Fifty Shades of Black and White – Kampung Tapir

Having been offered an opportunity to invest in the film many moons ago, Fikri Jermadi regrets not backing Aw See Wee’s ‘Kampung Tapir’.

The screen turns to black, and I turn to my students. “So, what do you guys think?”

I had recently been given access to ‘Kampung Tapir’, Aw See Wee’s latest film, and decided to screen it to my Indonesian students. The past week, we had watched a documentary that detailed people living in Malaysia but working in Singapore, and I had figured this film to be the perfect addendum to that particular experience.

Anne (Ivelaine Sim Cian Kit) and her husband, Ben (Chua Sek Khim) traverse across the Causeway (replete with a politically-laced billboard of ‘Daulat Tuanku’) for work, and would end up leaving behind their child, Tong (Koh Hya Tong), with Ben’s parents in Kampung Tapir, Johor. The film’s title, then, works on a number of different levels. The first is the direct name of the geographical area itself, which is not insignificant. There is a rural denotation with the term kampong, a stark contrast often associated with Malaysia when compared to the ultra-modern, first-world monoliths of Singapore. This manifested itself not just in a physical, constructed sense, but also in the economic one; with a clear divergence between the two nations’ value of currency, financially many deem it sensible to seek employment opportunities in the Lion City, with its highly-rated dollar.

To an extent, the film dealt with many questions I had in my head. I’ve often wondered how Johoreans (or, to be more precise, Johor Bahruans) see its brethren across the water. Usually, the focus of any given country is concentrated on and around its capital(s), financial, political or otherwise. Someone in Indonesia, for instance, would almost naturally veer towards Jakarta, while those in Malaysia are likelier to set their sights on the Klang Valley for educational and economic opportunities. Yet in the case of Johor Bahru, that target is less clear, given how it is Singapore that is most visible and perhaps more influential on many levels.

This potentially affects the second word of that title, and the next layer of meaning making. The tapir is an endangered animal native to this region, with its shifting colour scheme of black, white and grey also key not just to reading this film, but also its socio-political context. We see how Tong appears to be fascinated by this animal, grey in its youth. Incidentally, grey is the tone you get when you mix together all the different colours of paint. However, when the tapir grows older, the tapir’s colours shift to become black and white. Can we read this as a form of unity found amongst Malaysians when we were younger, when the colour schemes of our skins would play less of a part in our world vista, only to be corrupted by the politics of our elders? Maybe, maybe not, but it’s worth bearing in mind that not all wisdom is wise.

Going beyond the possibility of such neutrality being neutralised, I think Tong mistaking the tapir for the panda is a deliberate act on See Wee’s part. “The panda is often seen as a symbol of China,” I tell my students. “In fact, the Chinese do partake in what is known as panda diplomacy, where they would actually breed these pandas and then loan them to different countries they’re on friendly relations with.” This, of course, is why Zoo Negara have pandas.

“Why is it called panda diplomacy?” one of my students asked.

“It’s because a lot of people like pandas.” Or at least, I’ve yet to come across someone who hates them. “Of course, if things escalate, then the Chinese will just cancel the loan and bring back the pandas.” Pause. “Of course, when I say China, I mean mainland China, and not Taiwan.” See Wee himself had spent a significant amount of time in the country, graduating from the National Taiwan University of Arts. It is another grey area in our geo-political story, notwithstanding the similarities to be found between the Republic of China and Malaysia itself.

“I think both countries share many similarities,” he revealed in a previous interview we did with him, noting the strong connecting in practices of Chinese culture, language and food. “Additionally, some words in the aboriginal language in Taiwan is exactly the same as in Bahasa Malaysia! These similarities mean the connection between Taiwan and Malaysia is a lot stronger than I thought.”

Bringing that discussion closer to home, I veer our discussion towards the thornier issue of how Chinese communities are treated not only in Malaysia, but also Indonesia. Much like many other societies, Malaysia have an up-and-down relationship with its minorities; in the context of Chinese-Malaysians, it is a community often characterised as keeping more to themselves, touching more of their own roots in their people’s republic than the ones found in Malaysia. This is borne out through experiences in the education system, political opportunities and other economic situations. Of course, other factors, such as official policy, is also a strong factor in such a discussion, but the end result of this process is the very real likelihood of people born and bred in Malaysia without necessarily interacting with the more native elements of that culture, leading to accusations of a lack of patriotism and nationalism.

