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Malaysia in the Movies: After This Our Exile, I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone, & The Elephant and the Sea

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Malaysia in the Movies: <em>After This Our Exile</em>, <em>I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone</em>, & <em>The Elephant and the Sea</em>

When I moved back to the United States after four years of living in Malaysia, one of my most urgent desires was to see images of the country I had just left projected onto an American movie screen. I remember wondering: if none of my classmates have ever seen Malaysia on film, then how will they ever believe me when I tell them that such a place exists? As Susan Sontag observed in her classic On Photography, the modern world has fallen into the habit of substituting photographic (and, by extension, cinematographic) images for vision, using them as talismans of the past, and entrusting them with the work of confirming the existence and authenticity of our surroundings. Somewhere in my pre-adolescent thoughts, I had put a great deal of faith in a medium that could bridge the two realities I felt, at the time, were irreconcilable.

With my worldview permanently split between two visually distinct locations, I started to develop a vague sense of the ways in which cinema was not just the reflection of reality but was also, perhaps even more vitally, an affirmation of it. Returning to the American suburbs in the late ’90s, I knew I wasn’t going to find what I was looking for at my local theater; in fact, the closest I ever came was when my father dragged me to see the Sean Connery vehicle Entrapment, the first Hollywood blockbuster to prominently feature Kuala Lumpur’s Petronas Towers. Watching him half-embarrassed by his own excitement, I realized the movie provided him a rare public occasion for a private activity, a chance to exercise the last vestiges of patriotic sentiment he felt for a homeland he had intended, decades ago, to leave behind forever.

Less than ten years after Entrapment, the landscape has changed faster than I could have ever expected. Following the continued rise of Western interest in Southeast Asia, and the arrival of internationally recognized filmmakers from the region such as Vietnam’s Oscar-nominated Tran Anh Hung and Thailand’s Pen-Ek Ratanaruang and Apichatpong Weerasethakul, a Malaysian “New Wave” has crept onto the festival circuit in recent years, winning a small but passionate group of champions. Perhaps the most vocal among them, the critic Dennis Lim, reported for indieWIRE on the “strong showing of the Malaysian contingent” at this year’s Rotterdam Film Festival, and observed that Malaysian films have not met with such visibility since U-Wei bin Hajisaari’s Kaki Bakar marked the country’s first trip to Cannes in 1995. The future trajectory of this emerging phenomenon is as unclear as its history, especially since the contemporary films have yet to receive wide American distribution, and the older films are not available on DVD in the West. But while Malaysia’s output has not reached the heights of prestige that Hong Kong and Taiwan’s new waves worked toward over the past two decades, or whipped up the amount of interest currently surrounding young Romanian filmmakers, at the very least my dad can now choose from some relatively high-profile imports set entirely in Malaysia and populated largely by Malaysian characters, all filmed with the eyes of residents rather than tourists. Instead of settling for the location shots of his home state of Perak masquerading as ’40s Shanghai in Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution, he and I and viewers like us can finally enjoy a few major films that operate on a matter-of-fact familiarity with the nuances of Malaysian life and the country’s irreducibly heterogeneous identity.

As a multiethnic society, Malaysia bears the influence of both its Malay majority and its strong Chinese and Indian minorities, each of which continues to maintain a high degree of cultural individuality in the midst of ethnic conflict. The new batch of films (a selection of which are being featured in the Museum of Modern Art’s Asian CineVisions series this fall and winter) departs from the Malay perspective which, according to film scholar William Van Der Heide (in his book, Malaysian cinema, Asian film: border crossings and national cultures), has dominated the cinema’s past. Festival hits like James Lee’s FIPRESCI Prize-winning The Beautiful Washing Machine and Ho Yu-hang’s widely-screened Rain Dogs are shifting the spotlight onto Malaysian Chinese voices, placing the new wave in the ambiguous position of being considered another branch in Chinese diasporal cinema. While living in New York this summer, I was able to catch three new movies set and shot in Malaysia, all of which were directed by ethnic Chinese filmmakers. Two are the work of prominent directors based in Hong Kong and Taiwan who have personal connections to Malaysia; the third is a genuine product of the new wave, and among the small handful of independent Malaysian films to have reached American shores in recent years. Together, these films—without ever seeming to consciously do so—help to sharpen our view of Malaysia’s place in today’s world, or at least its place as a potentially vital source and setting in contemporary world cinema.

