Lighting the Base – The Shorts Cinema of Malaysia

Fikri Jermadi considers the short film scene in Malaysia, and sees a brighter future than ever before.

The numbers game at the top seems bleak.

Malaysian cinema has gone through its peaks and troughs, a rollercoaster that veers from fallow years to happier times. The positivity of a decade ago, when ‘Cicakman’ and ‘Jangan Pandang Belakang’ raised hopes of a new so-called golden age, is tempered. That hope was accentuated further with the likes of ‘KL Gangster’ and ‘Ombak Rindu’, breaking through to eight-figure territory, gaining over RM10 million at the box office each; just behind them, the series of ‘Adnan Semp-it’ and ‘Kongsi’ provided ample backup for consistent financial success.

More recent years, however, are fallower than most. The highs of ‘The Journey’ and ‘Polis Evo’ has been tempered by the lows of many other films that failed to even break the RM1 million barrier. According to data by the National Film Development Corporation (FINAS), 36 out of 46 films failed to do so last year. The year before that, less than ten out of 80 films managed it (though some, like ‘Hantu Bungkus Ikat Tepi’, came close with nearly RM997,000). That 90% rate is matched by the films released so far this calendar year, with only 3 out of 28 films making more than RM1 million. Films are still being made, but in a quantitative sense (and notwithstanding the context of their productions), they are not being made successfully for a myriad of reasons.

When looked at in this way, this is a relatively depressing narrative.

But what about the base of short films?

Comparatively speaking, both to the mainstream feature film industry and its neighbours, Malaysian cinema has rarely been in ruder health.

Shorter narratives (commonly presented in the form of short films, but also present as key in advertisements) have been at the forefront of film innovation anywhere, anytime. The first films produced, for instance, relied on the shorter duration to attract many to its various exhibitions. Even in a more contemporary setting, some of cinema’s more creative practitioners honed their skills by making short films.

In the Malaysian context, short films, especially as driven by digital prosumer technology becoming accessible at the turn of the millennium, contributed to the increase in newer voices announcing themselves. The initial wave of filmmakers, represented by Amir Muhammad, Tan Chui Mui and James Lee, eventually expanded the mainstream by bringing their perspectives into it. Fringe stories previously marginalised, they became the center of attention at film festivals the world over, a peak personified by the Busan International Film Festival’s highlighting Malaysian independent cinema in 2007.

In terms of numbers, that light shines brighter in more recent times. Expanding the space for different voices were the likes of Filemmakers Anonymous and Malaysian Shorts (curated by Amir Muhammad), paving the way for newer filmmakers to critically screen and discuss their works. The space for shorts cinema is anything but short, becoming a loudspeaker voicing the lesser known in society and on the scene. The likes of Bradley Liew found their voice here; he can now be found in the Philippines, from where he made his debut feature film ‘Singing in Graveyards’.

Competitive spaces also sharpen this cutting edge. Berjaya Youth Short Film Competition ran for a number of years until 2015, allowing Dexter Lo to make full use of it. His multiple entries, ‘Simple Love’ and ‘Thank You’, developed skills for ‘Big Tea Rice’, one of the Haction short films produced for Hatch, yet another film competition recently announced. A fellow competitor is Amanda Nell Eu, making waves as the first Malaysian female filmmaker to screen her work at this year’s Venice International Film Festival.

Many pale in comparison to the prolific Tan Ce Ding, arguably Malaysian shorts cinema’s worst kept secret. The most recent winner of BMW Shorties short film competition, that was as much the result of the quality of his winning entry, ‘Hawa’, as it is a testament to the sheer persistence he displayed; that film came hot on the heels of ‘Da Capo’, ‘Thanks for Saving Me’ and ‘How To Write I Love You’, amongst many others. This excludes accolades accorded to him at the aforementioned Berjaya Youth competition and the biennial Malaysian Digital Film Awards, where Aliff Ihsan Rahman, Paul Gan and Muzzamer Rahman have also made their mark with their poetry in motion.

It is a momentum carried forward by events such as the Freedom Film Fest, KL Eco Film Festival and Kota Kinabalu International Film Festival, living up to the more global definition of a film festival with their workshops, screenings and critical discussions, even as they fulfil the prerequisite awards ceremonies the more Malaysian definition would require.

Bricks and mortars institutions still play a role, even as the informal YouTube Film School continue to take in new students; Chan Teik Quan of Multimedia University, for instance, has proven to be something of a chameleon, equally adept at mumblecore efforts such as ‘Spotlight’ and the dialogue-less ‘Suri’. All these and more merely scratches the surface of what shorts cinema in Malaysia is like.

