By Zedeck Siew
On July 12, 2004, a conspicuous but largely unnoticed full-page advertisement ran in the New Straits Times. It was titled: ‘A Gift to the Nation’, and touted a certain Mansor bin Puteh, ‘Malaysia’s Storyteller’. The black and white ad reproduced, right under the title, Mansor’s Columbia University student card.
When I meet Mansor at the opening of his exhibition, Mansor, Manhattan and Movies …, at the Alliance Francaise, he shows me this card. “Any time I want to go back to the US, I can just show them this card as proof I am a student,” he says. I look at the card. It says: ‘valid only through month / and year stamped below.’ The ‘month and year’ stamp has already faded. He was at Columbia between 1978 and 82.
In his NST ad Mansor was selling The Merdeka World Record Edition, a collection of 57 books in Malay and English, promising to ‘tell the stories of Malaysia and more… that aim to narrow the existing cultural and intellectual divide, and to balance the image deficit experienced by Muslims and the Malays.’ The price: RM1957. The bottom half of the page listed the book titles, along with their respective number of pages.
The ad went on to ask: ‘So, who is the most important storyteller of the Malays, Chinese and Indians in Malaysia? Who is the most important storyteller of Malaysia? Who is the most important storyteller of the Malay World? And who is the most important storyteller of the Muslim World? It’s high-time these important questions are answered.’
I have brought this ad to Mansor’s exhibition. I unfold the broadsheet and hand Mansor a pen. He laughs and says: “You know, this advertisement cost me seventeen thousand ringgit?” He writes: ‘To Kakiseni’ and places a block-lettered signature besides the picture of his student card.
Mansor, Manhattan and Movies… (280 p)
A photo autobiography of Mansor bin Puteh – Malaysia’s most extraordinary creative talent.
The Alliance Francaise’s hosting of this exhibition, which ran between February 23 and March 9, 2005, was a courteous gesture, since Mansor had worked with them before – in 1992, when he helped organise the International Short Film Festival. Between glasses of wine, Amelie Leconte, the Alliance’s Information & Library Services Manager, told me: “I like Mansor. He is a real artist; he doesn’t care what anyone thinks, he just does it.”
Yasmin Ahmad’s Sepet had opened the day before; I ask Mansor whether he managed to see it.
“I don’t watch these kind of films,” he answers. “Malay girl and Chinese boy falling in love – this is a subplot stretched too long.”
I ask him whether he has seen the work of Amir Muhammad, James Lee, or Ho Yuhang.
“I don’t watch their films,” he says. “These people don’t come and support me.” He looks around. “Where are they?”
Mansor, Manhattan and Movies… featured paintings, cover designs for all 57 books, and black-and-white photographs of Balinese dance. The photographs were digitally manipulated to appear negative, blurred, or both, and are all quite crudely pixelated.
The book covers were colour prints glued to cardboard and fixed to the wall with adhesive tape. They almost invariably consisted of a title, a photograph, and a synopsis-blurb obscuring the photograph. One had a bearded English chap on the cover, his photograph tiled to fill the cover’s dimensions:
The British Maharajah of Malaya (263 pages)
“Malaysia is reverting to the use of English after 43 years of Merdeka? Wilson feels it strange… He figures it would be easy for him to wrest the country from the Malays then… “
The British Maharajah and its 56 companions currently exist in a hard drive. “4.2 million words. You know, with computers now it is very simple.” In fact, Mansor has drafts for 60 books, but he only wants to publish 57 for his ‘World Record’ collection. “It’s something catchy; you have to learn how to market the books, you know. And you can remind people about independence.”
Mansor is still looking for a publisher, and acknowledges the fact that he might have to wait for some time. “But it is a challenge,” he says. “I think it’s not much, a person boasting he has written one book. Take it at face value. You have to admit that a person who writes 57 books at one time is not normal. If this is not exceptional, what is?” Mansor predicts his books’ publication will turn the world of literature upside down. However, this success is dependant on market forces; Mansor wants to accumulate 2000 orders for his RM1957 set before looking for a publisher.
As a diversion from writing, Mansor began to paint in 1996; the pieces at the Alliance came out of this period. Two 1997 paintings were placed side by side: both had childish landscapes, complete with circle suns and rays in rough, yellow brushstrokes. The one on the left had captions identifying elements of the diorama (‘matahari’, ‘langit’, ‘horizon’ and ‘dan bumi’); it was titled: Before Tsunami. The one on the right had an outline of an anthropoid body lying at the bottom; it was titled: After Tsunami.