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The first, a father-son saga called After This Our Exile, played at the New York Asian Film Festival in June and the Asian American International Film Festival in July, and marked Hong Kong New Wave pioneer Patrick Tam’s first directorial effort since 1989. A big winner at the Hong Kong Film Awards and Taiwan’s Golden Horse Film Festival, it is Malaysian only in the broadest sense, and is perhaps better described as a pan-Chinese prestige picture; as with many contemporary Chinese-language films, Exile’s cast, crew, and funding represent a multinational effort, a fact given away particularly by the clash of various non-Malaysian Cantonese accents among the actors. A valentine to his students in both Malaysia and Hong Kong, Tam’s film begins with a lengthy, riveting sequence set inside the confines of a house—a fact that makes the film’s subsequent dismantling of both private and national conceptions of home all the more resonant. Though the opening family dispute unfolds with the focused but accessible intensity of TV drama, climaxing in a disturbingly quotidian portrayal of domestic sex and violence, the film immediately asserts its elevated cinematic ambitions with the help of the masterful Taiwanese DP Mark Lee Ping-Bin. If nothing else, it offers a visual feast with its palette of lush greens and shadowy blues (no small feat since so much of the film is shot indoors), and one of its most notable successes lies in the way Lee translates the atmosphere of small-town Malaysia to the big screen with a voluptuousness I would not have thought possible.

While the change of location from his native Taiwan has resulted in one of Lee’s most viscerally appealing achievements, it is this success that ultimately does the film in. Utterly incapable of recognizing ugliness in even a rundown setting, Lee has not so much betrayed reality as he has glossed over the story’s moral seediness. Following the tortured relationship between a deadbeat dad (Aaron Kwok) and his loyal son (Gow Ian Iskander), and their descent into a life of petty crime, the film tries to show these characters on the margins of society after they have been thrown out of their pleasant lower-middle-class neighborhood, and after the mother (Charlie Yeung) has fled with her new wealthy husband (also played, in an ironic twist, by Kwok) to an upper-class gated community. But the gritty emotional realities of life in freefall rarely penetrate the surfaces of all the lush colors and careful lighting. There are brief moments that are keenly observant of how class difference plays out within Malaysian families, but perhaps Tam has drawn too much from his background in advertising, delivering this mixture of social realism and melodrama as if it were an unusually classy tourism commercial.

Writer and film programmer Roger Garcia has given the movie its most eye-catching blurb, calling it “the first masterpiece of Hong Kong cinema of the 21st century”—a statement which may have more to do with a current resistance to the “internationalism” of Hong Kong’s art-house hits than it does with the actual film. Tam’s career has long been overshadowed in the West by his protégé Wong Kar-wai (for whom he edited Days of Being Wild and Ashes of Time), and this may not be without legitimate reason—if his shrill satire, Nomad (1982), and uninspired gangster flick, Final Victory (1987), can be said to represent his best work. In Exile, Tam’s much-acclaimed editing draws too much attention to itself, and his once-groundbreaking sexuality feels labored. The pitch of the melodrama falls short of the exquisite heights it promises, at times veering inelegantly from low-key earnestness to overblown theatricality.

One revelation, though, is Kwok, who loomed large in my childhood as the studliest of ’90s Cantopop idols. Here, this perennial lightweight is startlingly, convincingly haggard, and though his performance is too uneven to be a complete triumph, his transformation from youthful spunkiness to world-weariness could be said to echo Tam’s own career. For all its missteps, the film—at its most powerful—hints at emotional depths not seen in the director’s earlier, more conspicuously innovative works. As the father and son drift from house to hotel to streets and back alleys, Tam strikes upon brief moments that precisely evoke their rootlessness—a feeling at odds with the vivid sense of place the film maintains from the beginning. Underneath the palm trees, in the tropical heat, severed from any trace of Confucian family values, and attached to blind hopes of immigration to the West, these characters find themselves exiles in their own country.

