By Benjamin McKay
Subtitles not required
A friend here in KL recently suggested to me that my view of Malaysia might be a little askew. For over two years now I have immersed myself in a study of your old Malay movies from the 1950s and 1960s as part of my doctoral dissertation. She suggested to me that perhaps I saw the country only in glorious black and white (and all the subtle, but palpable shades of grey). If I was to understand her past I needed to dip into the present and I was told to go and see a current release Malaysian movie. I protested of course, and told her that I have seen a lot of contemporary independent Malaysian cinema on the festival circuit. Such a declaration was a big mistake as she quickly admonished me for being ‘elitist’. After all she reminded me, the films I am studying from the past were all mainstream, commercial, popular cinema. And so in effect I was ordered out of the art house and told to find my way to the Cineplex, quick smart! I didn’t have the heart to confess to her that I had on occasion watched quite a few mainstream, contemporary, komersial Malaysian movies and that those experiences had by and large left me cold. Her allegation of ‘elitism’ was still ringing in my Mat Salleh ears.
So with the challenge set I decided to see a film with the rather engaging (and oddly English) title of Lady Boss. The poster looked excellent. It had as a backdrop all the icons of modern Kuala Lumpur – tower upon tower upon tower of them. The poster also promised that this was “sebuah filem romantik komedi” – and I have always been partial to a bit of romance. The film it appears was directed by one Professor Madya A. Razak Mohaideen, and as an aspiring academic myself I felt I should support his film in the true spirit of collegiality. The Box Office Attendant however tried to talk me out of buying a ticket. I had in her opinion made a silly mistake – this movie was in Bahasa Melayu and had no subtitles. I tried to assure her in my crisp, clear Bahasa Gado Gado that I had an excellent command of her national language and a lack of subtitles was not going to stand in the way of my showing the good Professor a degree of collegial support. Strangely she still wasn’t convinced with my argument, but, RM10 is RM10 and if this chap feels he doesn’t need subtitles, who was she to care? A ticket was finally bought.
A couple of weeks ago I read a letter to the editor of the New Straits Times by a writer named Norman Yusoff that had some quite salient advice on the art of film criticism. Mr Yusoff rightly pointed out that too many film reviews concentrate their focus on rehashing the plot of the movie. In my own humble review of Lady Boss I would be stretched trying to fill a paragraph with the plot synopsis, so rather than waste that paragraph I shall leave such a synopsis at bay. Mr Yusoff went on in his letter on film criticism to question the rather subjective use in film reviews of terms such as “visually stunning” and while I have been guilty in the past of waxing lyrical about the visually stunning, I would be hard pushed trying to apply it in this particular review.
But to be fair for a moment I should commend the art director, Hashim Rejab, and all involved in the costuming as well, for having made Kuala Lumpur 2005 so thoroughly 1980s. If it weren’t for the regular and confusing segues to those ever present and numerous new towers that fill your capital city’s skyline, I might have thought that this was in fact a period piece. The film certainly had a unique ‘look’ about it and on occasion I was stunned visually, but not in a way that might make me wax lyrical. Mr Yusoff and the readers of Kakiseni are spared such indulgence on this occasion.
Not a romantic comedy
Released by Metrowealth and produced jointly by Audio One Worldwide and Gitu-Gitu Productions, Lady Boss stars the popular artiste Ning Baizura as Sheila, the ‘lady boss’ of our tale and a feisty performance is there to be enjoyed if ever there was one! She is joined on screen by the slapstick talents of Yusry KRU and Saiful Apek and the rather more sedate and serene Erra Fazira. If there is a place for clenched fists, raised brows and sterling over acting then this is obviously it. This is not a criticism as there is a valid place for such activity, but after two hours, this reviewer was left rather exhausted by it all.
The screenplay is co-written by Professor Madya A. Razak Mohaideen and Abdul Shukoor Mohaideen. My box office attendant’s fears about my coping with the dialogue were somewhat unfounded, as this film has been written with a Mat Salleh like me in mind. My own plodding, superficial and rudimentary understanding of your beautiful language has been well catered to. No need for subtitles here. The film, I assume, is aimed at the local teen market and teenagers were in no short supply at the session I attended. As a 41-year old Australian I naturally felt quite comfortable in such a milieu.
