By Alfian Sa’at
Sepet: to possess single eyelids, or used pejoratively, slit-eyed. The condition of being slit-eyed sometimes goes beyond its physical designations to enforce racial stereotypes. The sepet person is associated with certain personality traits: either a shifty inscrutability (you can’t read the person’s eyes), or handicapped by narrow-mindedness (surely someone with eyes like that is bound to have a limited field of vision).
There is much to be said about how sepet-ness is employed to categorise the racial Other. In Malaysia, for example, where the Malays form the dominant race, the otherness of the Chinese is expressed not via skin colour (having fair skin is still considered a virtue; compare the damning ‘hitam legam’, neutral ‘sawo matang’ and the almost-euphemistic ‘hitam manis’ with the praiseworthy ‘putih bersih’, ‘putih melepak’ and ‘putih berseri’) but by other physiognomic features, like the aforementioned ‘sepet’.
Sepet is also the name of a film by director Yasmin Ahmad. It concerns the romance between an 19-year-old Chinese illegal VCD seller, Jason (Ng Choo Seong) and Orked (Sharifah Amani), a 16-year-old Malay schoolgirl.
The film opens with a scene of Jason reading poetry, in Chinese, to his Peranakan mother. This scene sets the tone for the rest of the film: it turns out that the poem was written by an Indian poet (one assumes it to be Tagore), and Jason’s mother makes a remark on how odd it is that one can find empathy with someone of a completely different race. There’s a certain tinge of clumsy speechifying going on here, and one senses that the director is eager to establish her humanist credentials at this point.
But of course there’s more to the scene than that. Asian mothers always possess strange prophetic gifts, and in true mulut masin fashion, Jason is to discover that not only is empathy possible between people of different races, but also ta-da: love! One busy day among the bustle of Ipoh’s street markets, Orked visits his makeshift stall and makes some enquiries about Wong Kar Wai movies. Their exchange is brief, but long enough for them to be caught in the cross-hairs of Cupid’s crossbow.
It is to the director’s credit that she refuses to rationalise the instant attraction between her two leads: it is not the product of some deep-rooted scar (nobody was molested by a babysitter of another race, for example) or a superficial taste for the exotic. Of course one can do some lazy pop-psychology and state that Orked’s attraction towards Jason is an extension of her idol-worship of Jap-Chinese cutie, Takeshi Kaneshiro. But infatuation rarely blossoms into the kind of romance the two find themselves in, filled with the flush of endearments like ‘sayang’ and desolate pillow-burying sobs.
Much of the criticism of inter-racial relationships is that they are built on the fantasy of stereotypes. The White Knight. The Oriental Kitten. The Hypermasculine Indian Man. The Sopan-santun Malay Woman. There is always a lingering suspicion among its detractors that the glorification of the Other is accompanied by some level of ethnic self-loathing: The Redneck. The Personality-Deficient Wife. The Serve-Thy-Lord-and-Master Husband. Or quite simply, ‘He/she who reminds me too much of my father/mother’. This is when love is perceived as pathological, as a kind of fetish, because it involves objectification.
The point that Sepet makes is that quite often, inter-racial relationships happen precisely because of an inverse scenario: what the two leads are interested in is each other’s subjectivity. If the skin is a garment, then like all genuine and frantic lovers, they are more interested in what lies beneath. They do not, in other words, obsess about the texture of silk stockings or the smell of briefs.
The director makes a few other points too: racial categories are descriptive, not prescriptive, and even when they describe they are woefully inadequate. When you have a Peranakan in the cast, you know that’s always a big Up Yours to strict Chinese/Malay classifications. Orked’s maid (played to earthy perfection by Adibah Noor) listens to Thai pop songs. She duets to a Chinese song with Orked’s mother (Ida Nerina), a Cantonese serial addict. Who often converses with her husband (Harith lskandar) in a mixture of English and Malay.
Sometimes, though, the film loses control of its own political subtext and the dreaded message starts to rear its ungainly head. And thus we have a long explication on the genesis of the Peranakans, and speculation on the racial identities of the legendary Malaccan heroes. We also have Orked explaining Franz Fanon to her friend, which does make her character come across as precociously intelligent, but also makes her sound like she’s spelling out the movie’s manifesto.
