Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Malaysia in capsules

Malaysia in capsules

A multi-cultural melting pot distilled into a programme of short films dealing with a nation's complexities

  • Published: 9/10/2009
We know Malaysia. But what is Malaysia? It's a multi-ethnic society fraught with everyday worries, Islamic frustration, Halal chicken, Chinese confusion, Hindu tragedies, political shenanigans, healthy paranoia and the continuing scramble to find that impossible identity that would unite all as one. Like most countries, Malaysia is a dream in perpetual construction. Or at least that is what you gather from 15 Malaysia, a project of 15 short films by 15 Malaysian directors who present revealing, touching, comical capsules of our southern neighbour. 15 Malaysia is being presented at the Pusan International Film Festival this weekend (see front page story), but you can watch the films on the Internet at (no "www").

Halal is one of the 15 films in 15 Malaysia, on view now on the Internet.

From the get-go, the project, produced by a group of independent artists and filmmakers led by Pete Teo, is pre-figured as a socio-political portrait of Malaysia at this precise moment in history.

Many potentially sensitive issues are discussed, even confronted - less with naked activism and more with satirical wit and irreverent humour. These Malaysians - whether of Chinese, Malay or Indian origins - know how to turn frustration into laughter. And to our surprise, many of these five-minute shorts feature starring roles of real Malaysian politicians, including the health minister Liow Tiong Lai, People Justice Party's Zaid Ibrahim, and prominent MP Khairy Jamaluddin.

Ethnic diversity seems to be a Malaysian quality that oils as well as agitates its social dynamics, and the subject is widely discussed here. In the jovial episode by Ho Yu-hang called Potong Saga, a non-Muslim man is tricked by his friends into believing that in order to open an account at an Islamic bank, he first has to be circumcised. In Chocolate, the late Yasmin Ahmad, true to her form, crafted a tale of rich, transient beauty about a Chinese boy and a Muslim girl, with a backdrop of Malaysia's affirmative action. Meanwhile Desmond Ng goes for the sombre tone in his episode, The Son, about a teenage Chinese boy who witnesses a racially-motivated attack on a Malay student.

Most gleefully satirical is the short by Liew Seng Tat. Halal is a mocking, somewhat juvenile take on the Islamic rule of animal slaughtering and halal food - in this case chicken. For example, you can't murder your chicken with a machine gun if you want its meat halal. The short is confrontational in its concept, but the humour slyly cloaks its underlying scorn. I can't imagine a Thai filmmaker doing a short on the same subject; perhaps the more compact social structure of Malaysia - in which every Chinese has a Muslim friend and vice versa - means religious or ethnic sensitivity has loosened the definition of political incorrectness.

In Halal, we could say that Seng Tat simply gives us a friendly mockery of his Muslim friends' ways.

Amir Muhammad's part, The Tree, contains a surprisingly meditative, thoughtful advice on the Islamic way of expanding the economy, as expounded by Malaysia's influential imam Nik Aziz. Meanwhile Tan Chui Mui's short, One Future, offers a chilly, sinister look at the lifelessness of an imagined society where the citizens are pre-programmed and the government sees and hears all - it's a channeling of Chris Marker's sci-fi dystopia La Jetee, stylishly transported to Kuala Lumpur.

15 Malaysia, above all, presents a collective consciousness of Malaysian filmmakers and the belief that short movies can be utilised as a social and political organ at a time when people are clamouring for change. Not that Thai filmmakers have to imitate them, but certainly there's a lesson to be learned.

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