Malaysian movies for Malaysia Day

SEPTEMBER 14 — Holiday advertisements are amazing. At the same time, these holiday ads are horrific.

They provide reasons for cheer and derision. Within four-odd minutes.

People are blameless enjoying these ads, especially in this nation-renewal season of Merdeka and Malaysia Day, for there are nuggets within them. They endear and they provide emotional comfort.

However, the sugar-coating effect once cleared of our blood stream is quickly replaced by the less-assuring components highlighted in the ads, that while they appeal, there is an unerring sense the exercise glosses over, reminds but not confronts a multicultural society’s demons.

The themes recur, among others, memories of an integrated youth maintained over the years; children experiencing in novel ways the value of integration; homesickness brings a reluctant passenger to familiar joys; or stereotypes are turned on their heads. 

In a summary, they are controlled, selective, disingenuous to prevailing challenges and certainly sanitised.

They are propaganda rather than social critiques. I’m not saying propaganda is bad, I’m saying they can only go that far, and an overconcentration of them threatens to build a utopia which only exists on a TV screen. 

It tells us of the Malaysia we need to be, or the one we may have experienced in pockets, but deflects away from the country we are in and the conclusions present self-promoting social raptures.

Here is where I find myself lacking, because my intention is not to belittle the positive attributes of these ads — and there are many — but how they stop short due to length, self-limiting principles or external regulations.  

To be fair, since they are paid for by companies — even if government-owned — they err on the side of caution. So they end up, pleasant to re-affirm but little in the way of introspection.

The column submits a request for freer and bolder full length films. Let the imperfections drive the conversation rather than only utilise ads as alarm bells.

The producers

Post-independence, 60 years later, mainstream movies in Malaysia are still Malay movies.

If the national day holiday ads belong to all Malaysians due to their overt “all of us” themes, why is there palpable drawback of ownership when it comes to Malay language movies?

Is it the language, or the general absence of non-Malays? Not only in casting, but even in storylines and even more telling, in perspectives.

There are myriad of reasons for it, most certainly the lack of a national language to coalesce all our countrymen, which means all Malaysians are at fault for it, past and present.

Those absent movies can be made present with funding. Diverting a portion of the ads money to movies will help the future.

The National Film Board (public funding) and commercial sponsorship (government-linked companies’ Corporate Social Responsibility initiatives) can regulate approved scripts along with casting and reduce censorship guidelines.

The same guys behind the ads can realise these movies. Just go to film-makers, not ad agencies.

The late Yasmin Ahmad said her seminal film Sepet was the price of her car. With digital cameras and other cost-slashing technologies readily available, the venture gets easier by the year.

The movie backers’ preference for diversity, inclusivity, progressive storylines and innovative directors will result in Malaysian movies. Stories worth telling but never had the money to see the light of day, find their saviours.

Similarly, as an example, the British Council funds hundreds of features and shorts, no less Academy Award winners and nominees like The Imitation Game, Billy Elliot, The King's Speech and Miss Sloane.

Not quite the case in Malaysia, for the balance is not there presently, since the available money chases commercial efforts, which pander, rather than support braver films.

The Full Monty

The brevity of the holiday ads forces them to overgeneralise in the realm of what is widely acceptable — positive in a familiar vein.

The rule of proportionality, for instance, is enforced.

Like formulaic American boy-bands, where a Latino and Black personality is included by the side of at last two white members, with at least one of the Caucasians as a lead singer.

Over here, a sort of united colour of Benetton with Malay leadership prevails. It’s too manufactured.

This is not to say, because one in four Malaysians is Chinese — and not one in 40 lead actors in Malaysia over the last 10 years are Chinese — there has to be an ethnic Chinese as the lead of movies, just to prove a point.

The idea is not to use affirmative action as a “be all”, but to normalise the presence of all Malaysians in our mainstream films. To get Malaysians to enjoy all Malaysians onscreen, and equally not have a particular minority conspicuously missing.

Feature films have more latitude to extend the story-telling to get stuck into the nuances and context. To create and develop characters.

To provide depth to recurring themes, rampant in ads presently:

a) The memories of an integrated youth is juxtaposed with the challenges of holding on to friendships as a country experiences massive social engineering with an eye on cumulative net effect in the distant future rather than the collateral damages it inflicts in the medium term. Hari, Saleh and Ah Kit may have been happy to fish in the local tin mine as schoolchildren, but as family men with different cards dealt by design, they find the friendship tested. Of course it does.

b) Moral plays with children leverage on their innocence; and emphasises why right and wrong is a bit different when there is no past. A feature allows them to take in the patriotism with qualification because it is flawed. The past is always flawed. The message becomes far more genuine in that manner.

c) “Hujan emas di negeri orang, hujan batu di negeri sendiri, lebih baik di negeri sendiri” (Better the hailstorm at home, than rain dripping with gold abroad) proverb is harder to swallow in a globalised era. So the ads with euphoric Malaysians opting for Sabak Bernam over Dublin, allows a fleeting smile but may fade when considered through the lens of practicality. A feature may bare the temptation of not choosing Malaysia, for example the hard decision confronting the female doctor asked to return home and work for less pay, endure more scrutiny and suffer social conservatism.

A feature offers space for rumination, realise that choices are about letting options go and at the centre of the struggle are people. The human cost of disappearing economic borders, resulting in migration a constant rather than an exception, if shown in a movie asks our students to consider now rather than wait for the decision to force itself on them.

d) And finally the cheeky piss on stereotypes sketch, where a Chinese-looking man speaks in Tamil to a baffled crowd who’d been moments earlier taking pot-shots at him. While it appears the point is easy to translate, in an ad it appears more of a party trick rather than a window to a man trapped between worlds.

A bit like the news a local university marvelling over their Malay student winning an international Mandarin competition, only to put in the postscript he is of Malay-Chinese mixed parentage. There is a whole world of messed up-ness and wonderfulness in such a zany setting.

Or even the latest Emma National Day ad by Celcom. It is all too syrupy, with good intentions all about.

Yet, it won’t strike the observation of films like To Sir, With Love with Sidney Poitier or Dangerous Minds with Michelle Pfeiffer, where cross-cultural difficulties within urban classes are examined with despair certain, only offering a peek into a world. That world does not need to resolve itself in order to be worthy of viewing.

I’m Spartacus

The holiday ads can go on, but if state and corporate funders can’t see the value to developing stories rather than purely selling snappy ads with good video click counts, they are committing a great disservice to the intention of raising morale.

Films will always, well good films, fare better than trailers. I have faith in our film-makers, let’s pass some of the money to film projects.

One film which connects merits far more than 10 syrupy feel-good holiday ads.

Selamat Hari Malaysia!

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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