Hassan Muthalib casts a more critical eye on an understated classic by M. Amin, and considers the undercurrents of film noir in classical Malay films.
“This world is useless. Our sincerity, bravery, boldness is not looked upon highly…” Nordin Ahmad, Chuchu Datok Merah
The themes of alienation, jealousy, betrayal, arrogance and revenge were the staple of some Hollywood films in the 1940s and 1950s. No doubt this was brought about by the Second World War and the post-war situation, when the ordinary man, physically and mentally, was confounded with a never-experienced before milieu. Life was difficult; there was uncertainty about the future, and many became fatalistic.
The unnerving times and their despair became reflected in the writings of scriptwriters, leading to a subgenre of films later to become known as film noir (French: literally ‘dark cinema’). A major element in the characterisation was ambiguity as to who was really ‘the good guy’ and who was ‘the bad guy’. In place of binary opposites to distinguish the two, there were similarities instead.
Elements of the film noir treatment found their way into the early Malay films of the early 1960s, and can be seen in the films of legendary director P. Ramlee in the Shaw Brothers studio productions such as ‘Antara Dua Darjat’ (1960), and ‘Ibu Mertua-ku’ (1962). However, these films were melodramatic and had a classicist approach. A more realistic portrayal of the Malay man and how extreme he could become can be found, notably, in the Cathay Keris productions of ‘Hang Jebat’ (1961) directed by Hussin Haniff, and ‘Chuchu Datok Merah’ (1963) directed by M. Amin.
Having said that, this ‘noir’ element in Malay films was not really new. The ‘noir world’ was already existent in the Malay feudalistic milieu where the common man continually lived in fear of royalty, aristocracy, the rich and the powerful. To go against them was foolhardy; one’s life – and the family’s – would be in jeopardy.
The screenplay for ‘Chuchu Datok Merah’ was a collaboration between Ali Aziz and M. Amin. Aziz had earlier written the screenplay for ‘Hang Jebat’ on which Amin had been the assistant director. In 1962, Amin debuted as a director with ‘Lanchang Kuning’. Amin’s inexperience can be seen in the way he handled his camera with scenes that were recordings rather than interpretations. However, the film was a success at the box office.
With ‘Chuchu Datok Merah’, his second film, Amin showed his mettle at narrative and style in the manner of P. Ramlee and Hussin Haniff. It is worth noting that only these three directors of early Malay cinema stand out as true filmmakers: directors who understood narrative and the stylistics necessary to carry a subtext, something that was missing in the works of the other Malay directors of the period.
Like Ramlee, Amin too excelled when he had the right team to work with. In some of his other films, he collaborated with the same writers (Ali Aziz and Shariff Medan), cinematographer (Hsu Chiao Meng), art director (J.S. Antony) and lead actor (Nordin Ahmad). Among these films were ‘Tajol Ashikin’ (1963), and ‘Ayer Mata Duyong’ (1964). Amin had a penchant for long takes and loose shots which gave a truly cinematic look to his films.
‘Chuchu Datok Merah’ is a period drama set in feudal times that also include traditional Malay cultural beliefs of the supernatural. Awang Janggut (Nordin Ahmad) has a chip on his shoulder and prides himself on being a descendant of Datok Merah, a famous warrior in the state of Terengganu in peninsula Malaya. However, Awang lives in poverty with his wife, Wan Kuntum (Latifah Omar) in a dilapidated house. Kuntum stands by him even when he is recalcitrant. Not wanting to work for anyone as a subordinate, Awang chooses not to be employed, and especially not for the rich man of the village, Hassan (Yem Jaafar). The feeling is mutual. Hassan, too, considers Awang as being below his status.
One day, Awang saves Siti (Roseyatimah), Hassan’s daughter, from being harassed by Long Daik (A. Rahim). Reluctantly, Hassan offers Awang work as his family’s security guard. Despite knowing Awang is married, Siti flirts with Awang. She eventually catches his attention by praising his warrior-like capabilities. This, of course, satisfies his ego. As a consequence, Kuntum is often left alone till late night. Returning home, Awang quarrels with Kuntum and in anger, he beats her until she falls sick. Still holding a grudge against Awang, Long Daik plots to poison Awang’s sick wife by sending her some ‘herbs’ and claiming it was sent by Awang. Through cause and effect, the sequence of events becomes linked inextricably to each other, bringing the story to its inevitable tragic end.
As Malays, both Aziz and Amin understood the Malay world and its culture of bygone years, and also that elements of it were still existent in post-War Singapore amongst some of the migrant Malays and the upper classes of Malay society. P. Ramlee experienced it personally, and he went on to express it in many of his films by depicting class distinction, discrimination and loss of identity.
At the time, there could also not be any overt criticisms of the British in films. This was written into the contracts of the film directors. Interestingly, this non-critical stance continued and became a norm even after Malaya gained its independence in 1957. Even when there was criticism, it was diluted. It appeared only in the costume design in Ramlee’s ‘Pendekar Bujang Lapok’ (1959). The antagonist (played by Ahmad Nesfu) wears a Western suit and a British colonial-style cork hat, carrying a cane and walking with an uncommon swagger. This was Ramlee’s criticism of Malay capitalists who had forgotten their roots. It, of course, signified the foreign influence.