“I only titled them recently,” Mansor says. “The tsunami happened, you know, and I thought, oh, these paintings fit, so I took advantage.”
Kampung Serkam, USA (Malaysian Snow) (357 pages)
A group of Malaysian students study at the Western Michigan University campus in Kalamazoo, America. Two of them are from the same village outside of Melaka. They grew up together and are now in their final semester. The student who fails, is an albino. He decides to remove his make-up so as to make himself look like a Caucasian in order that he is not caught by the immigration officials for living illegally in the country.
Mansor’s paintings are signed with a large ‘M’. This ambiguity is intentional: the letter may mean ‘Mansor’; it may also mean ‘Moon’.
Moon is a character in Mansor Puteh’s upcoming Malaysian Snow, a film about a Malaysian student in the United States and his struggles with identity. Moon also turns out to be a good painter: Mansor has written an art exhibition scene into the script – something he has been working on since 1986. “It’s also one of my books: Kampung Serkam, USA.”
Mansor is beginning to work on his piece de resistance only now: he thinks that after years of being cautious, he is ready to take a big plunge. “My thinking has matured,” he says, and he is aiming big. “Local film awards are not a big deal. Malaysian Snow is my stepping stone to Hollywood. Who knows? I may be the first Malaysian filmmaker to go to Hollywood.”
Preproduction has already started. “I have informal agreements with several people: this Malay young man who was raised in America – he is really interested in exploring his Malay roots and I think I can explore that aspect. And there is Ming Lee, whom you’ve met.”
I met Chan Ming Lee, a Malaysian chap on holiday from Broadway (he played the stand-in for The Engineer in Miss Saigon for seven years), at Mansor’s exhibition opening. Ming Lee said: “I definitely want to be in his film, when he starts making it. It’s good that he is doing important work for people in Malaysia.”
When he said this, Ming Lee had Antares’s son hanging from his neck. Antares, the critic and scatological poet previously known as Kit Leee, told me he has known Mansor for some time. “He’s a little stubborn, misguided, but I respect him. At least he never tried to borrow my money. He sold me a camera once. It stopped working after a week, but at least he never tried to borrow my money.”
Hikayat Si Seman (320 pages)
“Aku akan berusaha untuk membeli balik tanah datuk kita dari towkay itu. Dia anak kuli datuk kita dulu.”
Fiscal honesty appears to represent a major aspect of Mansor Puteh’s work ethic. When I meet Hassan Muthalib, President of the Malaysian Animation Society, to acquire his copy of Mansor’s 1988 film Seman, he tells me: “Did you know that Mansor got some money from FINAS for this film? And that he has fully paid back the loan? Every sen.” According to Hassan, very few filmmakers actually pay back their loans from the National Film Development Corporation.
According to the Internet Movie Database’s recommendation, audiences who liked Seman would also like Rahim Razali’s Matinya Seorang Patriot (1984). Filemkita.com, the IMDB of Malaysian film, lists Seman as a 1986 film, provides it with an English subtitle (The Lost Hero), and describes it as a film ‘told in a series of vignettes showing the past, present and future (imaginary) episodes in the life of Seman, which highlight the plight of his family’.
According to Mansor Puteh, work on Seman began in 1985 and ended in 1988; this was the era of Jin Shamsuddin’s campus comedy Ali Setan (1985), the Nasir Jani and M Nasir collaboration Kembara … Seniman Jalanan (1986), Stephen Teo’s Bejalai (1989; the first Malaysian film to travel to the Berlin Film Festival), an economic boom (1984-1987), Operasi Lalang (1987), and an economic recession (1987-1989).
Gregarious 60-year-old Hassan, also a film critic and lecturer, is best-known for the Sang Kancil animations of the 70s and 80s, and Malaysia’s first animation feature Silat Lagenda (youths from the future channel the martial arts of their favourite Hangs). He has known Mansor Puteh since his return from Columbia U; both were part of the Dialog Cerdik sessions at the Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka, which discussed film from 1983 to 1987. Hassan describes that forum succinctly: “The local film producers never liked Dialog Cerdik; we always blasted their films.”
In 1988, Hassan accompanied an entourage of auteurs (including Shuhaimi Baba, Nasir Jani, and Mansor Puteh) to London, at the behest of the British Film Institute. “It was called Four Films from Malaysia, at the Riverside Theatre. Seman was one of the four.”
“How did the audience take it?” I ask.
“Well, the audience didn’t understand it, you know. The issues were very very local, and the style was avant garde. This was the general British public. There were also filmmakers; I remember Gillie Potter was there – he was a famous special effects animator; he did Superman 1 and 2 – I remember he said he couldn’t really grasp it.”
