It would take a very hard-hearted person to not admire the gumption of Khairil M Bahar, who produced, wrote, directed and edited his feature film debut, Ciplak, with the paltry sum of RM10,000 – and managed to get it released in Golden Screen Cinemas, one of the nation’s leading chains. He is also in it, delivering a star performance as Jo, the film’s lead character. In many ways, Ciplak is all about Khairil M Bahar.

This is not saying that Khairil and his onscreen alter ego are exactly the same person. Khairil, a former copywriter who now plays in two indie bands and directs film, fell in love with the movies when he saw Back to the Future. Jo, a transnational student who spends most of his time in the UK, dreams of studying filmmaking in New York, and thinks he is on to a sure-fire formula for paying his way through an overseas education: he is back in Kuala Lumpur, putting together a shipment of bootleg DVDs to re-sell in England.

But, irony of ironies, on the very day that he plans to collect the contraband, KL experiences the biggest ever police crackdown on video piracy in its history – and everything that could go wrong, does go wrong. The rest of the film has Jo attempting to overcome a relentless series of misadventures.

Ciplak, as befits its title, opens as a fast-paced documentary on the nature of video piracy in Malaysia: some facts are interesting, and the statistics are indeed alarming. One has always imagined that the piracy game has an impact upon Hollywood’s capacity for foreign earnings, but Ciplak mentions that – according to a report on Malaysia conducted by the International Intellectual Property Alliance – the USA lost an estimated USD188.4 million in potential revenue, in 2004 alone.

When one savours that statistic, those cheeky vendors who approach us in not-so-­furtive ways on the sidewalks of KL seem rather more powerful than previously imagined!

As we chart Jo’s attempts at fulfilling his obsessive ambitions through video piracy, we see the unsubtle manner in which developing countries subvert the global trade in entertainment for their own purposes. There is something seductive about the unadulterated subversive-ness of intellectual and creative theft, however morally bankrupt and illegal it may be – a Sticking It Up to the Man sentiment, almost.

My Name is Jo and I am a Pirate

It is not uncommon for first features to delve into the personal – many are ‘Portraits of the Filmmakers as Young Men or Women’, as it were. Ciplak explores the milieu of a young indie filmmaker in KL with a lot of earnest enthusiasm; the filmmaker clearly revels in exposing the quirky nature of that culture onscreen.

True to form, Ciplak pays homage to the director’s favourite directors – the likes of Robert Rodriguez and Kevin Smith, in this case – and indeed the closing credits of the film acknowledge these obvious influences. The tendency to pastiche style is evident. The editing is frenetic, in all its homage to American indie aesthetics and its love of Tarantino-like segues – and not badly done. This film is, fundamentally, one big long labour of love.

Of course, like many labours of love, Ciplak has obvious flaws. One should never expect a film with a budget that would barely cover tea and coffee – largely shot on weekends over a three-to four-month period – to be a technically slick affair. Still, even a few out-of-focus scenes have a tendency to make whole films look a little sloppy – and, while the camera work of Ariff Aris and Tony Pietra (and, in the UK, by Adam Laurence) is adequate and interesting, at times, it would be nice to see what this team could have achieved with more time and more money on their side. It is not expensive to shoot with clarity!

Also, there is nothing wrong with stretching credibility in a narrative, but one needs great skill and finesse. Ciplak‘s screenplay is just not ambitious enough to sustain such a goal. Structured episodically into chapters that define the events of Jo’s terrible day, the film has a tightly constructed feel to it – but there is a limit to the amount of character development that can take place within 24 hours.

The High Seas

Khairil has a flair for engaging with the camera – which is just as well, since he is, after all, literally in one’s face for nearly the entire film: Jo addresses the camera quite frequently. Many of Ciplak‘s supporting roles are mired in cliché and stereotype – and there is an uneven performance pitching across the film – but, when done well, they add nicely to the comic flair. Examples of this include the pleasant Fara Maria as the prone-to-porn Puteri; and that icon of local indie music, Hassan Peter Brown, as the delightfully-over-the-top Connoisseur – quite mad, bad and ridiculously dangerous to know!

The video piracy of Ciplak is not glorified, and Khairil goes through great pains to show the murkiness of that world; neither is it the point of the film. Instead, it provides a gritty and colourful backdrop to explore aspects of life in contemporary KL onscreen. As its premise indicates, the film is an exuberant production, aimed primarily at an audience seeking entertainment: the laughs here are edgy, and sophisticated in ways that are worthwhile.

Most of the characters are not overly pleasant: Jo has an unfortunate tendency to misogyny; and, ultimately, he is driven by obsessive self-interest – but even with all his flaws we still rather enjoy identifying with him. In fact, Jo is the heart of the movie, representing the peculiar cultural predicaments of trans-national students and their attempts to make sustained connections both at home and overseas. Malaysians who have studied abroad will find much in this film to relate to. He is shaped by the pressures, challenges and cultural cleavages that arise from an exchange with the foreign.

Read on that level, Ciplak delivers more than the obvious entertainment elements that shape it. In a country that sends so many of its young people abroad for education, it continues to surprise me just how few Malaysians films there are that attempt to tackle the issues that arise from such practices. Ciplak does not delve deeply into this area – deep delving is not what the film attempts, at all – but it does address it, which is refreshing.

The obsession with the movies, the soundtrack of quality local indie music (which I hope and trust gets the exposure it deserves): Ciplak is all about Khairil M Bahar – and I mean that as a compliment. For all its faults, this film is a testament to one young filmmaker’s energy and enthusiasm. It is an up-close and personal diversion that manages to make even its mistakes endearing. I now look forward to seeing what Khairil may come up with, if given a decent budget. For RM10,000, Ciplak is a minor miracle.

First Published: 05.12.2006 on Kakiseni

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