do not believe it to be untrue, and believe that the number of Malaysian Chinese watching local movies does not reflect their actual involvement.

Until 2010.

This movie is a cause for celebration. Hence...Woohoo!
This movie is a cause for celebration. Hence…Woohoo!

That was the year in which two Malaysian-made Chinese-languaged films were made and released to wide critical and box office acclaim. The first was ‘Woohoo!’, following a traditional form of novice performers training to perform the dragon dance, Woohoo. Though reports on the final box office tally varies, it is safe to say that the film made over RM4 million in Malaysia alone.

The second, ‘Ice Kacang Puppy Love’, casts a nostalgic look back into the past, dealing with the first love of a young protagonist. Set in Ipoh and Penang, the film hit roughly the same mark as ‘Woohoo!’, with over RM3.5 million in Malaysia, but its subsequent release in China, Hong Kong and Taiwan netted it nearly RM800,000, finalising a total of just over RM4.3 million.

If 2010 gave us a taste of the reception for these films, then 2011 proved to be a breakthrough year, with the release of four very different films. ‘Great Day’, released to great critical acclaim, earned an estimated RM4.5 million from its box office run. ‘Homecoming’, a Malaysian-Singaporean co-production sharing actors and locales from both sides of the Causeway, earned nearly the same figure with around RM3.9 million. Adding up the Singaporean box office amount, and aided by its Chinese New Year release date (a similar tactic employed by ‘Woohoo!’), Homecoming hit a home run with over RM7 million in box office receipts.

This is a number matched with ‘Nasi Lemak 2.0’, though it should be noted that this is a film featuring a number of very different cast members and language, and therefore it cannot necessarily be considered merely and exclusively as a Chinese-languaged film.

The full article is published in Sinema Malaysia, published by FINAS.

Featured image credit: Corinth Reformed Church

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