Projecting our identity heritage


We should highlight love for our culture and traditions more in local movies, writes Anwardi Jamil

IT has been sometime since I have seen a local film that effectively promotes local culture and traditions. Apart from the language (Bahasa Malaysia), there is nothing unique about local movies that screams “this is Malaysia” or “this is Malays in Malaysia”.

As a filmmaker, I try to insert cultural symbols, activities or traditions in my works. In my horror series — Bilik No 13 and Detik 12 Malam —  I featured some segments on a ronggeng dancer and a wayang kulit performer. And in my animated feature film, Budak Lapok, produced some years ago, I included scenes that depicted schoolchildren performing the bangsawan (stage show for nobility).

Currently, I am producing a series in Sabah that showcases the cultures and traditions of its tribes and the State’s community in a purba (means historical) context. This is my second major purba TV series. In the 1990s, I made a 26-episode series called Empayar Melaka.

In Empayar Melaka, the Malacca Sultanate was traced from its beginnings in the 15th Century until its demise. We had to create the costumes of Malays of that era until the end of the Sultanate. We also featured Chinese culture and its costumes during the episodes when Hang Li Po arrived in Malacca.

If you have it, flaunt it

Ever since the new millennium, there haven’t been enough purba TV series and films. One main reason is the lack of funds to produce such subjects. The last purba production for TV (that I know of) was Dendam Kesuma (Kesuma’s Revenge), a mini-series which told the story of Tun Fatimah in 16th Century Malacca.

Earlier this year, I watched a Taiwanese costumed movie entitled Warriors Of The Rainbow, which was based on the true story of Wushe Incident in 1930. The story was about how an ethnic Taiwanese group, Seediq, fought Japanese invaders.

The film by executive producer John Woo, was one of the nine foreign language films shortlisted for final nomination at this year’s Academy Awards. Directed by Wei Te-Sheng, the movie was applauded for both its epic scale and also for its reflection of the Seediq. Its culture, costumes, customs and even language are not remotely Chinese (generally speaking), which surprises many.

Overnight, the movie turned the tribe into a sensation and exposed the Seediq internationally. The tribe was recognised at festivals and trade screenings. The film’s DVD and Blue Ray sales further popularised the movie.

Even with its unfamiliar language, which only a few thousand people in Taiwan can understand and speak, it is still being watched and loved by millions around the world. This is not only because the story is well told, but also because the story line revolves around the Seediq culture and way of life.

What about us?

For many years, the National Film Development Corporation (Finas) carried the motto, Filem Kita Wajah Kita (Our Films Our Identity). This motto has changed since, first to Internationalising Malaysian Cinema and then, a simpler Love And Protect Malaysian Film.

During the heyday of Malaysian films (1960s to 1970s), our films were, without doubt, Malay movies. They sounded, looked and felt like Malay movies. The change came when its popularity waned in the 1970s with the movement for a new generation of movies and filmmakers.

At the turn of the millennium, Malay movies became Malaysian movies. With that, whatever culture, identity or soul that had once existed in Malay movies seemed to slowly fade away.

Just take a look at the last decade. Had there been a movie that reflected the true Malay identity? Or any that proudly showcased Malaysian-ness? Was there a movie, other than Ranjau Sepanjang Jalan (the Malaysian Grapes Of Wrath) that gave the world a glimpse of our identity? I can’t think of one.

It’s not only Malay movies. Even the non-Malay movies are pseudo Hong Kong and some are Taiwan wannabe movies, with the exception of maybe Woohoo and Great Day.

I consider these two as movies that portray contemporary Malaysian Chinese accurately. Watching them is like looking through a window at the Malaysian Chinese community. They did not try to copy Hong Kong nor Taiwan movies and the characters reminded me of my Chinese friends or acquaintances.

Woohoo, in particular, was good as it was about jobless youth trying to form a Lion Dance troupe in a small village in Pahang. It reminded me of the Chinese community in my neighbourhood.

Missed opportunity

The multi-million ringgit epic, Merong Mahawangsa, missed a wonderful opportunity to promote Malay culture or, to more specifically, classic Kedah traditions and folklore.

The art direction failed to show ancient Kedah finery and culture. Instead, we saw Roman and Chinese costumes  while the Malays wore rags and looked like Neanderthals. Even the villain had a Freddie Krueger-like weapon which, as far as I knew, was not a weapon in use in Kedah or south Thailand.

On the other hand, acclaimed Thai filmmaker Nonzee Nimibutr made a Thai movie with some Malay aspects. His Queens Of Langakasuka projected Langkasuka (arguably ancient Kedah) as very Malay. The art direction was well displayed (through good research). The costumes were purely Malay, highlighting tanjak (male headdress), kain songket and kain sampin.

