By Lucy Friedland
I don’t bother with film shorts in the States. I think of American shorts as a training ground for young, credit card-toting wannabe filmmakers, who haven’t yet honed their chops enough for someone — besides their parents -- to fund their first feature. Why muck around with American shorts, anyway? When hundreds of full-length, independent features receive theatrical releases there every year, I’m spoiled for choice.
Similarly, I seldom eat margarine in America because there’s plenty of dairy butter. But in Malaysia — where a smear of saturated palm oil becomes magical taken with kaya on roti bakar — film shorts are worth savouring. With fewer than ten independent Malaysian features receiving theatrical releases per year, film shorts are one of the few ways to catch authentic versions of Malaysia on screen.
Living in Penang, I’m on starvation rations; indie movies — of whatever length — usually don’t come this far north unless they’re headed for Bangkok and points beyond. So, when the Mass Communications department at Han Chiang College hosted a slate of Malaysian shorts (which had already screened in Kuala Lumpur in 2005 and 2006), I decided to see all 31 of them.
The programme, which ran during the weekend of November 25, 2006, was comprised of five sections, lasting less than two hours each. Three of the sections — ‘A Company of Shorts’, ‘Once Upon a Time’, and ‘Beautiful Malaysia 2006’ — were showcases of shorts by a mix of directors. One section each was devoted to the collected works of directors Liew Seng Tat and Tan Chui Mui.
Aging Flowers and Oil Drums
‘Beautiful Malaysia 2006’: it’s pretty clear what these films are meant to represent. But, when compared with mainstream feature films and television (not to mention hype from the Malaysia Tourism Promotion Board), the shorts at the Han Chiang festival offer unorthodox images of the country. These films — whether through dramatic events or mundane details — may confirm shared notions about the place, or they may disrupt those notions in subtle or spectacular ways.
In Ng Ken Kin’s Sunday, the protagonist meets up with friends in three different hawker stalls during the course of his off-day and shoots the breeze in a variety of Chinese dialects. When he finally arrives home, he greets his wife in Bahasa. Instead of going with the movie’s flow, I’m hung up on identifying the language used for each scene. Just as I’m getting into the conversation, I lose the thread. Ken Kin forces me to confront — on screen, as I do in daily life – the particularities of living in a multilingual country.
An example of the spectacular: in Liew Seng Tat’s Flower, a soldier in his 20s courts a woman in her 70s. Is that done? I want to believe in the possibility, here — where a woman is considered past her prime after age 30 — or in any country, for that matter. But a woman in the audience two rows ahead of me isn’t buying it: she flails her arms over her head like an agitated octopus when the soldier leans in to kiss his lover. Inter-generational romance is just too revolutionary a prospect for some folks.
Even when its story isn’t perfectly clear, a film may still evoke something telling from Malaysia’s collective consciousness. Don’t ask me to explain Tham Wai Fook’s black comedy Ah Guan & Ting Ting. I have no idea why two, three, then four people are kidnapped and stuffed into metal oil drums in an abandoned house. I can tell you, though, that once the first three hostages find themselves inside the drums — Hou Hou, Uncle Tuck and May — their preoccupations come to light: football, porn, and the high cost of mobile phone calls, respectively.
Later, a fourth hostage turns up, one who knows the identity of the other three hostages — she’s somehow related to all of them. She chides them for their history of bad behaviour: if only Hou Hou had studied harder for his PMR exam; or Uncle Tuck spent more quality time with his wild-monkey son; or May visited her parents this past year, or at least showed up at the cemetery on Ching Ming — then perhaps they wouldn’t have found themselves in this mess.
This kind of guilt-tripping — playing on such common values as good marks, parental responsibility and filial piety – would work on any number of Malaysians, especially if they believed that karmic vows of better behaviour would spare them from dying at the hands of a demented criminal.
When their narratives are difficult to decipher — or even non-existent — these movies often have something else to offer. I don’t care for James Lee’s narratives, but he’s great with light. He understands the power of light to create atmosphere or to focus or deflect attention on a subject. As well as directing three entries in this festival, Lee served as cinematographer for a number of the directors, and those shorts benefit from his talent.
