Zeitgeist Cinema – The Malaysian Urban Wave (part 2)

In the second and part of this article, Fikri Jermadi lists some of the key movers of an underrepresented group of films and filmmakers.

One of the discourses affecting our understanding of Malaysia is the English language. As mentioned in the first part, those being discussed here have a strong degree of comfort with the language, sometimes even over and above national ones. Contributing to this is the fact that many of the practitioners in this movement have also studied and lived abroad. Some, like the aforementioned Khairil M. Bahar, was even born abroad. 

modelcitizen_khairilmbaharKhairil is a key figure of this particular movement, and his breakthrough feature film, ‘Ciplak’, incorporated a significant portion of this reality into the story. The story focuses on a young Malaysian who looks to make a quick buck by selling pirated DVDs in England. However, due to intervention from other parties, there is a strong risk of the plan going awry. Despite the no-budget nature of the film, the director was able to call in some favours; some parts of the film was shot in England, and this was made possible with the help of the director’s friends.

This also reflects another key characteristic of the middle to upper-class characters in these stories, in that they tend to be socially and upwardly mobile. Economically independent, character development is not necessarily motivated by money, and neither do finance play an important role in moving the story forward. A large number of more mainstream Malaysian films tend to focus on issues related to the discomfort and displacement of key characters within their own socio-economic contexts. Some films may even portray supposed-rural values as more positive in relation to the ‘evil’ urban environment, which apparently has the potential to lead many astray.

"I can't see your face, but I love you anyway."For example, one of the biggest franchises in Malaysian cinema is the ‘Adnan Sempit’ movies, in which there is a clear class separation between the protagonist and his love interest. Indeed, the very word ‘sempit’ suggests a financial dependence on others. Even the biggest box office successes such as ‘Ombak Rindu’ and ‘KL Gangster’ shows a sense of the economy being a factor, however big or small, in the story and character development. Rightly or wrongly, these are the films that have made it big, making almost RM40 million at the Malaysian box office.

A Malaysian Urban Wave film, however, spends a lot more of its time focusing on a specific issue, primarily the exploration of relationships. They are not necessarily romantic ones, though films like ‘Cuak’ and the aforementioned ‘Relationship Status’ have romantic relationship(s) as key aspects of their stories. ‘The Joshua Tapes’, directed by Lim Benji and Ari Abraham in 2010, looks at the journey of three friends who goes on a road trip. As the story progresses, flashbacks from a previous incident enlightens us to the more subtle tensions underlying the group’s dynamics.

rd2ikAn earlier solo effort by Ari was ‘S’kali’ from 2006, another film which looks at the friendship between five friends as they deal with dilemmas that arose from their professional careers. Beyond that, the exploration of genre narratives can also be seen. ‘#Masked’, a short film shot by Khairil and starring Tuan Faisal, Alfred Loh, Anrie Too and Michael Chen, featured the kind of fight choreography rarely seen in Malaysian films, independent or otherwise. In 2010, Ari’s ‘5:13’ looked at what happens when an entire city is engulfed in darkness.

Even more interestingly, these stories have a strong correlation to specific issues afflicting Malaysia’s past and present. ‘#Masked’ was made in part as a reaction to the then-minister Datuk Seri Rais Yatim’s call in 2012 for martial arts practitioners to assist in crime-fighting, while a May 13 link, a significant date in Malaysia’s history, can be inferred from the title of Ari’s film.

15malaysia_stdYou may have noticed that the name of Khairil M. Bahar and Ari Abraham popping up very often in this article thus far. They are some of the most significant and active movers in this particular wave, but that is not to say that they are alone in this. Lim Benji has been mentioned as a co-director. He also directed a segment of ‘Cuak’, in addition to a number of notable short films such as ‘Meter’, a part of the 15Malaysia short film project.

After having acted in some of these films, Gavin Yap moved into the director’s chair to lead ‘Take Me To Dinner’, a film released early in 2014, starring Patrick Teoh and Susan Lankester. Both ‘Cuak’ and ‘Take Me To Dinner’ were produced by Garang Indie, a division of Garang Pictures, and the encouraging critical (if not necessarily financial) feedback points to more of such productions in the future.

Therein lies a conundrum that films and filmmakers of Malaysian Urban Wave face on a regular basis. The very limited distribution of these films has rendered it nearly impossible for many to watch them now unless you personally know those who are involved. Some of them were released theatrically, but even then it was made possible because of exclusive deals signed with specific cinema chains.

"Give me your money!" The mas kahwin process can be stressful for some...For example, you can watch ‘Cuak’ and ‘The Joshua Tapes’ at select Golden Screen Cinema theaters, but not in MBO; you won’t find ‘Take Me To Dinner’ outside of TGV Cinemas, either. Coupled with intense box office competition from within and outwith the country, this has understandably impacted the box office takings.

Having said that, given the relatively low-budget nature of these films to begin with, it’s not impossible that some of them made some sort of profit. Astro First and other forms of pay-per-view distribution also provide an avenue for the wider audience to appreciate these works, but apart from the above, it has been slim pickings. DVD releases have been touted for some of the films (very publicly so in the case of ‘Relationship Status’), but until now that has yet to come to light.

All this should not be taken as conclusive conclusions to be made about this particular movement. I have largely considered feature films, without taking into stronger consideration the large number of short films produced that can be linked to the Malaysian Urban Wave. This article should therefore be read as an introduction that may serve as the beginning of a bigger discussion.

The happy drug obviously didn't quite extend to Gavin's mood...The point I am making is that these are significant films worthy of further considerations within the bigger picture. They offer a peek into the life of very specific groups of people in Malaysia, the kinds of social strata that has been underrepresented on the silver screen. The irony is that they form a very significant part of the cinema-going audience, with more and more theatres being concentrated in middle to upper-class areas. Though there may still be a preference for other offerings, the fact is they remain marginalised when it comes to producing and seeing reflections of themselves on film.

When all is said and done, the films and filmmakers of the Malaysian Urban Wave have a tendency to critically explore issues and stories close to the Malaysians everywhere, and it is a movement may help to make discussions on Malaysian cinema that bit more worthwhile.

You can read the first part of this article here

Featured image credit: The Mesui Hotel

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