So Hot Right Now

By Ben Slater

big-durian-amir-muhammad.jpgThe Big Durian, 2003

New malaysian film-makers in focus

Malaysia has been one-to-watch for the last few years now. Certainly not for any shining talents in its notoriously sub-par ‘mainstream’ industry, but because historically there has been a strong cinematic tradition in Malaysia (pre-Independence, when the big studios were in Singapore) and it’s only now beginning fully to resurface in the work of a number of independent outsider figures, sometimes lumped together by the local media and other commentators to form an ‘indie’ film community. This tag, useful for some, loathed by others, is inevitable when many of the leading lights have been working with each other (acting in and producing friends’ films etc.) but it prematurely homogenizes a series of emerging filmic identities that are actually profoundly diverse. And it’s this difference that makes Malaysia’s freshly minted independent cinema, to borrow a catchphrase from an American film (Zoolander) famously banned there, “so hot right now”.  

The two film-makers profiled below couldn’t be more different, but their mutual existence indicates signs of health and massive potential for film-making in Malaysia. Neither takes cinema lightly – it is a passion and it is all-consuming. Crucially, their films are part of who they are. Personalities and celluloid (or digital video) are conjoined. Both have found very distinctive and assured voices and, as they get into their stride, critics, curators, programmers and most importantly, audiences are starting to take notice. This year they will surely be coming to a festival near you.


Amir Muhammad is one of the best-known of the Kuala Lumpur-based independent directors, and one of the least typical. After directing Malaysia’s first DV feature, a multi-stranded drama, Lips To Lips, Amir reinvented himself with a series of six short digital essay-films (collectively titled 6HORTS) that owed more to Chris Marker than to any Asian auteurs. Through witty and sometimes ironic narration over stark documentary images, 6HORTS dealt with the everyday process of the personal becoming political. Each situation covered in the films – losing an Identity Card, unwanted attention at checkpoints between countries, driving to visit a friend detained in a Malaysian prison under the Internal Security Act – gives Amir pause to reflect on the absurdities and idiosyncratic cruelties of authoritarianism and nanny state surveillance. Although physically absent from the frame, Amir’s persona – charming, explaining, inquiring, mischievously pushing things a bit too far – is always present.

Amir’s next feature, The Big Durian, saw an expansion and continuation of this style, but the focus had shifted from the intimately personal to the dangerously public. Taking a notorious event from 1987, when a young soldier ran amok (this being actually a Malay word) with a rifle in a Chinese district of downtown KL, Amir mixes interviews with eyewitnesses, commentators and fictional characters, alongside his own research into the time of the incident, to build a rambunctious portrait of Malaysia’s particular and peculiar political, religious and racial tensions – momentarily exposed as fragile in this one moment of violence. Durians, it is worth mentioning, are a fruit and a delicacy in the tropics, notorious for their incredibly strong smell and taste, as well as their thorny skin. Only mentioned in the film’s title, the fruit makes for an intriguingly pungent metaphor.

Despite playing at Sundance and other international festivals, it should be noted that The Big Durian does not officially exist as a film in Malaysia. It was never submitted to the censors and hence never approved. Given its implied criticism of the ruling party, that was not a risk worth taking. However, far from being a samizdat item, it has been fairly widely seen within Malaysia in special screenings at festivals, colleges and arts events, part of an ad hoc, just-above underground, alternative exhibition circuit (that has benefited many low-budget DV directors) which is tacitly tolerated by the powers-that-be.

Since then, Amir has been busy abroad. He has completed a feature film double-bill (premiered in Rotterdam 2005), comprising ‘experimental romance’ Tokyo Magic Hour and The Year Of Living Vicariously. In Amir’s words, they are both about ‘Malaysian identity, but refracted through how I react to those other places, Japan and Indonesia.’

For …Vicariously, Amir managed to blag his way onto the set of big-budget Indonesian feature Gie, to shoot a ‘making-of’ documentary. The catch is that while Amir exhaustively interviews everyone up and down the production line, from the stars to the extras, the producer to the make-up team, he never once asks them about the film; rather he pumps them for their personal stories about Indonesia’s troubled recent past. While Gie’s epic production (an historical reconstruction of the 1960s, complete with crowd scenes, explosions and period costumes) rumbles away in the background, Amir is coaxing his subjects into revealing an alternative contemporary narrative. It’s the sort of delicious situation, rich in ironies and contradictions, that Amir thrives upon.  


