Leading up to the 2018 Freedom Film Fest, Fikri Jermadi took time out to watch Joyce Soo Wai-Xin’s short documentary about Ampang Park.
‘Borrowed Time’, Joyce Soo’s directorial debut, looks at Ampang Park, tracking on screen the impact of the announcement of its demolishing. The mall was the first of its kind in Malaysia, and in making such a film, I would imagine one of the trickiest things for the director and her team to decide on would be who to interview, for it would almost certainly be as exhaustive as the day is long. This is a story about them, of course, but it’s also about Ampang Park itself, an iconic structure that, in its own way, is dripping with memories. In its later years, I must admit that the building itself could have been better maintained, but this film has helped to, at the very least, breathe new life into the histories people have made there.
The film follows a time-honoured tradition of talking heads discussing nostalgia. The list of interviewees included tenants who have spent practically their entire lives, either for personal or professional purposes, working and doing things at the mall itself. For instance, one of the tenants, Jenny, detailed the history of her family’s business at the mall since its inception, while the 68-years old Narendra talked about how his children would spend much of their childhood at Ampang Park. Though it’s a small selection (the film does, after all, have a running time of less than 11 minutes), it’s wide enough to clear the muhibbah test, showcasing how important the mall is to Malaysians as a whole. While there were others who shared their views on the matter as well (including Joyce’s lecturer, Azmyl Yunor of Sunway University), it is Jenny and Narendra who struck me as being most emotionally attached to the mall, lending the documentary its credibility.
While we’re on the subject of Joyce’s status as a student, I must also say that this is one of the most beautifully-shot student documentaries I have seen. Such films have often been plagued by a discernible lack of attention paid to its technical qualities. Bad lighting, poor audio recording, and less-than-satisfactory interview locations often added up to a poor emotional sum. That can’t be said for ‘Borrowed Time’. An example of this can be seen through the opening shot, a drone rising slowly with a wide shot of the locale as a whole. Putting aside for a moment the topographical meaning of Ampang Park being dwarfed by other, taller structures in this concrete jungle (casting it as the last warrior of its ilk), such drone shots can be difficult to execute, not just on a technical level, but also with regards to the promise it provides: this film will be a visually appealing one. Unlike MRT Corp, a promise is a promise for Joyce and her team, and she delivered on that front. Credit must go to her and her co-cinematographer Aaron Chieng Leong Ching, both of whom ensured that the technical and aesthetic vagaries of interviewing different people in different locations are minimised.
In between the talking heads waxing lyrical on the mall’s past and its meaning, Joyce is clever enough to add variety into the mix, ensuring that we are not visually bogged down by the interviews. She used a number of still photographs, capturing the stillness of silence that can be found in pockets of the mall (especially in some of the upper levels), while at times showcasing how busy it can be at certain junctures. An interesting trick she employs is interspersing such images with ones presented through a more distorted perspective; instead of being a ‘normal’ landscape picture of the mall’s interior, some of them were portrait images oriented sideways as a landscape one. This creates two impacts. The first is that the old is suddenly made new, as this new angle offers a different perspective to a place I once knew almost like the back of my hand, an architecture that somehow would not look out of place in any of the ‘Blade Runner’ films.
The second is that there has indeed been a distortion, a disturbance in the lives of ours and others. Ampang Park was one of the most iconic buildings in Kuala Lumpur, and its status as Malaysia’s pioneering shopping mall ensured its economic and social practicality as well. What’s happened, then, in the its demolishing for the apparent bigger and better future, is a vicious clearing of the browser history of our lives. It could, of course, be argued that it itself was a construct, memories made of steel and concrete that once was nothing (prior to its building). Nevertheless, it is on such grounds that traditions and histories are built, and to have gotten rid of the building in such a way smacks of a desperation born of an economic situation that’s not particularly drastic; wiping it out is killing a part of us when we didn’t actually need to.
You may have detected more than a trace of anger and emotion in my writing thus far. The sentence above, “Ampang Park was one of the most iconic buildings in Kuala Lumpur,” was initially written in the present tense. Having to proofread and correct it to the now-normative ‘was’ was more difficult and painful than I thought it would be. Not from a technical standpoint, mind you; it’s just me tapping away on a keyboard. Rather, it helps to highlight the emotional connection I had with the place. For my family and I, Ampang Park was just one of those places you visit once in a while to buy things and get stuff done; the top floor, at one point, had a fine selection of shops selling pirated computer games you’d purchase with the hope that the crack file for the programme is already included in the CD-ROM.
Its most evocative memories for me, however, concern my autistic older brother, Fazly. He doesn’t speak and communicate in the way you and I probably do through conventional speech patterns. Rather, we were (and are) left guessing much of the time as to what his (random?) groans and moans would mean. One of the times these were made clear is almost every time we drive past Ampang Park itself. The McDonald’s at the corner has the big M sign jutting out from the building, an eye-catching effort that would always grab Fazly’s attention. If he sees it, he wants it, and not only would it be difficult to deny him, he would make life difficult if we did. As such, my sisters and I would resort to distracting him from that dastardly M. “Abali!” we’d shout as we drove past, “look this way!” The tricky bit, though, comes when there’s plenty of cars (it is, after all, Japan Ampang), the traffic lights are red, and we’re stuck practically right next to McDonald’s itself. Sometimes, the distraction would work, at other times less so, but I can’t deny that it was also fun for us when my parents would relent to his wishes, and we’d all go for a burger or two at McDonald’s.
I still think of my brother every time I even hear the name Ampang Park as I take the LRT, an association that few others now have the chance to make in the same way my family and I did. We’ll go on to apparently bigger and better things, of course, and memories will still be made in whichever steel monolith that replaces it. What ‘Borrowed Time’ is doing, however, is pointing out that in the bigger picture, parts of it is being erased, as we (as a people) perform a form of emotional genocide on our own memories and histories. In that regard, it is not entirely inappropriate that my autistic brother and Ampang Park went hand in hand; though the mall is the central character in the film, it had to rely on others to tell its story, hoping that its significance and impact would not be lost through the ethers of time.
So, what’s next? Pertama Complex?
‘Borrowed Time’ will be screened on 2nd October 2018 at the 2018 Freedom Film Fest. The festival takes place at PJ Live Arts in Petaling Jaya, running from 29th September 2018 to 6th October 2018. Click here for a list of films selected for this year’s edition.
Featured image credit: Reuters