Cigars Aplenty – Top Ten Malaysian Films of All Time (part 2)

Fikri Jermadi gets to the meat of the sandwich of his top ten Malaysian films of all time.

Having written about the films that did not make the list of top ten Malaysian films of all time, I now embark on the journey that is perhaps more pertinent in its focus and intention: ranking the films I have seen that did. The key qualifier there is ‘films I have seen’: I have seen a lot (including films that perhaps no longer exist beyond the director’s hard drive, like ‘Sell Out!’), but I’ve not seen everything (I missed out on ‘Jagat’s theatrical run. For shame).

It is with one of the above that I get the ball rolling. Yeo Joon Han’s ‘Sell Out!’ was a film I saw with practically no expectations whatsoever. Caught at an international festival, I was in a phase of making sure I watch all the Malaysian films I possibly could. In this case, I’m glad I did, because it was a wonderful experience. Hilarious in many respects, and somewhat bittersweet in others, ‘Sell Out!’ became a marker in my own film journey, an entry that, because it reflected much of what we see in the country itself, felt truly Malaysian. That’s not as common a thing as it should be. I saw it with my cinematographer Vicky, a Malaysian himself, and certain moments struck us so much we popped big time.

I wish I can have an idea of what it was like when ‘Hang Tuah’ was screened on the big screen. Released in 1956, it obviously occurred well before my time, but remains a movie I have seen that made me think on a number of different levels. First of all, there must have been great excitement in the country at the time, being a film not only starring well-known superstars of the day such as P. Ramlee and Ahmad Mahmud, but also a relatively big-budget adaptation of a story ingrained into the national consciousness. I actually saw this on YouTube some years ago, of all the places, and while the medium was not ideal, that stage of my life afforded me a greater exposure to more critical considerations of the legend separate from the story. Brought together, there was much to like and analyse of this important text.

Similar reasons could be denoted for ‘Ola Bola!’. I never did actually write a full review of the film, but I know what the first line would have been: “An iconic film.” It is one of the few that reconfigures the iconography of what constitutes a nation. We see much of this in the film, with major events hailing those from afar to gather around small television and radio sets; you’re not there, but you are, because the media becomes a theatre of dreams in which you shed all other communal factors to become only that one, single corollary: Malaysian. It also featured major icons, from personalities like Rahim Razali and Soh Chin Aun, to architecture such as Angkasapuri and Stadium Merdeka. The latter is a distinctive part of the capital landscape rarely seen on-screen. Though imperfect, ‘Ola Bola!’ really did provide a positive and constructive mood in the country, one which I have rarely seen a film instigate.

The selection above may owe its spot due to recency bias, which I can’t say for ‘Bujang Lapok’. Instead, I can identify another, very different factor that led to me (re)watching and (re)reading the film: Hassan Muthalib. I recall seeing and enjoying this film many years ago, but it is the further, critical and academic analysis of the film by the aforementioned maestro that urged me to revisit this classic P. Ramlee starrer. Watching it with that new pair of lens, I started to see and appreciate more of what went on, in terms of the utilisation of film language and grammar, control of the mise en scene, and more. “Ramlee dabbled in various genres but in every one of them can be discerned his unique storytelling skills that more often than not, used humour that contained subtle criticisms of the Malays and their milieu,” wrote Encik Hassan, describing the film as “an exploration of traditional Malay values in the big city.”

Much of the same academic and critical analysis could apply to U-Wei Haji Saari’s ‘Perempuan, Isteri dan …’. Released in 1993, it came at a time when Malaysian cinema was producing more than its fair share of critically acclaimed films, a marked improvement over its affairs in the previous decade. Unfortunately, it has not aged all that well, as certain technical and aesthetic qualities could be improved upon, but if you weather that storm, the rainbow at the end is a discussion of gender and sexuality that was perhaps ahead of its time. If, as Liew Seng Tat says, film is indeed a mirror of society, the film is a distorted one, dislocating you by allowing something of a glimpse into the future, even if we still have some way to go before achieving an acceptable balance.

Coming in at number five is ‘Antara Dua Darjat’. Thus far, the majority of my selections have run against the grain of that weepy melodramatic fare. This P. Ramlee-helmed film is the fish swimming upstream (or down?). Having said that, this is far from being a Malaysian affair, for stories of lovers separated by the stars are not exactly original (“where are thou, Romeo?”). All the same, its cultural impact cannot be underestimated. I recall many other films dealing with such class divisions by making explicit references to this; Osman Ali’s ‘Anak Halal’ (which dealt with much of the same issue) features Maya Karin’s character, Jo, screaming and shouting against a Datuk character as she was held back by his driver: “Why not? Because we are poor? The kids from the cheap, dirty flats. The time of ‘Antara Dua Darjat’ is long gone, Datuk!”