Aziz and M. Amin took a similar tack in ‘Chuchu Datok Merah’ but wrote it into the narrative. The rich man, Hassan, who looks down upon Awang, is an outsider who became wealthy in the village (read: British imperialists in Malaya). His daughter, Siti, is not the traditional, demure Malay girl. Instead, she is very upfront, and openly tells the protagonist that she likes him. All this can be seen as manners that are alien to Malay society.
The selection of names of the characters themselves carries an interesting signifier. Awang and Kuntum are typical, pre-Islamic Malay names while Hassan and Siti are Islamic names. Are Aziz and Amin making some kind of statement here as to the ‘outsiders’ who are disrupting the order of things that had remained unblemished since pre-Islamic days? It would have helped if the writers had left some kind of written record!
The cinematographer for both ‘Hang Jebat’ and ‘Chuchu Datok Merah’ was Hsu Chiao Meng, a stage and film man from Shanghai who had started a short-lived film studio called Nusantara Film in Singapore in the early 1950s, and had produced and directed a few films. Hsu was an intelligent man and would have undoubtedly been of immense help in the film’s visual storytelling strategies.
This writer can attest to Hsu’s knowledge of cinematic storytelling, having been involved in the making of commercials together with Hsu in Kuala Lumpur in the late 1970s and early 80s in Kuala Lumpur (as well as with M. Amin in the 1990s). It is this knowledge that is borne out in the mise-en-scene or scene structuring throughout the film (which will be elaborated on later.
The protagonist in ‘Chuchu Datok Merah’ was a continuation of the character cast in the same mould as that in ‘Hang Jebat’ – that of the brooding loner. It is no coincidence that Nordin Ahmad had also appeared in ‘Hang Jebat’, ultimately succumbing to his fate as a righteous rebel who cannot survive in a feudal society.
Both ‘Chuchu Datok Merah’ and ‘Hang Jebat’ were outstanding as they presented a new kind of protagonist – the anti-hero. Who better to play it than Nordin Ahmad, who, in real life, was a serious person and did not mix very much with people? As noted by Johari Shariff and Ubaidullah Mustaffa in their book ‘Nostalgia Filem Melayu Klasik’, Nordin was a quiet, calm man and diligent in his work. For him, the script was not just a script, but also something that was organic. Nordin would read the script numerous times to understand its contents and check out how one character interacted with another. He brought the right sense of ambiguity to the portrayal of the character of Awang, who would go from a brooding, angry and bitter man to one who would suddenly show love for his wife, before descending into arrogance and recalcitrance in the next instance.
A cursory look at ‘Chuchu Datok Merah’ makes it out to be just another one of the many Malay period dramas from the Cathay Keris studios set in feudal times. Upon closer scrutiny, one finds that the film has a highly formal narrative structure and a distinctive cinematic style. Appropriately worded dialogue runs throughout the film and is connected to the story’s spine as well as being a pointer to the characters’ innate nature. All of this is visually brought out through the mise-en-scene, production design, cinematography and editing.
The film opens with an illustration of a man and woman lying dead in water. This scene becomes repeated in the last scene when both Awang and Kuntum drown in the whirlpool. With this first visual, Amin denotes the fatalism in the story: that life is pre-ordained; free will is but an illusion. People like Awang, who try to rebel and go against the grain, are not able see this. In the following visuals, Awang squats on a bridge and throws a stone into a whirlpool, in a sense, ‘tempting the devil’. He remarks nonchalantly to Kuntum: “The river demon has not swallowed anyone for some time…” His wife interjects, criticising him for uttering words that only invite ill luck.
Tellingly, in the following three shots, the mise-en-scene shows them walking across the bridge and along the beach to a festival area. The scenes are all in extreme long shot, signifiers of impending danger. True enough, the sequence of events at the festival where Awang’s cockerel defeats Long Daik’s (with it being witnessed and admired by Siti) become the transgressions that set the story spiraling out of control.
Another example early in the story is when Siti shows her narcissistic side by admiring herself in a mirror and asking her handmaiden if there is anyone prettier than she. This scene echoes the one in ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarves’, wherein the evil queen asks the magic mirror as to who was the prettiest in the land. This depiction of Siti signifies another aspect that is contrary to Malay culture.
Towards the end of the film when Kuntum is in danger of losing her husband to Siti, she, too, looks into the mirror. It is not to admire herself but to contemplate on where she had gone wrong. She has no words, only seeing in the mirror (in a superimposed flashback), scenes of happier days when she and Awang had just been married. After she drinks the poisoned herbs, she looks into the mirror again. This time, she is horrified to see herself having really become ugly.
