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KUALA LUMPUR, Sept 30 — No one can accuse Putrajaya of not being ambitious in its bid to elevate Malaysia’s creative industry, especially its relatively nascent film industry.
Having already announced a RM200 million allocation for the whole creative industry under the Tenth Malaysian Plan (RMK10), the industry is also targeted to rake in RM4 billion in terms of Gross National Income (GNI) by 2020, creating more than 10,000 new jobs along the way.
Last year, the National Film Development Corporation (Finas) screened 10 Malaysian films at Cannes as part of an initiative to beef up international distribution for Malaysian films.
However, Malaysian film-makers have also made an impression in the international film festival circuit with names like Tan Chui Mui and Liew Seng Tat not unfamiliar to festival directors.
Indrani Kopal’s documentary The Game Changer even won a showcase which was part of the Cannes Film Festival in 2015.
The holy grail remains a shot at the prestigious Academy Awards — more popularly referred to as the Oscars — where Malaysian films have failed to make any significant impact.
Malaysia has sent four films to compete in the Best Foreign Language Film category of the awards starting with the 2004 epic Puteri Gunung Ledang.
None of the films made it to the shortlist of the competition, with Puteri Gunung Ledang being the best performing by ranking 77th of all submissions. Bunohan, Lelaki Harapan Dunia and Redha all ranked between 85th and 89th.
So what gives?
Ho Yuhang, an acclaimed film-maker who has won awards in the international film circuit at Nantes, Rotterdam, and also been part of the Venice Film Festival, believes that Malaysian films are simply “not good enough.”
“What we are doing now... are we doing it well? That is a big problem,” said Ho. His latest film Mrs K, which has already made the festival circuit rounds, just opened here earlier this month.
“Our work when compared to even that of neighbouring countries is not good enough,” he added, citing Thailand whose horror and action films have a lot of worldwide traction as an example.
“First of all, we have to ask ourselves, who do we make a film for?” he asked, pointing at the overall quality of Malaysia’s television programmes apart from films.
Then there is the adherence to certain “formats” that result in limited creative expression.
“You just end up producing more work but that doesn’t mean (the work) is better. We are format driven, and the content is fixed within certain parameters.”
Ho said that an emerging batch of film-makers seems to show a penchant for being “more adventurous”, though he also said that the current education system is the cause of the lack of creative expression in the industry.
“Our education system is still very exam oriented. We do have creative works, but those are few and far between,” he said.
Ho believes that Malaysia’s relatively small size and the budget of the films here are irrelevant in the bid to getting recognition on the international stage.
“Taiwan is not very big, yet they do very well on the international stage,” he said.
Shanjhey Kumar Perumal, the director of last year’s Jagat, which also won widespread critical acclaim, said that the problem is with the “local ecosystem”, narrating his own struggle to increase his literacy in film-making.
“Even I have a lot of things to improve and I am already 37 years old,” he said, saying that he learned film-making through experience, which took up to 10 years.
“Our education system does not have an art appreciation syllabus, so our education starts a little late,” he said.
“The ecosystem was not ready for me to make offbeat Tamil films,” he added.
Shanjhey said that another of the underlying problems is Malaysia’s inability to blend with the region, as the international community identifies Malaysian films as being part of the South-east Asian belt.
“We don’t really connect (in SEA). We do not even have a common currency. We have these neighbouring markets, but language is still separating us,” he said.
He said that while film-makers focus on local audience acceptance, they rarely “communicate” with both local and international audiences when making films.
“The problem is we are not helping each other, and we have low film literacy. We have good government policies, but it’s about how well the talented people are receiving chances (due to the policies),” he added.
Finas director-general Datuk Fauzi Ayob also acknowledged the need to strengthen the domestic ecosystem in order to spur the creative industry.
“The whole process of building and positioning Malaysia in this global success should be first empowered within our domestic ecosystem,” he told Malay Mail Online.
“As this industry has a great potential to generate wealth and create jobs, the development of high quality content and skills and talent must be strategically enforced,” he added.
Fauzi said that producing films with a strong cultural identity is important for success on the international stage, pointing at the success of the late Yasmin Ahmad’s 2006 film Mukhsin and also the 2016 Redha which made an impact on the international film circuit.
Pointing to the 2016 National Transformation Plan (NTP) report, Fauzi said that the country has “exceeded expectations” in terms of export of creative content, having surpassed RM1.2 billion.
But whether the figures and the monies pumped into the industry translates into significant improvement in the kind of films produced here is still a question that the industry is struggling with.