Can we also say that the innocence in ‘Mukhsin’ suffered the same fate? Maybe, maybe not, but I am definitely tempted to just justify this with a “Because it is. What’s the matter with you?” line of reasoning. There’s just so much that’s lovely and pleasant to watch and note. People bang on about cinematic universes, and perhaps we missed a trick in not christening Yasminverse as one. The third feature film of Yasmin Ahmad’s career works as the prequel to the previous two, yet this film also featured older (perhaps alternate) versions of certain characters. Thus, the aesthetics of the film allowed for the dreamy story to be fleshed out, though it is not without its real moments. Similar to ‘Ice Kacang Puppy Love’, it’s just such a lovely film to watch.

What is less lovely but no less good is ‘Bunohan’. Directed by Dain Said, this was a film that really restored the fine spirits of Malaysian critics and film fans everywhere. It could be argued that it’s not for the mass in the contemporary and Arnoldian sense of the word (a number of whom were not comfortable at being presented subtitles in a Malay-languaged, Kelantanese-dialected film). It also propelled Faizal Hussein into the consciousness of many as a serious actor. He’s a fine performer, one who was mired for many years in generic stories. However, I have a soft spot from him, stemming from his role not only in ‘XX-Ray’, but also in the TV3 series ‘Pendekar’. Along with Rusdi Ramli, he made such an impression on me as a young boy approaching the end of his first decade. To actually see him, therefore, shed much of the mainstream popcorn rubbish he’s been covered in, and actually act as if every sinew in his body is alive with emotion, is a wonderful transformation I did not expect.

The runner-up in this list is probably one you did not expect, either. It is ‘Sayang Salmah’, made by my father, Mahadi J. Murat. On a more objective level, it is a well-shot film that has stands up to the test of time, with layered meanings to be found in the immersive acting by many of its key performers. However, it is the personal that made it what it is to me. For a film that ruminates on the idea of a united family and nation, the irony is that my own family is, in a sense, not. Without getting too much into the details, my parents’ divorce years later (and subsequent remarriage to different people) is the turbulent familial journey that is the context for my current appreciation of this film.

There are three stages of appreciation I have for this film. The first was as a young boy, who understood this film simply as my father’s work, paying little attention to its critical and aesthetic qualities. The second is as a film fan, where, after having better understood the idea of good filmmaking, I came to appreciate the end product (and the story of its making). The third is as a father, and as an adult son. I had a similar reaction to ‘Interstellar’, where it is the father’s struggle to get back to his daughter that had me pinned to the seat. I had that same feeling watching it in this way, one which induced a more emotional reaction. I didn’t actually cry (not on the outside, perhaps), but given that I don’t really cry outside of ‘Star Wars’ films, the fact that it left me on the verge of shedding buckets of tears probably said a lot more.

Last, and most certainly not least, is the film that I myself was surprised in selecting as the best Malaysian film I’ve ever seen. If quantity can be equated to quality, that would probably make Yasmin Ahmad as our best ever filmmaker, because ‘Sepet’ makes it her second entry on this list (third if you include ‘Muallaf’), coming in at the very top. This is where a consideration of different factors should be considered. The film itself, of course, deserve much of the same “Because it is. What’s the matter with you?” line of justification I mentioned earlier for ‘Mukhsin’. Perhaps the biggest justification I can give is how this is that one film that sparked such a reaction from society, one I had not seen in the course of my relatively short lifetime.

It is a reaction that could roughly be split into two camps. Those who are against ideas of interracial relationships, for instance, tightened their tudungs and spewed forth venom about how such a film is not in line with so-called Muslim teachings and such. Proponents of such an approach, however, would come out of the woodwork in Petaling Jaya, Bangsar and Taman Tun Dr Ismail to herald the representation of a more accurate Malaysia on our own silver screens. Of course, such stereotypes are not fair, and there are many who have mixed feelings about this film, but it is certainly the only one that got all the different factions in Malaysia abuzz. Politicians would rail against it on the record, while mamak restaurants up and down the country were filled with those who debate the film off it.

There is, of course, a danger in projecting my own experiences unto others, but this was the aftermath as I saw and felt it. It goes without saying that ‘Sepet’ is a very good film in its own right, announcing Yasmin Ahmad as a filmmaker with her own finger on that very pulse, reflecting upon us our own flaws and biases as a society in a holistic sense. A personal story made (inter)national, and for all the reasons above, this was the one film that was the film of my lifetime thus far, making it arguably the best Malaysian film I have ever seen.

You can read the first part here. Check out the final top ten here, as compiled by Pusat Kajian dan Apresiasi Filem (PKAF). Additionally, we nearly forgot that we did a top ten list of canonised Malaysian films for foreigners back in 2009(!).

Featured image credit: Adi Iskandar

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One thought on “Cigars Aplenty – Top Ten Malaysian Films of All Time (part 2)

  1. Tergamam .. sdr rupa-rupanya anak Dr. Mahadi …

    Menarik, ada filem-filem tertentu yang saudara pilih juga turut saya pilih 😀 yakni: Sepet, Bunohan, Sell Out, dan Perempuan, Isteri dan .. Wahh!

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