While Seman has garnered some attention in filmmaking circles (it was nominated for best film at the Figuera da Foz Film Festival in Portugal), it was never screened in local cinemas.
“Seman is difficult because Mansor breaks every rule in filmmaking,” Hassan continues. “Mansor was 15 years ahead of his time. Now it has been 19 years since his last film, still no one can beat him.”
Hassan cites Seman and Nam Ron’s Gedebe as paragons of real Malaysian film. “They should be shown in universities: they have rich film language, and so much political subtext – when Gedebe‘s characters kick plastic chairs they are really kicking what?”
“I don’t know,” I say.
“Chairs in parliament,” Hassan answers. “Brilliant! And Seman, it is short for Osman, who is actually Mansor himself. It’s basically a film essay on what Mansor feels about the situation in Malaysia today. Amir Muhammad says that he makes film essays; Mansor did it years ago. And Amir’s The Big Durian, it is basically an attack on Mahathir. How can you criticise Mahathir, man? He was a 100 years ahead of everyone else.”
Here I decide it would be counterproductive to mention I was in The Big Durian, Amir Muhammad’s mockumentary about Operasi Lalang.
“Anyway, try to watch Seman. It’s counter-cinema, it’s like a nightmare Mansor is having. I think if you watch it, it will also be a nightmare. But try.”
Around Amerika (sic) (501 pages)
“There was so much that we didn’t know about each other and ourselves until we were here in America!”
“I was less Muslim, less Malay before I came to this country.”
(Note: The ‘sic’ in the title is not mine.)
I meet Mansor Puteh for a second time at the Alliance Francaise, on Monday, March 7. Mansor has just donated blood, and looks fatigued as a result. He is not very eager to talk about Seman. “It was my exercise film; I just wanted to see where my limits are.” Mansor has written 28 television dramas (whether features or serials) that have aired on Malaysian waves, to date; he considers Seman as part of this list.
Mansor is more enthusiastic in discussing Sepet. “I went with Ming Lee to see it a few days ago,” he says. “I think it is a horrible film.”
“I only went to see Sepet because of all the fuss with the penapis filem.” Mansor doesn’t question the place of censors in Malaysian filmmaking; he thinks they are there for a reason. His contention is on the part of the filmmaker: directors should know what is proper for their audiences to see. “Do you want your children to mix with crooks? The artist is like a parent to the audience.”
“Sepet is not a well-conceived idea; obviously, it is so rough because the director was not trained in film. She hasn’t been to film school. The story was not internationalised, externalised. A Malay girl and a Chinese boy falling in love, that is so local. And even locally it is not a big deal any more. My great-grandmother was Chinese, and she married a Malay man.”
Mansor’s family matriarch, family name Lee, was from Singapore and converted to Islam through marriage; he claims that she never had to face social persecution. He remembers muhibbah Malaccan nights as a young boy, playing with Chinese tanglungs.
“I had twenty brothers and sisters, but I am the only one who ended up in the arts,” Mansor says. “When I was in Form 5, I just decided one day that I wanted to go into film. I don’t know why.” He studied for three years at Institut Teknologi MARA, then applied to Columbia University to study film. He got a place. Mansor then applied for a government scholarship to study in the United States. He was rejected.
He waited for a year, applied for a loan, got it, and flew off. Czechoslovakian director Milos Forman and Village Voice film critic Andrew Sarris were among the lecturers at Columbia’s film school in 1978. “I was the only Malaysian student at the time. I did not relate so well. It wasn’t easy. I was quiet, and never took part in discussion. But I was all the time fascinated.”
It didn’t help that Mansor acquired crutches after his second semester. While visiting the clinic because of a sprain, doctors discovered a bone tumour in his left leg. They operated three times, and the eager student spent a year on medical leave. “I was scared of a recurrence. Luckily nothing happened. I spent 15 years in crutches.”
“What happened to your course?” I ask.
“I didn’t complete the course,” Mansor answers. “The university let me come home because of my condition. Seman was supposed to be my thesis.” He mailed a copy of the film along with Basikalku and Kadir dan Kim, two other dramas in which Mansor was involved in the 80s. “I still remember the price of stamps in 1987.” They cost him RM75. “The university never got my package. I think the mail clerk took it; you know how the postal service is.”
When Mansor returned to Malaysia, in 1982, the National Film Development Corporation was just set up. “I thought I could participate straight away in Malaysian film. Unfortunately, the government didn’t take the initiative to contact the people who studied overseas. That’s why FINAS is dominated by untrained people. It was difficult for me to get a loan for Seman. Seman is there for a purpose: to unite people. To unite people and create more jobs; that’s what cinema is about. But these people think cinema is just for fun.”