Here, the film form suggests a similarity as well as a contrast. Both she and Siti look into the mirror but only Kuntum sees herself physically becoming ugly. Siti obviously does not but is unaware that inside, she is in reality, the ‘ugly’ person who has enticed another woman’s husband. She is not a rational person but functions as a femme fatale. In the words of Alain Silver and James Ursin, the authors of ‘Film Noir’, the noir world she is in “revolves around causality. Events are linked…and lead inevitably to a heavily foreshadowed conclusion…” Kuntum is appropriately film noir’s ‘menaced woman’ who is tormented psychologically by the femme fatale archetype. She cannot escape from Siti’s character of the femme fatale that represents independence, strength and desire, and who deliberately enters into a love triangle with a married man.
There are also similarities among the men. Awang and Hassan, though being at extreme ends of the social hierarchy, are in fact alike. Awang refuses his wife’s plea to find work with Hassan. Awang refuses, saying: “Hassan came with only a sarong like a beggar. How can he lord it over us?” He reiterates: if his warrior grandfather knew, he would be angry. But to please his wife, he does go to meet Hassan. He stands arrogantly in front of the rich man in a pose totally unbecoming of a Malay.
Hassan, with the same arrogance, tells him to get out, saying that he will not entertain any descendant of Datok Merah. Their argument is interrupted by the arrival of Wan Mu (M. Osman) who has come looking for a job. Hassan undergoes a quick change in demeanor and warmly greets him, pleased that Wan Mu brings a gift of gold (Awang has only brought a bunch of bananas!). Awang stomps out in disgust at Hassan’s hypocrisy.
The story of ‘Chuchu Datok Merah’ reeks with embittered men and flawed women set in a milieu full of foreboding. Long Daik is a sore loser, and when Wan Kuntum rejects his comparing himself to Awang, he swears vengeance – and then carries it out using sorcery. This is cinematically alluded to in the grim shadow of the village healer as she prepares medicine in the kitchen given by Long Daik for Kuntum.
Even neighbors offer no consolation. They whisper about Awang is still living in the glory of days past. They even allude to him being childless, an aspect that is looked down upon in a traditional society. Only two older men (Hassan’s assistant and Awang’s uncle) display the humbleness so befitting of the true Malay, but Awang pays no heed to them. When the uncle leaves Awang’s house in the morning after paying a visit, he looks at the sky and remarks that the weather that day is going to be good. Awang cynically replies: “It all depends on the individual. If it’s good on the inside, it will also be good outside.” Awang has no need for mentors to advise him about how to live his life, but he cannot see that he is flawed on the inside.
In life as well as in art, if one does not listen to the advice of a mentor, one will go astray or descend into failure. This is borne out in the screenplays of three Hollywood films: ‘Braveheart’ (1995), ‘The Gladiator’ (2000) and ‘Road to Perdition’ (2002). Neither of the protagonists heeds their mentors and so are doomed to meet their fate at the end. Here, Awang too pays the price at the end due to his recalcitrance. The screenplay of Ali Aziz and M. Amin delves deep into human psychology and explores the central issues of modern philosophy, that of human agency: how we distinguish the character of humans and their reactions to the things that confront them.
In the character-driven screenplay of Aziz and Amin, what drives the story comes from what goes on in the mind of the main characters when they are up against deeply emotional situations. This aspect caught the attention of Malaysia’s noted filmmaker, U-Wei Haji Saari, who credits ‘Chuchu Datok Merah’ as the inspiration for his seminal debut film, ‘Perempuan, Isteri dan Jalang’ (1993). The scene of women washing by the river parallels the one in Amin’s film, and is obviously an homage.
When Siti sees Awang for the first time, it is at the cockfight. When Awang wins, she tells her handmaiden of how bold and brave he is. Very early in the story, we see her flaws: of being conscious of her beauty, and then judging Awang on a superficial level (just by seeing him win at a cock fight). She plays the role of the femme fatale to the hilt, praising Awang for his bravery. It hits the right chord with Awang and his ego. He is delighted and says she is the first one to value his bravery, getting drawn deeper into her web of deceit. Siti’s fickleness continues to be revealed when she also has eyes for a suitor even after having expressed her desire for Awang.
Wan Kuntum is a contrast to Siti. She is submissive and loyal to her husband, but even she has her limits. The ’devil’ literally takes control of her. In a moment of desperation, she slaughters Awang’s prize cockerel and serves it to him for dinner. When Awang finds out, it is too late. In a blind rage, he beats her, not knowing that she is pregnant. Strangely though, her pregnancy is never mentioned until after the traditional healer appears to treat her.
‘Chuchu Datok Merah’ uses the Aristotelian story trajectory with a beginning, middle and end. There is a closure but it ends in tragedy. Aristotle once noted that stories were all about how men should live their lives. M. Amin does not play the role of a moralist. He has opted for an objective point of view by using dramatic irony throughout where the audience is one step ahead of the characters; the characters do not know what the audience knows. This technique invites the audience to see themselves in the characters on the screen. Would they choose to be like these embittered men and flawed women? The past needs to be left behind in order to embrace a better present. These are issues that are the concerns of artists, and M. Amin invites us to reflect upon them through his cinema.
Featured image credit: Kat Eye Studio