Fikri Jermadi asks four writers about the Malaysian film writing scene.
“I’ve always followed,” starts Aidil Rusli, a columnist for the Malay Mail, “or tried my best to follow Robert Warshow’s famous words: ‘A man goes to the movies. The critic must be honest enough to admit that he is that man.’”
Writing about films for any given audience can be a tricky thing to do. It’s a balancing act few can pull off to satisfy all. Have a critical view, and chances are there aren’t many who will take to it. Be too kind, and you may well be accused of having a vested interest yourself.
For Fadli Al-Akiti of the Tonton Filem website, there are two different types of film writing in Malaysia. “There is the mainstream form, which can be found in newspapers or magazines,” he says, “or the digital form, a field in which I contribute.”
For many years, though, the only stream was the mainstream, a singular mode of expression through which writings on films could be found. Fadli lists Ku Seman, Raja Uda in Utusan Malaysia, Hizairi Othman in Massa and A. Wahab Hamzah as writers he would look up. “Even though his final reviews were a little too pandering for me, after A. Wabab Hamzah stopped reviewing films, it felt like the world of Malaysian film criticism in Malay had stopped.”
Going beyond Malaysia, Leonard Maltin’s book Rating the Movies was a particularly inspirational point of reference. “That book, as well as a number of other titles, was my guide at the Laser Disc shop in Bangsar Shopping Centre at the time,” Fadli recalls fondly.
Someone who got his start in the more traditional media was Allan Koay, who now runs The Storyboard. “I was formerly a journalist, and I covered a lot of entertainment and film stuff,” says Allan, “so I was always writing about films anyway.” Having left his day job, he is now able to focus on the website. “I already had it since 2007, but left it stagnant due to my day job.”
Combining both the old and the new is Kr8tif Express, an initiative that focuses on news about the creative industries of Malaysia. “As we are working together with the National Film Development Corporation, writing about film is definitely a priority for us,” says editor Amzar Anizam. “However, we strive to write more than just about the film itself. We wanted to explore more on the up and coming talents, crews, directors and producers. We want to look at their struggles, the production journey and eventually the success of the film.”
They appear to be doing it at the right time. “I think we are at an interesting time in Malaysian cinema,” says Allan, “especially after the success of The Journey in 2014, a largely Chinese-language film that became the biggest Malaysian film at the time.”
If variety is the spice of life, Aidil is equally keen to note how spicy things will get. “Like everything else local and arts-oriented, there’s a chronic lack of documentation, archiving and opinion-making on Malaysian films, so I just thought it’d be fun to at least do my share, even if the things I write about them are not always positive.”
That lack does not necessarily equate to an absence of interest, just not of the creative and constructive kind. It is a trend Aidil notices. “Unfortunately it is true that Malaysians just love gossip, which explains why shows like Melodi and Meletop are watched by millions.”
Amzar agrees, albeit with reservations on that assessment. “I can see that non-gossip film websites and blogs are getting more attention today than the same old gossip portals.” For Allan, he acknowledges that such interests may not necessarily be all that sincere to begin with. “Those who are into the personal and private lives of stars are not really interested in films.”
That’s not to say that their word of mouth is any less effective. Fadli cites Syamsul Yusof’s latest film Munafik, which collected the majority of its RM13 million (at the time of writing) after its initial days of screening. The reverse was true for another film, Penanggal. “A lot of people watched Penanggal in the first week,” he recalls. “However, the second week numbers dropped like a stone, because the friends or family members who did see it did not like it. There were those who didn’t understand it, and those who did found it boring.”
When such opinions bleed online, it can be difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff. Platforms such as Internet Movie Database, Amazon and Facebook are common ground for many to stand up with their opinions. Whether they can be regarded as critiques, however, is probably another story. “Tweeting ‘Boboboi 8/10’ is regarded as a critique for some members of the audience,” Fadli laments. “Even worse, in Western media, their promoters would use such sources as abridged quotes without context on film posters and promotional materials everywhere!”
Aidil agrees. “Most of the time, it’s just people summarising the films without actually giving their opinion about them,” he says. “It is a shame, as quite a lot of these blogs have really high traffic.”
How much of that traffic impact these writers? For Allan, given the wide reach of the Internet, he considers the extra information his potential target audience may require. “I still write with Malaysian readers in mind, but whenever I can, I do try to give context so that overseas readers can also understand. I’ve had friends abroad saying they get a better picture of Malaysian cinema through my writing.”
Amzar himself believes in painting a more optimistic picture. “I believe with the advancement of technology, such as social media, people are more expressive, opinionated and critical of their writing and reporting,” he says. “This can be a good thing for the industry, as there is an avenue for the filmmakers to listen to the audience.”
Featured image credit: Dwayne Bent / Flickr