But the poster that had attracted me to this film in the first place was essentially misleading for this is not a romantic comedy at all. The idea of needing to ‘tame the shrew’ was a feature of a number of classic romantic comedies – Hepburn and Tracey spring to mind – but there the analogy dies. For if we were to place Lady Boss into some recognisable genre, for the purposes of serious analysis, it would probably fit much more comfortably into the slapstick, screwball world that Hollywood used to populate with the likes of Jerry Lewis. And again, dear detractors, there is no criticism of that per se. There is a place for nonsense and I am happy to see that it still finds an audience.
On another positive note there is no doubting that Saiful Apek is a gifted slapstick comedian. I have decided however that I don’t want to know why so many of the cast, including Saiful, wore strange and ill fitting wigs and hairpieces – a cultural in-joke that can remain lost in translation as far as I am concerned. I am also not overly interested with matters related to the obviously quirky production values, as I fear that we talk too much about money and the manner in which it is spent on the screen anyway. I have always been rather taken by an air of inspired amateurism, and if nothing else, the good Professor satisfies in that regard.
The barbed criticism that you may have thus far discerned in this article is aimed more firmly at the serious defects of this film. Teen movies don’t generally as a rule conform to notions of political correctness and many of them have ironically been quite guilty pleasures for that very reason. I am not arguing that that should change. But what I found distasteful in this supposedly harmless entertainment was the manner in which the film never managed to rise above a certain sinister stereotyping. As the film progressed I abandoned any hope of expecting even a glimmer of sensitivity. And let us be honest here and acknowledge that great illumination is not necessarily synonymous with the genre. But I do think all films should have a degree of respect for their targeted audience – and if my own demographic survey of the audience at the 11.50 session of Lady Boss at GSC Berjaya Times Square on Saturday June 11th, 2005 is to believed, then the target audience is clearly young and Malay (and of course on this occasion, me too – but as it transpired I just seemed to be there for the added amusement of the rest of the audience!)
It is healthy of course to have the capacity to laugh at yourself; your people; and naturally your own country. Indeed it has been my experience that all Malaysians, regardless of their ethnicity, have a wonderful sense of satire as well as a genuine propensity for irony that is second to none. But humour can turn stale when it is mired in stereotype. Some critics in the past have levelled accusations of ethnic stereotyping against Malay film directors in the mainstream Malaysian cinema. The criticism has largely been on their portrayals of their fellow Malaysian citizens of Indian and Chinese extraction. Those criticisms can stand; but the criticism I wish to also level against many of those directors is the manner in which they also demean their fellow Malay compatriots by stereotyping them as well. In Lady Boss, Professor Madya A. Razak Mohaideen, has alas, continued that regrettable tradition.
The film is misogynist. Let us put aside the rather base central plot of the conniving and spoilt ‘bitch’ who is given the opportunity to run her daddy’s business empire, for that is too obvious a target for criticism. There is however amidst all the histrionics of over acting and slapstick a rather unsettling scene halfway through the narrative, where our spoilt bad girl, Sheila, is being physically abused and potentially raped by a frustrated and angry suitor. The scene left this viewer feeling that we are meant to believe that she somehow deserves it. The audience seemed to think so too and were quite vocal about it. The manner in which we are asked to deal with this serious moment and then are quickly plunged back into the banalities of slapstick, made my skin crawl. Onedimensional stereotyping of women – the good girl; the bad girl; the overbearing mother – has been done to death. And a film with a targeted teen audience should not belittle the horror of violence against women nor salaciously taunt us with the prospect of rape. And the film again paints Malay men as a rather insipid group whose development was somehow arrested at the age of 13, and who live under the thumb of their women. Men who by the way, as luck would have it, still manage to have the capacity to transform those same women by the end of the film into the people that they want them to be. P. Ramlee played with these clichés with so much more depth, subtlety and taste several decades ago. The joke was on him and not on us.
If this film does have a place then perhaps it is on the syllabus of one of those courses so favoured by us western academics-something like ‘Ethnic Stereotyping 101’ or ‘Misogyny on Film: A Critical Encounter’. One might even be able to write a cutting edge term paper analysing the thematic concerns of Lady Boss, and perhaps indeed that is what the good Professor had in mind all along. Then on the other hand, if I were to be generous, I would simply relegate such a film to late night television, for it in so many ways seems like another lacklustre contribution to the staleness so often found in sitcom. Someone once said that television is called a medium because it is neither rare nor well done. Lady Boss is therefore ideally suited for such a medium.
