By Fiona Lee
It was with mixed feelings of pride and nostalgia that I attended three Malaysian film screenings at the 27th Asian-American International Film Festival in New York City. From July 16 to 24, New Yorkers had the opportunity to view a sampling of works by Malaysian independent filmmakers, which were showcased alongside other Asian and Asian-American films. Representing Malaysia at the oldest festival dedicated to artists of Asian descent in the U.S. were James Lee’s The Beautiful Washing Machine, Ng Tian Hann’s First Take, Final Cut and nine short films screened collectively under the title, Malaysian Stories.
As a by-product of Malaysia Boleh! indoctrination, pride almost comes naturally when I see fellow Malaysians gain recognition and exposure for their work at the international level. Tumpang glamour would be the more accurate phrase – from a self-centered perspective, it’s also about sharing the visibility of Malaysians in a land that doesn’t give two hoots about where I’m from and how that makes me who I am, as a result the sudden interest in our country generated by these films.
Which makes the nostalgia a little more complicated to explain. I’m not talking about the I-wish-I-had-a-hot frothy-glass-of-teh-tarik-on-this-cold-wintry-morning kind of homesickness. To thrive, a stranger in a strange land has to find a balance between being a part of society to assimilate yet preserve her or his cultural identity to remain set apart. Having been abroad for some time and perhaps adjusted too comfortably into the American walk and talk, I hoped for a timely reminder of my cultural roots and national heritage in the films. Unexpectedly, I emerged from the viewing experience not so much disappointed, but disoriented.
There were plenty of familiar landscapes and landmarks in the shorts program to evoke memories of home but there is only so much that scenery can do. Though Sylvia Ong’s Raaga Mood delights the eye with beautiful shots of rural landscape, its story of a daughter trying to live up to her mother’s expectations for her to be a Bharatanatyam dancer seems a mere excuse to make a pretty film with stylish shots. A few of the shorts borrowed heavily from Western films, such as Idora Alhabshi’s fast-paced edited Free shot in reverse a la Christopher Nolan’s Memento and Jon Yap and Kim Ong’s version of MTV’s Celebrity Deathmatch in King of Fruits. The subjects in both films may be close to home, but the styles in which they are told evidently aren’t. None of these necessarily make bad films; on the contrary, I think they are strong starts for emerging filmmakers. That they are a very long way from developing their own styles or telling their own stories is my point of contention.
Perhaps it is unfair to expect these films to define the Malaysian identity and experience. In doing so, am I assigning the responsibility of creating a national identity to these filmmakers even though they never asked for it? Will they only be viewed as representatives of their country – even as the title of the shorts program suggests – or can their work never be seen as art in and of itself? But if we cannot look to our art as a reflection of our culture and values, to what else do we turn to better understand ourselves as Malaysians?
I am not suggesting that every film from Malaysia has to define our national identity in order to be good. Rather, Malaysian filmmakers (as well as artists of all disciplines) should strive to create a body of work that bears a unique stamp, which will eventually evolve into an established trademark. Take for instance Amir Muhammad’s Wait, which captures the experience of being stood up by one’s date using effective economic means (the cameraman doubles as actor). Its theme being universal and its location a non-descript city setting (it was shot in Tokyo), the film did not set out to make any grand statements about national identity; yet the spoken language was pronouncedly Manglish and unmistakably ours.
Judging by the buzz created by the two feature films at the festival, non-Malaysians too are looking to our filmmakers to better understand our country and culture. The guffaws and thigh-slapping during the screening of First Take, Final Cut indicate that Ng’s hilarious parody on indie-filmmaking and so-called ‘art’ films has found an appreciative international audience – at least, among the industry’s supporters and players. Informal post-show discussions usually led to questions about Malaysia’s film industry and non-film related questions about its culture, climate and so forth. An audience member I spoke to felt that she might have lost out on some of First Take‘s humor because of a “cultural gap,” but had, in one evening, gone from being unaware of a country’s existence to finding amusement in its art and is now curious for more.
Again, can our films be viewed on its own without having a national identifier attached? Yes, I conclude, based on a filmgoer’s comment that is based solely on the artistic merit of Lee’s film: “it was visually pleasing, well-shot, and the idea of a washing machine with a personality – lovely.” Using the household appliance as a metaphor for the story of a woman and her experiences with two different men, The Beautiful Washing Machine may be described by the Kakiseni Editor as having “a certain abstracted universality” but to another American viewer, it is a film lost upon her because she lacks knowledge of Malaysian culture. Furthermore, what do we make of a Village Voice review, which calls The Beautiful Washing Machine a “true find,” but ironically identifies the apparent influences of Tsai Ming-Liang in the film as Taiwanese, when the renowned director (Tsai), though trained at the Chinese Cultural University of Taiwan, was born and raised in Kuching?
Thus, the challenge for young postcolonial countries such as Malaysia is to develop artistic voices, in film and every other discipline, lest our individuality gets lost in this age of globalisation and hegemony that threatens to stifle any nation that doesn’t concur with a superpower. The influences that currently shape the visions of our independent filmmakers are foreign and eclectic but it is not originality that we are necessarily striving toward but ownership. Nevertheless, I take the increasing international exposure of our films as a step toward an evolving identity and as long as our filmmakers continue to challenge themselves and strive to remain independent in every sense of the word, I will continue to look to them to understand my cultural roots whether at home or abroad.
First Published: 17.09.2004 on Kakiseni