Such notions are difficult to bottle and measure, of course, but much of that discussion resonate with the Chinese in Indonesian as well. Many of my students are of that background, and they share their experiences of being treated somewhat differently possibly because of the colour of their own skin. While Indonesia has largely kept these issues insidiously under the radar, more recent events have revealed just how traumatic the discourse was and still is. In the context of the film, what complicates things further is how Anne had been granted a permanent resident status by the Singaporean government. Often seen by many as the golden ticket to a better life (as fleshed out above), there remains that dilemma, a silent push-pull discussion constantly etched on her face even until the final moments of her scenes in this film.

It is such connotations that See Wee has done very well to highlight in a constructive sense. A key moment in the film actually occurred between Anne and a tapir. Gripped in her dilemma, this incident had her truly question her decisions in a very visual sense. Going beyond the image, the sound designer, Sean Yap Shao Chi subtly sucked out all other external sounds from this key scene, further dramatising the constantly shifting logic Anne struggles with. In that scene, See Wee has achieved a very unique feat, providing us with an allaying anagnorisis that leaves us yearning for more.

For my part, there is indeed more that I wish to discuss. A key part of the film’s visual is the high antennas dotting the landscape of Kampung Tapir. In the film production notes, See Wee points out how Johor receive television signals from Singapore (and vice versa). According to him, these analogue transmissions will end at the end of 2017, although an extension has since been granted to the end of 2018. This access to a media sphere officially originating from a different country is not insignificant. According to Benedict Anderson, a nation is only the community its people imagine it to be, a connection partly brought to life by the news media people are exposed to. This link allows people to feel invested in any given community; witness how people from faraway places is directly connected through any media in many films such as ‘Ola Bola!’. See Wee may have included these antennas primarily to historicise them, but in an academic context, I read it as Anne and her family essentially fighting to remain connected to an imaginary officially deemed foreign, an other connecting to another.

I shall conclude on two points. A number of months ago, fellow Malaysian filmmaker Nadira Ilana expressed her opinion of the state of Malaysian cinema, relative to our friends in the region. “Our film culture is so sanitised it’s unbearable, especially compared to the rest of Southeast Asia, and this is even coming from programmers and investors,” she exasperated. “So we make films in generic settings, that are culturally ambiguous.” By and large, it is a fair assessment I don’t disagree with. However, I have a tendency of trying to focus on the brighter side of things, a side from which ‘Kampung Tapir’ is emanating from. It is a fine film that runs against that grain identified by Nadira and many others, one in which its universality, much like the television broadcast signals across national borders, negates any such artificial barriers, finding resonance with audiences even in Indonesia.

Secondly, this film was produced through the Shortcuts workshop and short film programme organised by Astro and FINAS. When this initiative (and those of its ilk, like the FINAS Pitching Centre) was first introduced, there were many who considered it pointless to the bigger picture, with the focus on developing stories and storytelling quietly ridiculed. This is in spite of the fact that on a more international level, such a process is already considered to be largely the standard of any serious film festival, workshop and the like. ‘Kampung Tapir’ is a testament to the potential and power of such programmes, focusing on getting the story right first, before moving on to areas such as funding and pre-production. I believe this to be the right approach, and I believe that we should be proud that a film like ‘Kampung Tapir’ is flying the flag for initiatives such as these.

Having rounded up the discussion, I end the class and dismiss everyone. I hear echoes of “Thank you, sir” from around the room as I shut down the projector, pack up my things and turn off the lights. Yet even until after I shut the door, all I could think about was how I should have chipped in with my rupiah and ringgit when See Wee told me of the film many moons ago, a chance to put my money where my mouth is. So close and yet so far.

Just like Singapore.

We previously interviewed See Wee, and analysed his film, ‘Highway’, as a part of the 2015 BMW Shorties review.

Featured image credit: Faith Luv 2 Eat & Travel

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