In my opinion, the scenes that really embody the complexities of living in a multiracial society like Malaysia are the ones that are wordless. A particular scene comes to mind: Jason selects a song on his karaoke player – that classic whose lyrics go along the lines of, ‘Dia datang, dengan lenggang-lengguknya’. The intro sounds like something on Middle Eastern strings, and he’s miming air guitar to it. He freestyles to the music, his arms spread wide, hands flapping, making ducking movements. You might ask, how does this Chinese boy dance to this Malay music? Or rather, how does anyone dance to this music at all?
But it’s happening, before your very eyes. Jason’s friends ignore him, as if this is a routine they’re used to, or they’re deliberately ignoring his impish appeal for attention. The fascinating thing about the dance is that it’s impossible to tell if it’s parody or tribute; the expression on Jason’s face is a curious mixture of self-absorption and mock-seriousness. If it’s mockery, then is the gesture racist, the way people make fun of Indian dance by trying to move their heads in a horizontal plane or refer to lion dance as ‘tong-tong-chang’? If it’s not, then isn’t this one strange boy? But you watch him dance again and you think, who cares, it’s a body that’s moving to music, and it’s communicating such joy, and perhaps that’s what matters.
Ng Choo Seang delivers a natural, charming performance as Jason, although one might quibble a little with his sophisticated English diction. He is ably matched by Sharifah Amani, who manages to segue into headstrong and wistful modes with equal ease. The director’s choice of locations reveal an indisputable affection for the city of Ipoh, with its street vendors, generic fast-food chains, old-world photo studios and frenzied traffic.
I feel lucky, and I’m not gloating here, that I was able to attend a private screening of the uncut version of Sepet. I had been told that one of the censors’ consternations involved the fact that Orked had not broached the subject of Jason converting to Islam, and thus proceeded along their dogmatic agenda by circumcising the film eight times. There will be those who will consider Sepet a film that stretches plausibility, avoiding the ‘realities’ of interracial relationships. Where are the parental oppositions? How convenient to have authority figures who are liberal-minded. What happened to the inevitable, crashing realisation of cultural incompatibilities? Who will sembahyangkan whom?
Yasmin Ahmad will, of course, be accused of a rose-tinted utopianism. One function of art is of course to reflect reality as we know it. But another much-neglected function is to propose other realities, to portray the exceptions, because these lead us to imagining possibilities. I think there are parts of Sepet where the sentimentality or grandstanding could have been restrained. But I still believe it represents a landmark attempt at articulating the subject of a multiracial Malaysia.
In one scene of Sepet, Jason asks Orked about the decline of Malay cinema from its gilang-gemilang heydays. I recall a scene from P. Ramlee’s Ali Baba Bujang Lapuk, where Leng Husain basically performed a yellowface act (much like Paul Runi and Loiuse Rainer in ‘The Good Earth’) as a cobbler credited as ‘Apek Tukang Kasut’. The famous scene involves Sarimah leading the blindfolded Apek through the streets of Baghdad. They sing a duet, and much of its humour lies in the Apek’s exaggerated Chinese accent (one of his lines go: ‘semua hitam lagi banyak gulap, macham olang Habsyi negeli Alab’).
Contrast this with one indelible scene from Sepet, during the moment right after Jason’s first encounter with Orked. The historical blindfold is off. A medium shot of Jason, with his undeniably Sepet eyes, the very symbols of inscrutability, even hostility. But the expression conveyed on his face, via those eyes, is unmistakable.
Curiosity, enchantment, yearning-the boy is lovestruck. At this moment, I would like to think that Malaysian cinema (or at least the films made by Malay directors) has come of age, because we are looking through his eyes.
Alfian Sa’at is a Singaporean playwright (Asian Boys Vol I & II), poet (One Fierce Hour, A History of Amnesia) and fiction writer (Corridor). He is currently the resident playwright of Wildrice Theatre, Singapore.
First Published: 21.02.2005 on Kakiseni