Mansor is thinking about submitting Malaysian Snow as his thesis. “A degree doesn’t mean anything now, because I already got my education; but if you deserve it, and it doesn’t cost much, why not?”
“With Malaysian Snow, I want to find a new way to make films. I’ve been back for 23 years, but I haven’t done much, yet. Malaysian Snow is going to be my big film.” And he repeats, “It’s my stepping stone to Hollywood.”
For the last 23 years, Mansor has functioned as a film critic: his column ‘Ulasan Drama TV’ in the Utusan Melayu was, according to him, the first column about film in Malaysian press.
I ask Mansor how old he is in 2005. He answers: “No, no. I don’t want to say. You know, people get confused when you mention the age of the filmmaker. They will say things like: ‘You don’t know anything,’ because of someone’s age. I don’t want to be judged by my age.” By my estimation, he is around 50.
After this conversation, I ask Mansor why his book covers are no longer on display, even though it was two days to the end of the exhibition.
“What?” he asks.
“They are no longer on the walls,” I say, pointing this fact out.
“Oh,” Mansor says. “I must ask Amelie about this. I think it’s the cellophane tape, you know? They don’t last very long, so the pictures may have fallen down.”
The Broken Stage (301 pages)
Tuan Said a.k.a. The Rich Man of Malaya – the former Japanese informer tries to cover his ugly past with bangsawan … Osman uses it as the story of his debut film… and exposes it!
I meet 32-year-old filmmaker Amir Muhammad at a gallery opening in April. I say: “I met Hassan the other day. He had interesting thing to say about your films.”
Amir laughs. “I’m sure he did,” he says. “Why did you have to see Hassan?”
“I got a copy of Mansor Puteh’s Seman from him,” I say. “Have you seen it?”
“Yeah. It’s interesting. The scenes with the fake flowers are quite beautiful, beautifully shot.”
“Really?” I say. “What do you think of Mansor?”
Amir laughs. “I think interesting people like Mansor should exist,” he says.
The next day, I place Seman into my DVD player and press play. The disc spins smoothly for about half-an-hour before skipping to a halt.
Seman is a remarkably coherent watch, in spite of Hassan Muthalib’s cautionary asides. Its only fault, perhaps, is a hustled sensation – the plot rushes forward: Osman auditions actresses for his new film; Osman talks to his still-school-going girlfriend; Osman practising for his Hang Jebat stage role; Osman’s girlfriend wrestles another schoolgirl over his photograph; Osman breaks up with his girlfriend; Osman discovers one of his brothers is Chinese, and was adopted; Osman tells his youngest brother Wahab about how their grandfather was cheated of his land by Maximillan and Wong; Osman goes off to Japan.
Our titular hero sees Japanese youths sitting on the streets (Hassan: “Mansor is saying that Malaysia’s Look East policy is flawed.”), then returns home to discover Wahab’s death. This is handled with a voiceover: Wahab reads a letter he has written to Osman, saying: “Aku tidak faham kenapa abang suka sangat memakai topeng; tetapi aku ingin juga untuk mencubanya”; onscreen, the two brothers chase each other around a rubber tree.
The last scene I manage to decipher from the failing disc features a shirtless Osman, wearing oversized spectacles, an apron and a pair of shorts: he kneels and serves pisang goreng to a woman sitting at his dining table.
Hassan Muthalib is convinced that Seman is Mansor’s passionate rebuke of the Malaysian film industry. I am more ambivalent in assigning the film’s images a particular reading: it appears to be a Malaysian Identity film, a celluloid recording of the dilemmas our society has grappled with since the New Economic Policy. These sociopolitical issues are secondary to Mansor’s most important question: “Who is the most important storyteller of Malaysia?”
Still, I haven’t watched Seman to the end. I write a brief email to Mansor, informing him I thought his film was engaging. I also ask him about the publication of his books and the progress of Malaysian Snow.
This is his reply:
I want to produce my film first and see how the reaction is and then publish the books. If I win international awards, the value of my books will appreciate and there will be more attention. It is not often a filmmaker is publishing so many books comprising of diverse stories, styles and with one aim – to tell the untold stories of the Malays and Malays.
How did you get ‘Seman’ on disc? I thought he only had a VHS. I have not converted it to disc yet. A friend of mine got a VHS of it in Dubai some years ago!
Zedeck Siew is the events editor of Kakiseni, and was born in the year of Seman.
First Published: 15.04.2005 on Kakiseni