Having seen Amir Muhammad’s latest film, Hassan Muthalib shares his thoughts about the documentary on the legendary Malaysian filmmaker.
“I’m the best!” Z. Lokman, in ‘A ke Z Lokman’
Another first from iconoclastic filmmaker, Amir Muhammad. True to form, he again goes against the grain to foreground a movie maker – who cineastes would not give a second glance at – to see what makes him tick. And does Z. Lokman tick! Going by Lokman’s own words, “Movies are moving. No moving, no movies!” Ozu-san, one of Japan’s classic film directors whose films hardly had any movement, is effectively made insignificant! But that’s Z. Lokman for you…
‘Dari A ke Z. Lokman’, directed by Ammar Adzim, Amir Muhammad, Amir Hafizi and Elise Schick, shows clips from many of Lokman’s movies, interspersed by on-camera interviews with the man himself. The film, in effect, becomes a historical document – and if you think about it, it’s strange that the powers that be (you guessed it: the National Film Development Corporation [Finas]!), have not been doing the same – that is, documenting filmmakers before they kick the proverbial bucket (going by the latest news, Finas seems to be more interested in making documentaries about royalty rather than about the industry players).
Amir Muhammad the producer, does not hound them for what they are doing – or not doing. He goes about quietly doing his bit for the industry. He created history by making the first digital feature in the year 2000, thereby kickstarting an era of low-budget digital features that brought about a young indie revolution. It may probably have inspired the many young people who have chosen filmmaking as a career. International film festivals began to look to us for ‘real’ films, to see what makes Malaysia tick (which Finas has woefully been unable to do so in its almost 40 years’ of existence and with millions of ringgit wasted!).
But more than the many things he has achieved (including becoming a book publisher), Amir is brightening the local film landscape by recently wearing the hat of a producer with his Kuman Pictures, a studio that is not only coming out with new approaches to filmmaking (with low budgets), but is also giving opportunities to local directors to express themselves. He even includes a manifesto (we are still waiting breathlessly for the Finas CEO to declare his own. Why a government department needs a manifesto is beyond me!). Among Kuman’s manifestoes, which Z. Lokman would probably be in agreement with (if he reads it), are (in Amir’s classic tongue-in-cheek style):
“The name ‘Kuman’ is an homage to (Roger) Corman, who produced over 400 films and is sometimes referred to as the king of B-movies. His best works have a verve and vitality that also captured the spirit of their time. We won’t be able to do everything Roger Corman did, but we salute his approach and good cheer. We are not however affiliated with him and have never schmoozed with him.” (Meaning that the quality is going to be higher than Corman’s).
“If any of our films flop, we won’t whine and rant and blame the audience – because we accept that, in this life, shit happens.” (A classic oxymoron if I ever saw one!)
“We support other local movies! Because if Malaysian companies don’t support each other, who will? For example, we will sponsor modest outings to watch movies made by other people. This is called #tosam (which is short for what is in Malay ‘tonton sama-sama’ or in Malaysian English ‘watch together-gether’). The first such tosam will be held Wednesday 26 Sep for ‘Langsuir’ in Petaling Jaya. If you’d like to join, send an email to email@example.com with the title I AM, THEREFORE I TOSAM.” (Waxing philosophical while giving certain quarters the middle finger!)
Amir has also introduced a scriptwriting competition for writers, with pay royalties added (which the industry has been notoriously avoiding). Kuman Pictures has done three movies thus far: ‘Two Sisters’, ‘Ghost Hotel’ and ‘Roh’ (‘Soul’). Amir even promises to give patrons their ticket money back if they did not like his studio’s films on the first day! The eminent Hollywood Reporter has also thought fit to do a writeup on Kuman. In this, Amir has certainly made the Finas people irrelevant. For years they have been trying to make the industry go global with all manner of slogans, but to no avail. Perhaps we should clamour for Amir to be its chief executive officer (CEO) instead? These minions should hang their heads in shame, go swallow rat poison or commit hara-kiri! But looking at the recent appointments there, it looks like it is the industry people who are going to first commit (mass) hara-kiri!
