Cheap Luck – Ciplak

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Finally! Fikri Jermadi has seen ‘Ciplak’, and this is why you should as well.

In the director’s note for this film, Khairil M. Bahar regarded this as the film that “propelled his career”. It was his first feature film, and an award-winning one, too; it picked up the award for Best Alternative Film at Anugerah Skrin in 2006. The term ‘alternative’ has changed over the years, even in the context of this film. Within the bigger picture of Malaysian independent cinema, if we are to prescribe such a label, Khairil has since become arguably one of the most well-known names out of the sheer volume of work he has done over the past decade. In that regard, he has become the mainstream of the alternatives.

To better understand this film, certain contexts of the time should be considered. 2006 didn’t feel like it was all that long ago, and yet a decade has flown by since then. I am reminded of this by a scene in the film, where Jo (Khairil himself as the lead character) talks about the different kinds of DVDs and other pirated goods. A lot of this jived with what I remember of the time. Much like the films people download nowadays through sites such as Kickass Torrents and Pirate Bay (though the latter appears to have lost much of its cachet), there are different types of pirated DVDs. Given that people are prone to being misled by some, some pirates have made the effort to distinguish themselves from the rest.

What Malaysians look like when they say "I'm on the way."
What Malaysians look like when they say “I’m on the way.”

An early form of sub-legal brand management, it is the marker to essentially get ahead of its competition. Those surrounded by the grey/silver Superbit frames, for example, is a surefire mark of quality, almost guaranteeing a satisfactory viewing experience at home, for their copy won’t have people standing up to go to the toilet right in front of the screen (as is the wont for films filmed in cinemas). Pirates nowadays also brand themselves in certain ways, with tags attached to the file in question identifying the pirate group.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

It is a measure of Malaysia’s enforcement that all the above were (and still are) illegal. Yet not only did the pirates manage to set up shop to begin with, they thrived to the extent that such levels of brand management is a possible consideration for them. These are all very commonplace, but the proliferation of such outlets (even to this day) remains one of the great unspoken truths. This film, then, speaks out on things many dare not do in an official capacity.

What Jo does is also not something people would do in any capacity. As a young Malaysian student studying in England, not only does he have access to such goodies to begin with, but also the favourable exchange rate makes it more than worthwhile for him to ferry pirated DVDs to interested parties in the United Kingdom. A quirk in international cinema at the time means that many countries in Asia (like Malaysia) get many films prior to their release in more established European nations (like England). As such, there is a strong enough demand for pirated DVDs from Malaysia.

Director directing the direction directly.
Director directing the direction directly.

Not that Jo is doing so senselessly. His ultimate dream is to make films, and he believes a huge step forward would be attending a filmmaking course in the United States. This side job, therefore, is paradoxically the act of stealing from current filmmakers in order for him to become one. It’s almost vampiric in a way, but this does not concern our Jo as much, for he is essentially a carefree spirit with a seemingly endless supply of cigarettes.

With his studies nearing its end, though, the game is nearly up, and he plans to make one final shipment that also happens to be his biggest order. However, there is always something about the best-laid plans: with the rise of such piracy, he is picking up his supply on the day the authorities decide to launch the biggest raid on pirated goods. His DVDs gone, the demand remains, lingering like a menacing smell that won’t go away. Jo may be on the other side of the planet, but the English gangsters have managed to hold his friend hostage. He’ll be let go once Jo can come up with the goods. With less than a day to go before he’s supposed to leave for England, Jo has to suddenly find an alternative supply.

By knowing the contexts of this production, you’ll have a better understanding not only of this systematic output but also the systemic symptoms themselves. This film carries with it a raw aesthetic that is as much a product of the story as it is of the film’s very low budget. Secondarily, it is a reminder of how different 2006 was. Yes, the Internet was common back then, but it is a medium, simply a channel through which information can be delivered. Content related to filmmaking for beginners were scarce, to say the least.

That’s not the case nowadays, of course. Not sure how to fix the settings on the Sennheiser wireless mic? Take your pick from the countless videos on YouTube that would set you on the right path. Confused about the different kinds of lens compatible with your Canon 60D? Download the PDF file of No Film School’s The DSLR Cinematography Guide, and you’re halfway towards being enlightened. As such, a lot of what went on in this film was done not only on a shoestring budget that won’t be enough even for a semester at Monash University, but things were undoubtedly learned on the go. You go and do it not just because you want to, but because you have too. When the going gets tough…

London's calling, and they want their DVDs.
London’s calling, and they want their DVDs.