At the same time, let’s take a pause here. Stop. Rewind, and play it again Sam, for while it is less bleak, this is not a perfect picture we’re looking at. There is still much that could be done in terms of improving the lot of this lot. The film culture that exists can exist better; as great a job the likes of Anna Har do in running Freedom Film Fest, it pales in comparison to our neighbours and beyond. Singapore is getting ready to run the 27th edition of its international film festival, while Malaysia’s own stop-start approach saw the inaugural Malaysian International Film Festival hosted earlier this year. Such is the lack that initial media reports erroneously described it as the first ever such event in the country, whitewashing the Kuala Lumpur International Film Festivals of 2007 and 2008, amongst others.

Stretching our legs further, South Korea averages an international film festival on a bimonthly basis. Count them: Bucheon, Jecheon, Jeonju, Kwangju and Seoul all host multiple annual film jamborees. That’s not taking into account the granddaddy of them all, Asia’s largest film festival in Busan. Quantity is not necessarily quality, but the Koreans’ synchronised scattergun approach comes close to upending that formula, yielding dividends for their filmmakers (young and old) at home and abroad; a well-played card will see more than a few festival leaves on the film’s poster before it leaves its own shores. Of course, this baptism of fire should also come with asterisks attached, as different levels of cultural openness and political diversity (amongst others) have to be taken into account.

Nevertheless, these forms of film enculturation and acculturation is not impossible. Rather, it is its possibility that makes it frustrating, as the macro can be achieved with micro tweaks. FINAS, for instance, have supported earlier stages of a film’s production, aiding script development and such. In the post-production stage, similar support from similar bodies for foley artistry (for instance) could do wonders.

The actual distribution and exhibition can also be a mind-numbing game. Remember the aforementioned Venice International Film Festival? Amanda is there this year, but Bradley was there last year, premiering ‘Singing in Graveyards’. He went on to sing in Kolkata, picking up the NETPAC Award as he did so. In Malaysia, however, that song fell on deaf ears and eyes, for despite being selected for the Malaysian International Film Festival, this award-winning, globe-trotting international co-production is not considered a viable commercial entity for general release. Other critical favourites, such as ‘Terbaik Dari Langit’ and ‘Lelaki Harapan Dunia’ (a Best Film award winner at the Malaysian Film Festival [FFM]), were, but remain unseen on the home video scene, mitigating their impact even back home.

All this comes back to the beginning, though, the base that is the shorts cinema of Malaysia and the scene in which all the filmmakers mentioned here made their name. ‘Terbaik Dari Langit’s’ Nik Amir Mustapha (winner of the Best Director at the 26th FFM) made his feature debut with ‘KIL’, the aesthetics of which were trialed in the short film ‘Lightbulb’. Previously, Liew Seng Tat of ‘Lelaki Harapan Dunia’ (awarded in the following edition of FFM) made short films with consummate ease, even if they don’t always make sense (to me) or cents (for him). Even Syafiq Yusof, a member of the Yusof Haslam blockbuster dynasty, previously specialised in making YouTube videos.

And there’s more. We Jun Cho, whose ‘Salvaj’ won the Best Short Film award at the 2015 FFM. Caston J, whose single-take ‘Cycle of Violence’ would not look out of place in a Yasmin Ahmad feature. Wes Anderson may similarly approve of Taufiq Kamal in his cinematic explorations of love and loss through award-winning ‘Rozita binti Roslan’ (the film, not the person) and ‘Terbit 23’. Quek Shio Chuan, who is adapting his BMW Shorties-winning ‘Guang’ into a longer feature. Diffan Norman, taking a slightly different tack after his appearance in Sundance with the short film ‘Kekasih’, is (re)making P. Ramlee’s ‘Sitora Harimau Jadian’. On a different track altogether, Khairil M. Bahar and Shamaine Othman multi-directed the feature film ‘Cuak’ with three other filmmakers; Shamaine would repeat the trick with two others in ‘KL24: Zombies’. This film was produced by James Lee, an older hand coming back to the short film scene on YouTube after traversing the globe.

Again, these selective examples may not be the complete representation of the scene as a whole. Nevertheless, they do remain representative of the bright hope offered by the base of Malaysian cinema. Short films, this creative baptism of fire, are very important for cinema’s newest and youngest practitioners. In these ways and more, they should at the very least be acknowledged as such, a light that shines brightly on a bleak bigger picture.

Originally published in the official programme book for the 29th Malaysian Film Festival.

Featured image credit: The London School of Economics and Political Science

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