‘A ke Z. Lokman’ becomes, for me, a trip down memory lane. I knew Lokman personally and saw all his films in the 1980s and 90s. I was very entertained by his style of (raw) humour, veiled sexual references in dialogue and visuals, and with the various characters’ illogical shenanigans, some of whom appear and disappear without reason! Lokman had an explanation for this. In Amir’s documentary, he speaks in his usual, flamboyant manner, about the film’s ‘graph’ to create drama, and lessen or heighten tension (even if it’s sans logic!):
“Filem pakai graf. Sini naik sedikit, reda… turun sedikit. Kemudian tenang. Lagukan, tari kan, ada kebudayaan. Memuncak, bagi turun. Kena ada graf, kalau tidak, mendatar je perginya!” (Film makes use of a graph. You bring the story up a bit, then loosen it and bring it down. Then relax. A bit of song here, a dance, with a touch of culture. Raise it to a climax, then bring it down. Must have a graph, if not the story will be flat!)
Lokman was a man with no pretensions in his life or work. He was a man of the people, with his feet firmly on the ground. He once told me that his audience was the kind of people who frequented Chow Kit Road (where the wet market and roadside hawkers are). And with glee, he would say how all his films (then) had never lost money as compared to big budget flicks with name stars. And why not? His films were low budget, shot with minimal locations, and finished within a few days. He was the darling of producers who needed to see a profit – and see it quick! Certainly, Z. Lokman was their man. He is in good company, after all. Roger Corman made 100 low budget films in Hollywood, and he declared that he had never lost a dime. Incidentally, the name Kuman of Amir’s studio was inspired by, and is a modified version, of Roger Corman’s name.
Which brings me to another point. Seeing the clips all in a row in ‘A ke Z. Lokman’, I could see where academic A. Razak Mohaideen’s inspirations and references comes from, for his quickie, supposedly entertaining, low-budget movies, which, for a time, made money the way Lokman’s did. Lokman did refer to this vehemently in an interview, that Razak had learnt to make his style of films of low budget, quickie comedies from his own movies. Many of Razak’s film titles are remarkably similar to that of Lokman’s, and with some of the same actors as well. As an academic, Razak should have known about precedents and acknowledged Lokman. But Lokman is a step above Razak. Truth be told, unlike Lokman’s movies, Razak’s movies turned most people off after the first five minutes.
And unlike Lokman, Razak’s venture into the industry with his (unacademic) style of films stunted its development for a decade. Even the lecturers at his faculty (and his students) were embarrassed at the productions. Mamat Khalid was to refer to this idiocy in his film, ‘Zombi Kilang Biskut’ (‘Zombies from the Biscuit Factory’), wherein he questioned the kind of graduates Razak was churning out for the industry at his faculty. And, in a line of dialogue in the film aimed at Razak, Mamat admonished: “See what you have done!”
In Amir’s documentary, Lokman says that he respects other local film directors, but that they cannot come up to his level. He takes a direct dig at directors and film critics who are academics who had received formal training locally and overseas, but have failed commercially with their films:
“Ada yang balik daripada London, buat filem, jadi pensyarah university. Tak laku! Ada yang pandai kritik filem. Bagi satu filem, panggung pun tak nak. Ada yang jadi Presiden FDAM (Film Directors Assocation Malaysia), satu filem je dia buat. Yang nombor dua, kantoi!… Pada aku, dia ni rendah daripada aku. Aku tak appreciate…” (“There are those who came back from London, made films, became lecturers at universities. Their films failed! There are those who are clever film critics. Given a film to make, but the theatres didn’t even want it. There’s a president of FDAM who only made one film. The second one, failed at the production stage! … For me, his status is below me. I don’t appreciate him…”)
Lokman’s first film was ‘Raja Laut’ (‘King of the Sea’) in 1982. This was followed by ‘Cikgu Sayang’ (‘Dearest Teacher’) in 1983 with Zahari Film, which bankrolled a few more films like ‘Jauh di Sudut Hati’ (‘Deep in my Heart’, 1984), ‘Minah Manja’ (‘Darling Minah’, 1984), and ‘Bas Konduktor’ (1986). Some other productions included ‘Bujang Selamat’ (‘The Benign Bachelor’, 1985), ‘Awang Spanar’ (‘Awang the Mechanic’, 1989), ‘Janda Meletop’ (‘The Merry Widow’, 1990), ‘Boss’ (1992), ‘Cikgu Romantik’ (‘Romantic Teacher’, 1993), ‘Penyu’ (‘Turtle’, 1995), ‘Superstar’ (1996) and ‘Azam’ (‘Determination’, 1997). He held his own in spite of competition from credible, emerging directors with big budgets, such as Rahim Razali, Nasir Jani, Shuhaimi Baba, Mahadi J. Murat and Aziz M. Osman.