The Langkasuka Malay characters wielded Malay weapons such as the keris and sundang. Nimibutr even used silat in his fight scenes instead of muay Thai. The main characters had Malay names like Arus (tide), Pari (stingray), Ungu (Purple), Datuk Jaring and Haji Kadir, to name a few.

He is not Malay or born in southern Thailand but Nimibutr wanted the movie to have geographical and cultural authenticity.
Then there was the King Naresuan series which featured traditional Thai traditions, culture, Siamese court activities of old, martial arts, textile finery as well as the country’s beautiful landscape and architecture.

Good examples

Korea, China and Indonesia also proudly use cinema as their canvas to promote their unique cultures, history and traditions. For example, Indonesia’s entry for next year’s Academy Awards is a movie titled simply The Dancer (Sang Penari), about a ronggeng dance troupe in Central Java in the 1950s. The research for the movie took two years to complete. The Dancer won numerous awards at this year’s Indonesian Film Festival including for Best Film, Best Director, Best Actress and Best Support Actress.

From China, dozens of titles focus on Chinese culture, identity and traditions. Of these, Painted Skin — The Resurrection, stands out the most. This film is pure Chinese costume fantasy with a commercial undertaking and it is clearly Chinese in flavour and feel. It is currently a box office record holder in mainland China.

Even the Ip Man series is purely Chinese at heart. Wrapped around a series of well-choreographed action sequences, the first instalment was a drum beating movie that celebrated the Chinese spirit.

Korea’s Gwanghae: The Man Who Became King or also known as The Masquerade, is one of this year’s biggest box office pictures. This costume epic a la Prince And The Pauper, tells the story of Gwanghae, the 15th Joseon king (1574-1641), specifically the missing 15 days in his journal.

At the same time, these countries continue to produce modern dramas, horror or gangster movies. But their national identities are still there. Korean gangster movies are very Korean and same goes for Hong Kong and Thailand.
Why, then, do our filmmakers not want to promote our local identity?

Local champions

A good example of a local movie that successfully highlights Malay culture on the silver screen is Puteri Gunung Ledang. The art direction and costuming are culturally accurate. It is well presented and crafted, making a genuine Malay movie albeit the wuxia-style fight sequences that for some reason, dilute its silat scenes.

Bunohan, is another example. In this movie, the soul of Malays and their pre-occupation over tanah pusaka (inherited land) are exquisitely portrayed by Dain Said. It won the top film award at the recent Anugerah Skrin.

It is uniquely Malay (albeit Kelantanese) and has become one of the most critically praised Malay movies in recent times at film festivals abroad. One reason why international film critics applauded the movie could be because of Dain’s subtle presentation of Malay culture and the mentality that is missing from our other movies. Dain has woven a hypnotic tale of murder and mayhem without compromising cultural identity and soul.

Don’t forget Uwei Haji Shaari’s Jogho (Champ). Its depiction of the east coast lifestyle and communities can also be compared with Bunohan. When a filmmaker does a story about Kelantan, the Malay-ness of the subject tends to come through. Perhaps this is because the Kelantanese guard their culture and traditions so when a filmmaker picks Kelantan for the backdrop, its heritage is easily captured.

If there’s a will, there’s a way

If foreign friends ask which movie showcases our uniqueness as a people, what do I tell them? Should I suggest Magika (a local musical)? Or do I tell them to buy a Blue Ray copy of KL Gangster, our biggest box office movie in history? What about Ombak Rindu? Does any of these showcase Malaysian culture?

Don’t get me wrong. A movie presenting local culture, custom or traditions does not make it a classic or a guaranteed crowd puller or even a festival darling. There are other factors to consider.

One solution is for filmmakers to use the custom and traditions and tweak them to make the movie more acceptable to viewers (as long as they don’t over-skewer local culture).

I scratch my head all the time, trying to identify a movie that shows us the beauty of our dance like what Indonesians have done in Sang Penari, or the uniqueness of our traditional music in Thailand’s The Symphony, or even our deadly silat in Indonesia’s Merantau.

Cuisine can also take centrestage in movies. Examples are Japan’s Udon and Taiwan’s The Banquet. Or wedding plans a la India’s Monsoon Wedding. These are movies that get noticed by the world. They are also movies that bare the souls and identities of their nations and people.

Unfortunately,  such a movie is difficult to find here.

Local Chinese film Woohoo centres on the lion dance.

A still from Langkasuka that features Malay traditional costumes.

Bunohan has a subtle approach to authentic Malay culture.

The writer tries to insert any cultural symbols, like the wayang kulit, in his work. - NST file picture

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