By Benjamin McKay
“Sometimes I wonder if you guys realise how hard it is for the rest of us to live here. It’s like being in love with someone who doesn’t love you back.” – Alan in Gubra
In Yasmin Ahmad’s Malaysia, it appears possible for a Chinese Malaysian man to give a Malay woman a ride in his truck and discuss his unrequited love for his country and then for her to show great empathy and understanding in return. It is also possible for us to believe that a Bilal and his wife can and do extend true love, support and commitment to their sex worker neighbours and that those neighbours are more complex than our usual sex worker stereotypes. So too in this evocatively imagined Malaysia is it not only possible, but highly likely, that the redemptive power of love will ultimately prevail and overcome the hurt and horror at the heart of emotional pain.
It takes a considerable amount of nerve and courage to flaunt sentimentality and the odd platitude on screen, and make them work. Yasmin Ahmad wears her heart on her sleeve and does not shy away from some liberal doses of preaching in Gubra, her sequel to last year’s highly successful and acclaimed Sepet. Perhaps it says something about the complexities of Malaysian life that makes such well-meaning obviousness acceptable in the attempt to make sense of those very complexities. The fact that Yasmin Ahmad has delicately woven those awkward moments into a quite beautifully shot and interestingly paced broader narrative is a testament to the director’s fatigueless daring and to her evident humanist convictions.
In Alfian Sa’at’s appraisal of Sepet for Kakiseni last year he wrote, “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.”
Yasmin Ahmad further explores that terrain in Gubra, and despite its flaws as a film she has again made a landmark movie. This is a journey into Yasmin’s imagined Malaysia. True national cinema cultures are based upon the capacity to not only portray reality as Alfian Sa’at so eloquently put it, but also to take us into passionately dreamed and imagined spaces, speaking of and to a nation and her people. When those films also speak outside of their borders, as I am sure Gubra will, it might be because they rise above the parochial and address the beauty and the drama and the humour and the pain of universal human existence. If that is how the world will greet Gubra, then Malaysian mainstream cinema, and not just its independent films, can at last be said to have come of age.
One of the inherent strengths of Gubra – and this makes it a better film in fact than Sepet – is its attempt to explore the Malaysian emotional landscape by deftly pitching that examination at the borders between the private and public spaces of Malaysian life – between what occurs on the domestic front and in the shared spaces of a city like Ipoh. This sense of two distinct domains in Malaysian life was something that the Malay cinema of the 1950s and 1960s explored with such finesse and it is good to see Yasmin Ahmad imagining her Malaysia through those intricate and complex spaces and terrains. Such spaces are also well served here by the juxtaposition of night and day scenes – of light and dark and the emotional resonance of brightness and shadow.
There will be criticism of the propensity for speeches and awkward articulations and those are valid, but I hope that the detractors also acknowledge that this film is at its best in its quiet moments – the grand character building muteness that is evident in our understanding of the Bilal. His dignity and serenity is beautifully captured by the way he negotiates his way through the cinematic mise en scene and through a gentle and simple on screen performance by Nam Ron that is devoid of wordiness but speaks volumes nonetheless.
The development of Orked in this sequel is perhaps less fully realised than the concurrent tale of the sex workers and the family of the Bilal. Sharifah Amani does however confirm her status as a leading actress of great presence and whimsy. She manages to add dignity in the scene where she weeps when confronted with Jason’s (and Sepet‘s) memorabilia – that was a scene that could have been mired in mawkish sentimentality. The return to the screen here of her parents played by Ida Nerina and Harith Iskandar is a further reminder of the place for comic relief in melodrama. Adlin Aman Ramlie as Orked’s weak and pathetic husband is quite nicely realised, but I feel less convinced by Alan Yun’s performance as Jason’s brother, even though the young women in the audience at both screenings I attended clearly enjoyed his gratuitous shirtless scenes with audible glee. And dear reader, wait until the credits close before leaving the cinema as Jason returns in a beautifully shot and ghostly cameo that had the audience in animated dialogue again!
Gubra, like Sepet before it, may be a cinematically imagined Malaysia – a place realised by the heavy handed and yet creative determination of its director – but it is a place I enjoyed visiting for 90 or so minutes. It may not in fact exist as anything other than a yearned for fiction, but as a diversion from our more complex negotiations with the real Malaysia, it may be a worthy stop in our broader itinerary. It will hopefully, as it entertained the audience, give them time to pause and reflect upon their own Utopian imaginings of the place that they collectively call home. A place that not only talks about tolerance but actually practices it cannot be a bad place to wish for and I salute Ms Yasmin Ahmad for amongst other things the nerve and steel to find a dignified place on screen for young lovers, for sex workers, for people living with HIV and for all of those seeking the requited love of their country.
First Published: 14.04.2006 on Kakiseni