After a short hiatus, Z Lokman came back in the millennium with a couple of films under the banner of Metrowealth Movie Productions (where A. Razak Mohaideen was to make his foray later). ‘No Problem’ (2001) and ‘Mendam Berahi’ (‘Suppressed Passion’, 2002) were made but became flops. The films were not as watchable as before. The old Lokman touch was not there. The industry – and the audience – was different. But David Teo, CEO of Metrowealth, who had had his fingers burnt with a mega-budget film (‘Syukur 21’ by Eddie Pak, 2000), was impressed with Lokman’s style of budgeting and production and went on successfully to apply it in his productions with A. Razak Mohaideen and other directors.
As the years passed, Lokman’s luck, however, ran out. He did not keep up with changes in technology, production, promotion and audience reception. ‘Mendidih Bro!’ (‘I’m Seething, Bro!’) in 2017 only made RM4,090. His three films, funded to the tune of almost half a million ringgit by Kirawang, also ran into trouble: ‘Awang Gerudi’ (‘Awang the Rascal’) only collected RM1,590; ‘Malaun’ (‘The Brigand’) was scrapped even though it had passed censorship, albeit with numerous cuts; ‘Doa Buat Kekasih’ had received a screening date, but Kirawang decided to pull it out, unhappy with Lokman’s work and knowing that the the movie would fail with audiences.
‘Mahaguru’ (‘Grand Master’, 2018) with another company also failed, and was lambasted by the press for its poor quality. It remains to be seen if Lokman’s latest movie, ‘Mat Buskers Mengancam’ (‘Buskers Rock’), will also suffer the same fate. But, true to form, Lokman continues to make movies with his never-say-die attitude. He has made three films in the Philippines, and is currently making another one there. What can you say but that there’ll never be another character like Z. Lokman in the industry! Amir Muhammad, like Roger Corman and Z. Lokman, is taking the same path but raising it to another level – one that is consonant with the development in technology and marketing, and taking into account the rise of young filmmakers who are eager to try out new things. In his own small but significant way, Amir is helping to develop an ecosystem that will move the industry forward.
History will be the best witness. Perhaps 20 years from now, someone will make a documentary with the title of ‘From Z. Lokman to Amir Muhammad’. And, like ‘A ke Z. Lokman’, which was made for only RM600, it, too, would probably be a low-cost production, so as to carry on (and perhaps as a homage to) the Z. Lokman tradition. Perhaps others will also discern how these developments that seem nonchalant or superficial are actually vibrations below the surface that say a lot (or very little) about the industry and its players.
POSTSCRIPT: In his usual tongue-in-cheek manner, Amir Muhammad makes fun of Malay film approaches of the 1970s. His opening graphics is a parody of the approach of the 70s: “Alhamdulillah. Izin Dari Allah, Filem ini Dapat Disiapkan” (“Praise be to God. With His permission, This Film Was Able To Be Completed”). The capitals in every word is not by accident. His closing graphics is a frame grab from the end of Lokman’s first movie, ‘Raja Laut’ (in case the audience didn’t get that the film was over!): “Demikianlah Kisahnya” (“That’s how the story ends”). Without saying so explicitly, Amir alludes to how kampung (simple-minded) mainstream film personnel then were. Who knows, perhaps they thought their audience was also likewise…
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