One of these is Kok Kai Foong’s Self Portrait. At one point in the film, late at night, The Man leaves his artist girlfriend behind in their holiday bungalow to wander outside, battery-operated lantern in hand, looking for who-knows-what. He appears marooned in both physical and psychic space, an island of white moving through the pitch black. When he finally returns to the bungalow, his artist-girlfriend and what might be an apparition of his previous girlfriend — the one he jilted for this current one — are awake and cosily sitting together on a bed. The ghost-girlfriend has her head resting on the shoulder of the artist-girlfriend, and their backs are to the camera.
The Man doesn’t enter the bungalow; he looks at them through a louvered window. They sense his presence and turn to look at him impassively. He’s an outsider to another story taking place within: the two women have formed an alliance, prioritizing their friendship over competing for him. As he stares at the women in the warmly lit room, his orange face, bisected by the blue louvers, is frozen in a look of paranoia and entrapment. Earlier, the artist-girlfriend had painted a small self-portrait with her own face confined to a window-like panel; the framing of The Man’s face in the window represents the power reversal that has just taken place.
People at a Table, Talking
I’m new enough to the country to still be enchanted by Malaysian foibles. In Sunday, I get distracted: What are they eating? Holy cannoli, it’s roti bakar, served with the crusts cut off again! Why do they always do that? The crust is the best part! It’s the same with Hokkien and Mandarin swearwords — even in translation, like those in Tan Chui Mui’s Company of Mushrooms.
Local viewers have probably heard these words many times before, in a multiplicity of languages; instead, they might come to a film festival expecting to see something out of the ordinary. However, Company of Mushrooms strives to reproduce the ordinary as naturally as possible. Chui Mui films the conversation of four unremarkable men — who, for most of the short’s duration, are sitting at a restaurant, eating, drinking and smoking.
After the festival ends, I hang out at the Taman Free School hawker centre with a bunch of other film fans to discuss the films we’ve just seen. A debate arises over Company of Mushrooms: What is the movie supposed to mean? The ending is not very clear. What is that expression on the face of Ho Yuhang’s character just after Pete Teo’s character unexpectedly takes his leave? Ho Yuhang’s character pauses for a moment and looks in the direction of the camera, before turning to walk back to his karaoke joint alone. Is he agonised over something — or just plain drunk?
At the table, a friend of mine says that his grievance with the Malaysian shorts is that, sometimes, an idea exists in the mind of the filmmaker as a ‘full baby’ — but only comes out as ‘half a baby’. He questions the whole point of Company of Mushrooms. He perceives sexism in the dialogue — but, at the end of the movie, the four characters each go their separate ways, and nothing comes of it. Nothing changes. So what?
Previously, during the Q&A session with Chui Mui, she was quick to tell the audience that she didn’t like being asked to explain the ‘message’ of her films. That’s not her job, anyway; it’s up to filmgoers to come to their own conclusions. Over at the hawker centre, I offer my own take on the meaning of ‘Mushrooms’:
Even though male bonding has been depicted in all sorts of movies — from those of John Woo to Martin Scorsese -- Company of Mushrooms is different. In her own understated style, Chui Mui lays bare the woeful limits of male bonding and the thoughtless perpetuation of misogyny in general culture. With the amount of time these four guys spend dissing, getting dissed by, or accommodating their women, their power struggles consume them. These men are miserable even as they try to convince themselves and their peers that their failures to love and be loved don’t really matter.
At the end of the film, the men walk away, disconnected — not only from the women in their lives, but also from each other. This particular cast of beta dogs doesn’t have the wherewithal to live any differently. That’s the tragedy of this ordinary scenario — and it’s potent just because it is so ordinary.
(Perhaps, I didn’t articulate the ‘message’ quite this clearly at the time….)
For me, independent Malaysian shorts reveal fundamental truths about the country that are undiscoverable any other way: not through the mainstream media, not through the Internet — not even through living here, as I have, on and off, for the past six years.
For a full mind-altering experience, nothing beats watching more than 30 shorts over the course of two days. These indie films — especially when seen as a set, rather than individually — complement each other and produce some mighty synergy. Like Planta and kaya on roti bakar, the shorts are better together — and local specialties not to be missed.
Lucy Friedland spends inordinate amounts of time watching movies and watching people eat. This year, a story of hers was published in two anthologies: The World is a Kitchen and The Best Women’s Travel Writing 2006.
First Published: 20.12.2006 on Kakiseni