…the tough gets going. That sense of touch and go was clearly seen, a strong showing of that classic “the show must go on” spirit. Much of that can be seen in the performance of Jo by Khairil himself. It has to be applauded first of all on that level. The director-as-actor thing is not new (and given how much of it mirrors much of real life, we must also consider whether he’s even acting to begin with). Nevertheless, it showcases the personality of both this story and Khairil as a storyteller, lending a rare degree of honesty. Simply put, he’s absolutely hilarious. For example, when he realises that his DVD stash is not going to come to him according to plan, his reaction was a gem, motion stilled for just the right amount of pause. A raised eyebrow here, a perplexed look magnified by his glasses there. I laughed and clapped out loud at this and a number of other such scenes and reactions.

Secondly, I am also attracted to his exploration of different discourses. One of them is that of conservatism. “With your UK upbringing, you could make a killing here,” said one of his friends, who encouraged him to give up the ghost of trying to be a filmmaker. Though the plot happens in slightly over a day, Jo is forced to ask many life-changing questions. He meets friends who did give up to ghost to go corporate, and those who never even chased it to begin with. How much are your dreams worth? Trying to be a filmmaker (or an art practitioner of any kind) is a challenge for many in conservative contexts such as Malaysia, and it is no doubt a reflection of a part of real life here. On another level, that quote also highlights how many in Malaysia believe the foreign to be superior. There’s a level of respect and deference often paid by Malaysians to the British and perhaps white people in general, suggesting a whiff of colonial superiority at play here. I happen to believe this exists in Malaysia, but I certainly do not recall as many texts approaching this as directly as ‘Ciplak’ did.

That is not to say that the film itself is pushing such an agenda. If anything, by way of the usage of its language and its gleeful pillaging of Western cultural capital, ‘Ciplak’ can safely be situated in a firmly post-colonial category, taking what it can and refashioning it for itself. Jo himself was criticised by a friend for looking down on those who aren’t like him in terms of worldview and thought (his interactions with his girlfriend is especially pertinent in this regard).

On the run from the authorities: no method is more rebellious than the skateboard.
On the run from the authorities: no method is more rebellious than the skateboard.

This leads to language. You must know that the film’s primary language is English. Certainly at that time, the majority of Malaysian feature films did not have English dialogue. Rather predictably, the lingua franca was Bahasa Malaysia. Films not done in this language is not usually given the same public airing, and much of independent cinema of that time would consist of more vernacular languages like Mandarin. Even now, English-languaged Malaysian films remain far and few in between, so the presence of ‘Ciplak’ in that regard indicated something new. As such, it is an alternative to the alternatives of its time, in addition to being an alternative to its mainstream as well. Perhaps I am overstating the film’s importance, but there is no doubt that this is indicative of a shift in the discussion of what a Malaysian film is (and could be).

A specific example is a phone conversation between Jo and his parents. It is the only part I can remember Jo speaking in Bahasa Malaysia (and even then, it was with smatterings of English; can we argue for such words to already be a part of Bahasa Malaysia as it is?). It stands out due to its rarity in the film, but it also makes sense; bridging the gap to older generations requires the speaking of literally another language. This brave new world of young people speaking in English almost like native speakers is perhaps a difficult one for those not a part of it to grasp. Again, I could be going a bit over the top here, but the fact remains that it is unique relative to its peers; though not quite a millenial, this film is a product of the 21st century, challenging through specific discourses many have taken for granted.

The overall irony is that as much as I am waxing lyrical of this film and the past, I am reviewing this because I have only seen it. For many years, this film made its rounds in more private networks. If you wanted to watch it, you could only do so at select screenings. It helps if you know the director, if he fancies giving you a copy of his film. The truth is that distribution remains one of the biggest weaknesses of such films, which is a shame. I am happy that Khairil have finally decided to release it, and I hope others will consider doing the same with their works.

‘Ciplak’ is a film I have waited for for many years, and I cannot deny that this review is coloured by that anticipation. Having finally seen it in its entirety, warts and all, bathed in varying levels of nostalgia and melancholy, I have only one thing to say.

Thank God for the Internet.

The director’s note can be accessed here. You can watch the whole film here. We previously wrote of ‘Ciplak’ as a part of the Malaysian Urban Wave here and here, and reviewed Khairil’s other films ‘Relationship Status’ and ‘Cuak’ (which we also previewed). He should pay us money for pushing his products this much…

Featured image credit: The Next Web

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