Fikri Jermadi puts on his shades to take a closer look at Nadira Ilana’s latest film.
Though it’s not often we kickstart a write-up with an analysis of the film itself, the following scene’s position as the first of ‘Were the Sun and the Moon to Meet’ warrants this exception. Set in Kota Kinabalu, the film opens with shots of people playing music accompanying a troop of traditional dancers; dressed in their cultural garb, they are performing in a restaurant for a clientele that appears to be non-Sabahan (probably Peninsular Malaysians).
This is confirmed shortly thereafter, with some of the diners and their family members taking a picture with the dancers. It is actually not an uncommon scene in Malaysia, but my experience of this is often couched in non-Malaysians (most probably a Caucasian Westerner) taking part in such documentation, a touristic tendency and othering process in which value is predicated upon the exotic native.
Here, however, that process is conducted by locals on other locals, which is not something that sits all that well with me. This unease is etched on the face of one of the dancers, Emory (Jason Labunda), when his dance routine is briefly interrupted by children running in their midst. Though he did not make a scene of it, an unsmiling response suggests a disappointment that an expression of his culture is not taken seriously.
That is the tone of the story, in which Emory appears to be in a close and intimate relationship with Eleanor (Kristine Kim Tanggau), an aspiring singer leaving for Peninsular Malaysia. The rest of the film is a narrative of their final day together, giving us a peek at their peaks and troughs as they try to enjoy each other’s company. Change is coming, as one of them will no longer be there, but what will that future be like for the both of them?
This plotline mirrors much of what we saw in ‘Burung-Burung’ by Anwar Johari Ho. That film (which mentioned this film’s director, Nadira Ilana, in its credits list) also featured lovers taking in their final moments together, before the girl departs for another place. These films (along with Jef Samaroon’s ‘Washroom’; a scene early in this film, promoting jobs in Peninsular Malaysia and Singapore, is key to this) highlights a bigger picture tendency of migration in the Bornean context, intranational or otherwise.
That is connected to Malaysia’s development policies as a whole; without spending too much time distracted by this, it’s worth noting how the centralisation of resources and development into specific areas of the country have led to imbalanced perceptions of prosperity. Yes, places like Sabah do get their piece of the pie, but it’s nowhere near the lion’s share taken by the likes of the Klang Valley and other spots on the Peninsular.
The end result is a numbers game heavily tilted in favour of West Malaysia (both the place and its people), leaving those outside of it hard-pressed to see their own native contexts as suitable for personal and professional growth. Of course, this is not exclusive to the country; Indonesia’s arguably greater imbalance have led to the highly-condensed population in areas like Jakarta and its satellite cities.
Staying within Malaysia, other contexts like Johor warrants their own discussion; with one of the continent’s great economic successes just across the Causeway, it is not difficult to imagine people in Johor Bahru aspiring to Singapore instead of the nation’s capital. That sense of being so near, yet so far is reversed in Nadira’s film. For Eleanor, Kuala Lumpur, hours away by flight, is seen as her only viable option to advance her career. This is an indictment on the imbalanced bigger picture political discourse.
All this exacts an emotional cost on our likeable leads. It is easy to root for their relationship (even if there is an ambiguity to its status), as theirs is an easy chemistry. That makes it more difficult for us to say goodbye to them as they wish their farewells. The film’s end credits suggest ‘Were the Sun and the Moon to Meet’ as the first on-screen appearance for both Jason and Kristine, making their performance together all the more respectable.
A particularly poignant scene takes place at the beach. As the sun sets on both the day and their moment in the sun, Eleanor sings ‘Terang Bulan’, a folk song popular in Indonesia. Often credited as the inspiration for the Malaysian national anthem, its melody prompts Emory to ask whether he should take a more formal stance. “Should I be standing at attention?” asks Emory. Eleanor sighs, perhaps exasperated at his ignorance. “If you sing it enough times, it’s just going to be another love song.”
On that note, readers should know that the song will always evoke memories of me coming across it being butchered by a young Rutger Hauer in ‘Soldier of Orange’, Paul Verhoeven’s first big-budget effort. Film students go through phases of filmmakers, and mine was the Dutch master at the time. Needless to say, that experience of a Malaysian in the dark depths of a Korean library watching a film from the Netherlands featuring an Indonesian folk song evoking a longing for home is more surreal than most.
Such diasporic dilemmas also crossed the minds (and hearts) of our protagonists. Tying back to the discussion above, Emory tries hard to dissuade her: “When was the last time you saw a Sabahan in a film?” “I have a voice,” she insists, channeling what may have been the director’s own exasperation at the context. “I can’t just stay here in Kota Kinabalu. Singing in bars, day in, day out.”
At that moment, I imagined her adding an extra line: “My English is too good for me to stay in Sabah.” It is a naughty train of thought, but it does connect to the imbalanced bigger picture mentioned earlier. Whichever way you spin that, it remains damning that one of the world’s most resource-rich areas is seen as lacking opportunities for its own people.
Perhaps that last paragraph is more of a stretch than most, but I am on surer ground with everything else I’ve noted here. Nadira is backed by other filmmakers like Putri Purnama Sugua, Praveen Kumar (cinematography) and Emir Ezwan (visual effects), much praised on these pages. Simply put, this is a perfectly good film, even if you want to ignore all the other critical thoughts I’ve shared here.
You really shouldn’t, though. Much like how the moonlight is a reflection of the sun, one cannot exist without the other. That process of othering is what we need to think about more than just a little bit, and ‘Tadau om Vuhan Kopisoomo’ (to give its proper Kadazan title) is a good film to move us all a little further along that path.
The film is currently screening at Short Shorts Film Festival & Asia 2021, and was recently selected for the 2021 Southeast Asia x Seattle Film Festival, hosted by Southeast Asia Center at the University of Washington. We previously featured Nadira, along with Putri and Jasmine Suraya Chin, in a three-part write-up about East Malaysians in the film industry.
Featured image credit: Britannica