On the different types of film-makers

AUG 3 — There are many kinds of film directors out there. There are those who are in it solely for the money (who are usually dismissively called “hacks” by critics and film fans) and then there are the artists, who make films for more than just money.

Legendary director Martin Scorsese, in his documentary A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese through American Movies, came up with a few even more interesting classifications of directors — the director as storyteller, illusionist, smuggler and iconoclast.

What’s interesting about these classifications is that he doesn’t make too much of a distinction between hacks and artists. A hack can still be as good a storyteller or illusionist as an artist, and I’d have to say that it is true, because even mainstream films need to be solid in the storytelling department in order for them to be successful.

But as a hardcore film fan, what’s even more interesting is to spot directors in the latter two category — the smugglers and iconoclasts.

The iconoclasts are much easier to spot, and they’re usually more well-known and highly respected due to the fact that rebels are usually much more “visible”.

One can be even the most superficial of film fans, but provided one reads enough and have decent enough general knowledge, names of directors like Orson Welles and Stanley Kubrick would surely be recognisable.

Everyone would have heard of Citizen Kane or A Clockwork Orange. They may be groundbreaking and iconoclastic works in their time but they are, in reality, that famous.

The smugglers, on the other hand, are usually not as well-known and definitely a lot more underappreciated. They’re called “smugglers” because they seem to be making normal films, but a closer look will reveal that they have smuggled in themes and issues close to their hearts that are far more worthy than their usual hiding place in the not so respected world of B-movies and lowly genre films like horror and exploitation.

Legendary smugglers like Samuel Fuller and Nicholas Ray, with their films like Shock Corridor, The Naked Kiss, Johnny Guitar and Bigger Than Life, are not exactly household names. But even now those films have lost none of their power to provoke and shock you.

Some smugglers, like the two I mentioned above, are elegant in the way they smuggle in things. Some, like a lot of the horror auteurs of the ‘70s, are not so elegant in their trafficking of themes into their movies.

And so Night Of The Living Dead is not just a zombie movie but also an allegory on the American civil rights movement of the 1960s, which was the time it was made, and Dawn Of The Dead quite clearly a satire on American consumerism, again masquerading as a zombie movie.

It’s usually in the horror genre that we most often see the smugglers operate, because commercially it’s a much safer environment because of the readily available audience for it (both in the theatrical and straight to DVD market), which means that there will always be producers willing to shell out money to make a horror film.

I’ve long waited for film-makers in Malaysia to use genre this way — to smuggle and traffic in things that viewers might not expect to see in that particular genre. It’s all well and good for local horror films to just try to be scary, but it’d be nice to see a few try to do something more than that just to keep things from becoming too boring. And I’m thankful that we actually do have one film-maker trying to shake things up this way.

Still best known for his debut film Pensil, M. Subash is a director I’ve been following ever since that touching low-budget debut, though I doubt there are many people out there who’ve been paying attention to the films he’s made after. The main charge that people can level against him is that even now his films are far from perfect technically.

Sloppy in quite a few places, the films’ low budgets are also usually painfully evident. But that’s usually an unavoidable side effect of working in poverty row. Even Edgar G. Ulmer’s legendary poverty-row film noir Detour fails to conceal its low-budget origins.

His last two films Karma Reborn and Sumpahan Puaka (which he wrote, but was directed by M. Suurya) may have hinted that he might be a little bit of a smuggler, but his latest film Misteri Bisikan Pontianak has without doubt confirmed this.

Those walking in expecting a horror film will still be treated to a few jump scares here and there, and you do get to see a pontianak, but the film is in no way about ghosts. What he’s done here is to use the conventions of the horror genre to tell a touching story about the discrimination against transvestites and transsexuals here in Malaysia.

Despite the shaky technical aspects (soft focus, way too shaky handheld camerawork and quite rough sound quality) and inconsistent acting quality (hysterical overacting AND kayu elements both existing at the same time!), I just couldn’t help admiring the balls he has to try and pull off something like this.

The more I think about it, the more I realise that this film has even more empathy with the plight of transvestites and transsexuals in Malaysia than the higher profile Dalam Botol. So bravo Mr M. Subash! May you smuggle even more interesting stuff in the future!

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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