Mr Hassan Muthalib trains his trained eyes on perennial film trainer Yasu Tanaka’s directorial feature debut in this longread article.
“Heav’n has no rage like love to hatred turn’d
Nor Hell a fury, like a woman scorn’d.” William Congreve, playwright
Kamal (Hans Isaac) and Erin (Maya Karin) are a young couple facing a marital crisis. Years of failure at trying to have a baby have led to a prolonged and agonising lack of communication between them. Erin is the only one who seems to want to discuss things to save their marriage. However, Kamal freezes up, and instead, has plans to end their marriage. Erin discovers his intention in a note he has written.
In a last ditch attempt and on their 10th year anniversary, they take a trip to Bako National Park in Sarawak where Kamal had once proposed to Erin. Slowly, Erin discovers why Kamal is intent on ending their marriage. She is infuriated and begins to plan the perfect murder, using his note as evidence of his death.
A local Sarawakian boatman, Jemat (Ramli Hassan), takes them to the isolated National Park, and inadvertently becomes involved in Kamal and Erin’s problems with tragic conclusions. Becoming an important part of the conundrum is Erin’s Japanese friend, Mayumi (Rin Izumi).
Yasu Tanaka has crafted a story in his film with a treatment that is unique to Malaysian cinema. To appreciate his narrative and stylistics, one must have a basic grasp of the conventions associated with expressionism and surrealism, as well as the gothic. Expressionism distances itself from the traditional and the cultural which is one of the subtle explorations in ‘Nota’. The aim is not to depict objective reality but rather the subjective emotions and responses aroused within a person to unfolding events (in particular, to Erin).
Surrealism is depicted with imaginary images, juxtaposition and chance, with the subconscious coming to the fore. Tanaka abandons the rational to inquire into the mysterious depths of the psyche of Erin. Surrealism, in turn, creates strange creatures from everyday objects (the ominous rock, boiling rice, etc., in ‘Nota’), allowing Erin’s subconscious to express itself. Like surrealist works, Tanaka’s film features the element of surprise, unexpected juxtapositions and non sequiturs.
In terms of story, characters and visualisation, there are references (or, more accurately, similarities) to other Malaysian films like ‘Semerah Padi’ by P. Ramli, M. Amin’s ‘Chuchu Datok Merah’, and U-Wei Haji Saari’s seminal ‘Perempuan, Isteri dan Jalang’. This film, in comparison to the objective treatment employed for these films, stands on its own in its use of expressionism. A subjective perspective (that of Erin) is used by Tanaka to express emotional experience in the face of hard reality. Foregoing the normal conventions of editing, much of Tanaka’s shots show Erin’s point of view through the camera without first establishing that it she who is the one looking. This enhances the subjective approach used by Tanaka to tell his story. Erin appears to be calm, but all the while, her angst is depicted as lying suppressed, then explodes forth when in the final plot point, she realises who is actually responsible for the deterioration of her marriage.
Kamal is highly-educated and a successful surgeon. On her side, Erin has foregone her career to concentrate on her marriage. Both of them are in a technologically-advanced world, but they have become dehumanised; what living in the city has done to their humanity (among the elements explored in Expressionism). Tanaka does not deign to give a back story for much of his film. It is unnecessary, and in many cases, there is also no closure. The play is the thing, and both William Shakespeare and Alfred Hitchcock concur on this: the story must move to its inevitable ending. The audience is called upon to piece things together. Like many filmmakers, Tanaka respects his audience and asks them to join him in the storytelling. For this, he requires, as U-Wei Hajisaari once remarked, an audience that is perceptive. In Malaysia, that is certainly a tall order!
Tanaka alludes to Erin and Kamal’s loss of humanity and spirituality in the scene where they enter a village in Sarawak after emerging from the jungle. The village is usually seen as the bastion of spirituality, but this appears to be quite a strange village. Two children totally ignore Kamal’s queries and, instead, concentrate on what they are doing. This is certainly unusual as children are normally cheery and vibrant. It is an index, a subtle pointer that even the village today has turned into what cities have become – devoid of the spirituality that they were once known for.