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More widely distributed this summer was the latest from Tsai Ming-liang, a director usually regarded as the youngest of the New Taiwanese Cinema’s most significant members. I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone marks a return not only to his native Malaysia (which he left for Taipei at the age of twenty) but also to the alternately plaintive and comic exploration of spirituality and cultural difference that made 2001’s What Time Is It There? a masterpiece. This is one of Tsai’s most hypnotically structured films, at times evoking the haunting repetitiveness found in the Malaysian verse form of the pantoum. Set in the littered streets, cramped flats, and abandoned construction sites of Kuala Lumpur as a dangerous smog settles over the city, the film lingers on an anonymous cast of misfits, including two versions of Tsai’s career-long alter-ego, Lee Kang-sheng: one Lee bed-ridden in a coma, the other homeless and wounded.

As in What Time Is It There?, Tsai plays tricks with physical and emotional distances, as well as with the porous boundaries of the self. By casting its star in two different roles (as Tam did with Aaron Kwok), and dividing him across two plot strands, the film interrogates the forms of separation nature presents alongside those which society constructs. The language barrier between the homeless Lee and a Bangladeshi worker who cares for him is juxtaposed with the divide between consciousness and unconsciousness embodied by the comatose Lee. Ethnicity is also called into question, most pointedly in an early scene in which a gang of hustlers cannot figure out whether Lee is Malay, Chinese, or Indian. Tsai is attracted to all that is alienating and sinister about urban life, and in Kuala Lumpur, he has found a setting that matches his perverse delight in cosmic miscommunication and bodily humiliation. There were points in the movie at which I realized that no two consecutive scenes were being spoken in the same language or dialect. The little dialogue that does exist in the film comes out as a mishmash of mumbled and whispered Mandarin, Malay, Hokkien, Bengali, Tamil, and Cantonese—a comic strategy that reflects both the diversity and disconnectedness of Malaysian society. Malaysia’s multilingualism provides a much-needed twist on Tsai’s verbal minimalism, presenting a dilemma in which the communal experience of culture is turned inward and becomes private, secret, taboo. The silence induced by these divisions adds an emotional undercurrent to his characters’ typically grotesque sexual urges, while the city’s run-down, open-air structures call attention to their physical and spiritual vulnerability. As in most of Tsai’s films, bodies lose control; fall apart; are disgraced. The surprise here, though, is a degree of tenderness completely new in Tsai’s work: the bodies are cleaned, nursed, and given back their dignity so that, in the dream-like final scene, they are beyond harm as the suffocating smog rolls in.

It may be that Tsai’s great contribution to the Taiwanese New Wave was to adapt Hou Hsiao-hsien’s style of long shots and long takes to his own personal, absurdist vision. In his work, stylistic choices usually associated with realism or objectivity are turned inside out; refusing to turn away from scenes of urination, masturbation, and hilariously uncomfortable sex, his gaze can be so blank and brutal it cuts through to the nightmare-logic that reality often possesses. I can’t agree with the critics who were bored by the film’s surface similarities to Tsai’s previous seven features; to me, the director’s self-conscious use of cinematic time and space remains as exquisite as we have come to expect. But, more importantly, the film is exciting because it introduces an essential element to our appreciation of Tsai as one of our greatest and bravest contemporary directors. At last, in this film, we can see how his mischievous aesthetic derives as much from the unholy cultural and ethnic transgressions of Malaysian life as it does from Buñuel’s surrealism, Antonioni’s disaffection, and Bertolucci’s eroticism. The wonderful, painful absurdities that arise from social interaction across cultures are revealed as vital sources for Tsai’s unnerving sense of humor. As a result, we get a film that is both disturbing and strangely optimistic, mainly because Tsai can’t help but see Malaysia as two ideas: first as a dystopia in which widespread corruption, natural disasters, and pollution set the stage for apocalypse, and then as a utopia in which pan-sexuality and ethnic impurity offer the means to spiritual liberation. Considering (among other things) the homophobic attack Malaysia launched earlier this decade on its former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim, it’s no wonder that this film—whose philosophy on everything from sex to race to aesthetics is fundamentally queer and subversive—was immediately censored.

