Asia-Pacific, Headlines

/ARTS WEEKLY/MALAYSIA: Film Dares to Venture into Race Relations

Baradan Kuppusamy

KUALA LUMPUR, Aug 19 2003 (IPS) - Malaysia’s obsession with the ‘Malaysia Boleh’ or ‘Malaysia Can Do It’ culture has sent its citizens up Mt Everest, across the English Channel and soon into space, albeit on a Russian rocket.

But in the world of credible films, this South-east Asian country has nothing to show that can stand tall and proud like the Petronas Twin Towers.

Malaysian films, critics say, are sorry affairs – shoddy tearjerkers build around love-triangle storylines and lately on the perennial ‘crime does not pay’ and ‘beware of drugs and HIV/AIDS’ themes.

Last year, the government stepped in to correct the imbalance with a special fund for high-quality movies that would allow local directors to make quality flicks, without worry of money, to dazzle the world, win awards at international film festivals and make the country stand tall.

The answer is ‘Paloh’, a movie that was screened in July to enthusiastic reviews but ended up as a dismal box office flop. It grossed just 100, 000 ringgit (26,300 U.S. dollars) in the first two weeks compared to the production cost of about 4 million ringgit (1.05 million dollars).

Despite the rejection by domestic viewers, movie critics say, ‘Paloh’ will be better appreciated abroad and hopefully win awards

”It is the first thinking Malay movie – it is deep and complex but viewers did not have the patience or depth to understand ‘Paloh’,” said Bismee S, a movie critic for ‘The Sun’ daily in an interview with IPS.

‘Paloh’, he says, asked questions about Chinese-Malay race relations that no movie had asked before. It asked sensitive questions about contemporary history and has helped to bring better understanding between the races that make up this multicultural nation.

For the first time, a mainstream movie questioned the accepted view of the historical conflict between Malays and Chinese and gave credit to the role of the communists in the independence struggle and highlighted the atrocities committed by the Japanese soldiers, he said.

Paloh’ is set in during the turbulent times when the Japanese army ruled the country in 1944 and a year before the defeated British returned in triumph.

The film is set in the small town of Paloh in Southern Johor state and chronicles the lives of four Malay friends, two of whom fall in love with Chinese women – an improbable event then but a commonplace now.

Malaysian Chinese Janet Khoo plays the lead character of Siew Lan, a communist sympathiser who falls in love with Ahmad, a Malay policeman.

The story tells of four friends – Ahmad, Osman, Puteh and Harun – who choose to serve the Japanese Police Force in order to survive the hard times. Ahmad and Osman are Malay policemen working for the Japanese police.

It was a time of hunger and strife between Malays, who sided with the Japanese military, and the Chinese who bore the brunt of Japanese atrocities.

Although Malay individuals helped and later joined British resistance against Japanese occupation, mainstream thought has it that the Chinese, many of whom joined the Communist Party of Malay (CPM), were the only ones to oppose the Japanese.

Malay-Chinese racial clashes broke out during a brief interregnum between the Japanese surrender and the return of British soldiers, when armed Chinese communist took revenge on Malays who had supported the Japanese military administration.

After the war, the British faced a Chinese-led communist insurrection that lasted for 12 years. Many Malay policemen were killed in the fight against the CPM, always officially described as bandits.

The Malay-Chinese rivalries and hatred during that period, historians say, have always coloured their perceptions right up today and Paloh is the first ever film to look honestly at these turbulent times and question the stereotyped images from the past.

Not only were the themes controversial, but also feuds broke out and led to the sacking of director Adman Salleh by supervising producer Jurey Latiff Rosli.

Adman was reinstated after FINAS, the National Film Development Corp that funded the movie, intervened.

As a cinematographic aid, ‘Paloh’ uses a lot of flashback sceneries that confused viewers and led to condemnation.

The large and complex theme that ‘Paloh’ grapples with and its many flashback scenes came as a shock to viewers used to simple straightforward entertainment movies, said film critic Akmal Abdullah. ”The movie challenges our intellect.”

It tries to question, investigate and portray an important and still sensitive layer of contemporary history the Japanese occupation, the Malay Chinese racial clashes that followed and tries to show today society how the animosities originally started.

The larger issue is the effect of British colonialism and the Japanese occupation on Malaysian people and race relations, said director Adman Salleh. ”We tried out best to be intellectual honest.”

” ‘Paloh’ is very heavy movie and many viewers were furious – they walked out of the cinemas, wrote Janet Abishegam, a teacher in an e-mail message to a film website. ”I found ‘Paloh’ so captivating – the movie is too sophisticated for Malaysians who are used to the Bollywood love stories.

Independent film critic Nizam Zakaria also dismissed viewers’ complaints that ‘Paloh’ is difficult to understand and boring. The film is ambitious and viewers had no patience, he points out.

For FINAS, ‘Paloh’ is good money well spent.

”It is a refreshing new venture with a real Malaysian touch,” said FINAS director Shariff Ahmad. ‘Paloh’ is also the first local movie with a 40 percent non-Malay cast and fosters better race relations.

While ‘Paloh’ might be a domestic flop, critics are confident it will be an international success with first international screening due at the Asia-Pacific Film Festival in Iran in October.

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