To attest to this, Tanaka introduces the Muslim call to prayer over the visual of Erin and Kamal arriving in the village. As normal Muslims (and adhering to archetype), they would have joined in the prayers, but they do not. Significantly, Jemat, the boatman is introduced at this particular time. He walks nonchalantly past those praying in the mosque, and greets the couple. He, too, does not join in the prayers – as a man of his (screen) stature would. In ‘Semerah Padi’, P. Ramlee raised questions about female sexuality in the face of the strict tenets of religion. Tanaka raises the same, this time of spirituality, in the scene of the azan and prayer in the village mosque.
This is also alluded to in the costume of the taxi driver who is beaten up. He wears a songkok (denoting him as a Muslim). In the dialogue of the attackers, we find that not only has the taxi driver not paid his car installments, he has also gambled away the money. His character and values are not that of a true Muslim.
Jemat’s character is but one of the many red herrings that Tanaka has in his film. He is given a magnificent screen presence. He appears to be an archetype of the wise man of the interior, but he is actually a false archetype. He does not know much except what he has heard or learned from others. He knows of Erin’s marital problems only by inadvertently listening to her pleas to Kamal. Erin all the while thinks she has been talking to Kamal. In a clever bit of mise-en-scene, Tanaka only shows Jemat’s legs as he stands stock still listening to Erin. He conjectures that Kamal as a doctor would be very rich (village people are not normally drawn to material wealth). He also concludes that a wife would kill her husband for his insurance (Erin herself is amused by this). Jemat, in fact, has no wisdom or foresight. He is no better than those who are praying in the mosque who just follow the tenets of the religion without seeking to understand its inner meanings.
To allude to this, Tanaka has the worshippers strangely dressed in resplendent traditional Malay dress (that is usually worn on festive days like the Aidilfitri). Jemat chants and enters the river in the middle of the night, involved in some strange ritual (obviously learnt from a master who has probably provided no explanation for it). If Jemat were like the wise men of old and truly spiritual, he could have known Erin’s true character intuitively. He knows how to remove the poison of the puffer fish so that it becomes edible. He has battled three crocodiles and killed one, but, ignominiously, he succumbs to a woman! (laughably, he had remarked earlier that he would have liked to die fighting a crocodile!)
Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men – and women? Tanaka’s mise-en-scene depicts the mindscape masterfully by particularly distorting Erin’s world through gothic settings and lighting. Everyday objects take on an ominous feel: rice on the boil (signifying her boiling anger), flames of the oven, the shower head, the rocky outcrop, ominous sunsets, loud, and grotesque sounds, amongst others. It is all, in fact, Erin’s mindscape. As observed by Jemat, Erin has a ‘rich imagination’. She imagines her finger penetrating the aquarium wall; she imagines having decent conversations with her husband; she has frequent memories of happier times when she and Kamal were newly married; she ‘sees’ water superimposed on Jemat’s face as he speaks of him being attacked by a crocodile, and a vision of rice boiling behind him as he tells the story of the two-timing husband; she imagines Kamal having sex with Mayumi, and imagines impaling Kamal through the neck with a sharp branch as they walk in the jungle.
In short, she is one who is easily influenced. She was fascinated by the senseless violence perpetrated upon the taxi driver, resulting in his death. It is as if that is what she would have liked to inflict upon her husband. Ultimately, like Zaleha in ‘Isteri, Perempuan dan Jalang’, Erin loses her bearings and becomes a vicious predator, harkening back to a time when ancient societies resorted to violence to achieve their ends. Tanaka makes her character to be incongruous: she feeds fish in the aquarium; she gently picks up a butterfly and then releases it in the air, and yet she is able to take the life of a human.
Very early in the film, Tanaka denotes her hidden nature, in quick cuts, to the strangely-shaped rock in the National Park that looks like a cobra preparing to strike. Later, as the boat takes her and Kamal to the Park, she comes upon the rock and stares at it in fascination. The juxtaposition of images is expressionistic, and functions as a striking visual comment as to her state of mind. And the final straw that breaks the camel’s back is when she realises Kamal’s secret. In her imagination, she sees Kamal having sex with Mayumi. It climaxes with a close shot of Mayumi’s face in shadow, looking directly into the camera. It is as if she is mocking Erin. To emphasize this, Tanaka adds her voiceover: “There is a fine line between love and hate.” It becomes a premonition of Mayumi’s own fate. Erin’s failure to be a mother and Mayumi’s ability to be one incenses her. There is nothing now that Erin will not do.