Well-known as director and writer of a much-loved and award-winning series of narrative-based ads for Petronas (Malaysia’s biggest fuel company), Yasmin Ahmad made her first feature Rabun (for TV) as ‘a kind of love declaration’ to her ‘crazy parents’. Unfolding at a deceptively sleepy pace, Rabun charts the attempt by a retired Malay couple to spend more time in their house in the countryside. Gradually, their romantic notion of peaceful rural living is eroded and then violently ruptured. It’s Straw Dogs remade as loosely and gently as you could imagine, but mostly it’s a celebration of the couple’s enduring love, sensuality and deeply embedded interdependence.

In her second, most recent feature, Sepet, a Chinese bootleg video VCD seller, who has fallen for a middle class Malay girl after she buys some knock-off Wong Kar-Wais, asks her hesitantly why there have been no good Malay films since the days of P. Ramlee (legendary Malaysian auteur of the 1950s). It’s a naturally self-reflexive moment, especially since Sepet suggests a new way forward for Malaysian cinema that necessitates the end of the idea of the ‘Malay film’; a counterblast to the ethnic segregation that continues to stifle the entertainment industry both in Malaysia and Singapore.

Indeed, Sepet is an ecstatic hymn to the hybrid. Mutual attraction between people of different races becomes the primary variation on the theme of ‘mixing it up’; fruitfully exchanging, borrowing, stealing and colliding cultures, dialects, languages, pop songs, film references, food and histories. In its first few scenes, we see and hear the Chinese boy, Ah Loong, talking to his mother in Peranakan (the dialect of the Straits Chinese settlers who took Malay wives on arrival in Malaysia in the 19th Century). We see Orked, his soon-to-be lover, opening up her dressing cabinet to reveal photographs of Japanese heart-throb (and sometime star actor for Wong Kar-Wai) Takeshi Kaneshiro, who is himself half-Chinese, followed by a scene where Ah Loong dances hypnotically to a Malay pop song, to the bemusement of his gang of friends.

Sepet is the first fictional film I’ve seen that takes on the challenge of language in this particularly multi-racial part of the world, and convincingly captures the way that people slip and slide between different modes of speech, dialect and slang on a daily basis. Nobody else has been able or willing to pull that off. Certainly no one has had the humour, the boldness or the genuine love for the way these words sound.

Low budgets notwithstanding, Yasmin has faith in the simplest and most direct of images. This, coupled with her films’ uninhibited emotional highs and lows (Sepet in particular has an intensely dramatic finale), is very much hardwired into who she is. Although she is working through the filter of (autobiographical) fictions, her personality and passion for her characters, and the worlds they live in, is always palpable.

Yasmin insists that she doesn’t make films for festivals, but rather for the Malaysian mass audience. However, it seems her style of ramshackle naturalism, complete with sexually active middle-aged couples and everyday street language, is far ahead of the Malaysian Censorship Board’s notion of what is permissible in the local multiplex. They have demanded eight cuts before Sepet is considered ‘clean’, which Yasmin feels is too much to bear. Censorship may still be common here, but it hurts. Ironically, you may get to see Sepet before Malaysia does.

Ben Slater: If you could start shooting a new film right now, what would it be?

Yasmin: It would be Gubra (Malay word for anxiety). It is a story about betrayal. More specifically, it is about the curious fact that we are more often betrayed by the people who love us than the people who don’t. I suppose, in the end, it might be about forgiveness.

Amir: I have always been fascinated by Mona Fandey. She was Malaysia’s most famous murderess, a failed pop singer, who decided to become a witch doctor, and was then hanged for the murder of a Malaysian politician. He had gone to her to become invincible but, after he paid her, she (and her husband and assistant) chopped him up into 18 pieces. No picture of her exists where she doesn’t smile. Somehow I think her story, and her semi-contemptuous smile, says a lot. She knew we would miss her when she was gone, and she was right.

Note: First names have been used throughout as is often the case in Muslim cultural reference.

Ben Slater is a writer and programmer based in Singapore. He is currently writing a book exploring the production and context of Peter Bogdanovich’s Singapore-set feature Saint Jack.