It’s only entertainment
I have been harshly critical of the film I am examining. I make no apologies for that. I know that it is “only entertainment”, but I am also aware that if we are to be truly honest, there is no “only entertainment” – not here in Malaysia nor anywhere else. Your press coverage of late attests to that fact. The city fathers of Shah Alam have decided not to grant a developer permission to build a cinema in that fine city. Why? Because the city fathers felt that it would be a negative addition to the place they live in. There has also been a heated and sometimes intelligent debate regarding the suggestion by some that all entertainment venues should be segregated along gender lines and that the rules governing entertainment be scrutinised, revisited and reshaped. A reasoned, passionate and intelligent contribution to that debate was given in this journal only last week. There has also been the proposal that cinemas reintroduce after an absence of some considerable time the playing of the national anthem prior to the screening of a film. Entertainment can be clearly as political as politics can be clearly entertaining.
I will say however that my criticism of this film and more broadly the mainstream Malaysian commercial cinema is based on a genuine love and respect for this country and her people. Malaysia is so much more than a land of clichés and from my experience the Malaysian people are far more intelligent, complex and engaging than many of the so-called mainstream Malaysian filmmakers would have one believe.
So having said all of that, I can hear my detractors asking: “What then, Mat Salleh, is the real problem-lah?”
It is simple really. You in fact already have a dynamic and challenging local film industry if only you were exposed to it. The commercial exhibitors need to take charge here. The time is right for the good films that Malaysia makes to be properly publicised, screened and viewed in the spirit in which they were made – that is with intelligence, grace and a respect for their audience. Many of these independent filmmakers make very amusing films – indeed hilarious on occasion. Free up your screens to show a more representative array of what this country can produce. That process has started and I applaud the tentative steps that the cinema chains have embarked upon, but it needs to go further.
But why do I care? After all shouldn’t I just be concentrating on my thesis about the old Malay movies in all their black and white and shades of grey? Well perhaps. But it appears to me that if a country can produce a successful, entertaining and independent feature film involving a teenage romance like we witnessed with Yasmin Ahmad’s Sepet – a film that did engage with a wide audience and treated that audience with intelligence and respect – then shouldn’t we also all be asking that the nature of the game elsewhere in the industry be lifted? The films of the so-called ‘golden era’ of the 1950s and 1960s deserve to have their legacy fulfilled. That is starting to happen now and Malaysia should be truly proud. But you shouldn’t just be proud because an ‘elite’ coterie of Mat Salleh’s watch these films abroad at film festivals – you should instead be proud because you have seen them for yourselves on your own silver screens. When that begins to happen on a more regular basis then you will know that your distributors, exhibitors and yes, government agencies, have finally realised that Malaysians can be trusted with being the intelligent, humorous and critically engaged people that you are.
Professor Madya A. Razak Mohaideen doesn’t need to make the sort of movies that people like James Lee, Yasmin Ahmad, Amir Muhammad and Ho Yuhang make. There is of course a place for nonsense on our screens. Indeed there is a very real and sound argument for a healthy and dynamic komersial mainstream. But let it be a mainstream that treats its audience with respect as well as with wit, humour and sensitivity. And if you do as a people decide to return to the quaint colonial heritage of playing the national anthem prior to a film (it started I might just add, with ‘God Save the King’ in the then Malaya), then at least play it prior to something that won’t shame it. After all there will be plenty of imported foreign films screened that will do just that for you. And if you are looking for good natured and entertaining slapstick visit your local VCD emporiums – Wahid Satay and Mat Sentol spring to mind. They might not have been politically correct, but they were always amusing and they were never demeaning.
Benjamin McKay is completing his thesis on a social history of 1950s and 1960s Singapore and Malaysia as revealed to him by the locally produced films of that era. When he is not here in Kuala Lumpur, he is at home in the northern Australian city of Darwin – a place that may well not confirm a number of the theories of its namesake, Charles Darwin.
First Published: 14.06.2005 on Kakiseni