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By comparison, Woo Ming Jin’s The Elephant and the Sea—one of two Malaysian entries at this year’s Asian American International Film Festival—can sometimes seem a bit like Tsai-lite. Many of the trademarks are there: the resolutely static camera; minimal dialogue and music; the disaffected and practically mute male lead; obsession with sexual longing and dissatisfaction; and tension between an ascetic style and narrative unpredictability. The film stands as a testament to Tsai’s sizable influence on current filmmakers and to the attractiveness of an aesthetic that can accommodate both the real and the grotesque. But it also demonstrates that Woo has learned well, particularly in his consistently intelligent camerawork, instinct for ellipsis, and hypnotic pacing. In this, his second feature, the young director speaks to our apocalyptic moment even more directly than I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone does, as well as to the anxieties of disaster-prone Southeast Asia. Set in a rural fishing village in Western Malaysia, the film follows a lovesick teenager and a middle-aged man in the midst of a quarantine, as local fish are discovered to have mysteriously turned poisonous. While the teenager does his clumsy best to use the situation to his monetary advantage, the older man tries to cope with the tragedy of his wife’s death. Both are desperately lonely and seeking companionship in a society where warmth doesn’t exist between people and prostitution substitutes for romance.

Like much of Tsai’s work, Woo’s film is an exercise in modern-day ennui, punctuated by moments, images, and details of comic and emotional resonance. And, as also seen in Tsai’s films (for example, in Lee Kang-sheng’s infection in The River), water is charged with symbolism and seems to actually be taking a measurement of the society’s moral decay. Woo distinguishes himself, in this otherwise faithful imitation, by smoothing away most of the shock value that scared viewers off from films like Vive L’Amour and The River; his two protagonists here are not necessarily sympathetic, but they somehow manage to maintain a non-threatening appearance of innocence, naïveté, even stupidity that Tsai used to withhold from his earlier, more sinister characters. Where many of the lonely people in Tsai’s films (with the notable exception of those in I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone) seem so far gone as to be unredeemable by love, Woo’s antiheroes seem to want nothing but love—an animal pursuit that Elephant largely avoids dressing up in moral judgment or detailed characterization. Though it might be difficult to recognize from the arm’s length at which the film holds you, there is a soft-heartedness here that can humanize the difficulty of Tsai’s style for a whole new audience.

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While the three films I’ve discussed are not ethnographic, sociological, or political in nature, they inevitably will be (and should be) viewed as windows into a part of the world that was, not too long ago, rarely ever covered in the news, much less seen in the movies. Interpreted as societal diagnoses, the portrait they form together might seem overwhelmingly bleak: out of this selection of thematically disparate films, the characterization that emerges is one of a community divided as much as enriched by its linguistic and ethnic diversity, a society undone by the apocalyptic mood of our times and a decaying sense of family responsibility, and a culture in which crime and self-exploitation are accepted features of a large, neglected underclass. Indeed, when my dad finished watching After This Our Exile (which, as a melodrama, is probably the least acidic of the three in its social critique), he immediately expressed concern that Tam had portrayed Malaysia unfairly and that Western audiences would get the wrong impression. But, actually, what we see in these films is a Malaysia tailored to three separate modes of storytelling, a country rich in the kind of beauty, mystery, and conflict that distinguishes the most memorable settings in fiction. One hopes, in the future, for reinventions as densely layered as Faulkner’s South, as politically charged as Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s Indonesia, or as subtly illuminated as Hou’s Taiwan. Off-kilter on a continent known for its long history of monolithic civilizations, this comparatively young nation, and the stories that are beginning to arise from it, could have a lot to say to the pluralist American audience.

Andrew Chan is a poet and film critic currently studying at UNC-Chapel Hill. He is the creator of the blog Movie Love.