There is a fine line, too, between the ‘good mother’ and the ‘terrible mother’. The mother is an archetype in Jungian psychology with these two prototypically opposing aspects. As Carl Jung himself wrote, one is positive, “that cherishes and sustains, furthers growth and fertility.” The other is negative, that which “devours, seduces, and poisons”. Erin possesses both these archetypes. Her positive aspect is seen in her attitude to feeding and talking to her fish, and then gently picking up the butterfly and releasing it outside her house.
Yasu Tanaka manifests her negative aspects stylistically in the numerous motifs of rocks, boiling rice, and images of the sea. The sea (and water) dominates in ‘Nota’ and become motifs of meaning. The sea, like the archetype of the mother, is seen in the arts as one that sustains life, and at times, is the origin of all life. In its opposing aspect, the sea is the Terrible Mother who devours. Tanaka depicts this well and links it to Kamal’s running verse of ‘where the sky and ocean meet.’
Kamal and Erin finally arrive on top of the cliff where Kamal proposed to her ten years earlier. Tanaka frames the scene in an extreme long shot (a negative index and foreshadowing the violence that will follow). The horizon line dividing the ocean and sky is thin and hardly visible. The sky has also become the sea (in Erin’s mind). In a moment of insanity (represented by a black frame and a loud, crashing sound effect), she does the unthinkable, answering the call of the Terrible Mother.
Mayumi functions as the femme fatale archetype. Like Jemat, she is also an artificial one. Tanaka depicts this in her costume the first time we see her. She wears a blue dress (signifying water) on which there are flowers arranged like seaweed (as if in the sea). The Terrible Mother is seen in Erin’s benign aspects earlier in the story. The first shot in the film is of gently-moving sea water followed by a dissolve to Erin and Kamal seen from above, sleeping upside down (a negative index, and remarkably similar to the opening and closing shots of the husband and wife in ‘Chuchu Datok Merah’).
Erin is, however, not asleep. For some strange reason, the water is in her mind (a foreshadow?). We see later (Erin’s point of view) the same scene of water superimposed on Jemat when he is telling his story of the jealous wife and unfaithful husband. Up to this point, the sea in her mind is still benign. It begins to become malignant as the story progresses, ‘devouring’ Kamal – and then Jemat. Jemat becomes an unwitting victim when (in her imagination) she thinks she is going to be at his mercy by being alone on the boat. This occurs when Erin tells him not to address her anymore as Mrs Kamal. He then, meaningfully, decides to call her ‘sayang’ (dear). As she drops the betel leaf into the sea and calls upon the crocodiles to ‘take him’, she is simply continuing the age-old traditions and culture inherent in her race – that of primitivism. It is an aspect that U-Wei Haji Saari himself has been exploring in his films.
If U-Wei has been exploring why the Malays are what they are, Yasu Tanaka raises other questions as enumerated above. His casting choice raises another interesting question. Erin and Kamal have Malay names but they do not look Malay. In reality, Hans, who plays Kamal, is a non-Malay while Maya who plays Erin is of Malay-German parentage. The woman in the love triangle is not Malay but Japanese! As an outsider, Tanaka is probably trying to ask himself: is there such a thing as the Malay? And what is a Malay Muslim? Tanaka comes from a homogenous society, and Malaysia, with its diverse races, cultures and religions, has probably become for him an interesting place to explore his ideas and thoughts. His next film should also be as provocative and interesting.
Welcome to Malay(sian) cinema, Tanaka-san! You might just be what we need…
POSTSCRIPT: If the Tourism Department of Sarawak expected a tourism-style film in return for all their assistance, they might have been disappointed. There are beautiful shots of mountains and sunsets but the colour grading of the scenes present them as ominous and foreboding (in the context of the story). Two hilarious scenes in ‘Nota’ stand out, perhaps as Tanaka’s amusement of those involved in the tourism industry: the chalet clerk who gazes at the camera in a close shot, then suddenly grins and offers the key to the chalet and welcomes Erin and Kamal. He does the same when he receives the key from Erin and gives thanks. He does not ask where her husband is. Even here there is no humanity, only commerce and artificiality…
Feature image credit: Robert Lane Design