Two friends on the cusp of adolescence consummate their relationship with a kiss. And suddenly the boy, who has been waiting the entire film for his meek overtures to be noticed and for his love to be reciprocated, slowly floats up, stopping in midair, suspended above the road as if by a string. Donning the traditional Muslim songkok, he becomes in our eyes, for the first time, a spiritual figure, the look on his face one of peace rather than joy or pleasure. In this remarkable moment toward the end of Yasmin Ahmad’s Mukhsin, what is later revealed to be a mere dream is represented with a clarity that normalizes the film’s one gesture toward the magical and the surreal. It is only here that we begin to appreciate how precisely Ahmad has captured the wooziness of first love, as we recognize the scene not as an attempt to amuse the audience but as the necessary embodiment of feelings that can find their articulation only through fantasy. As if under the influence of J.M. Barrie or Frances Hodgson Burnett, Ahmad sympathizes with the depths of longing that lie beneath young people’s make-believe, and she tells her tale as if the only way real love can be accurately envisioned is with the wonderment and helplessness of the young. Unlike much of the rest of this chatty, open-hearted film, the mood of this scene surprises us by how hushed and prayerful it allows itself to be, and how well-earned it feels.
Mukhsin is at its best during moments like this, when Ahmad identifies with the innocence of youthful emotions that lack a vocabulary to express, justify, or resolve themselves. The title character is a quiet, friendless Malay boy who finds his soul mate in a feisty girl named Orked. From the minute their friendship begins, he can think of nothing but spending all his days climbing trees with her. In Ahmad’s hands, none of this courtship becomes cute or cloying; in fact, the relationship is laid out as educational. As the pair get to know each other, Ahmad surrounds them with examples of love gone right and wrong, including a happy married couple who teach them how to fly a kite, and a devoted wife whose husband pays no attention to her. What develops between the two friends is so natural it seems to have been sanctioned not only by their families but by the fates. Orked, however—at the age where she is only just beginning to emerge from the gendered factions of early grade school—can’t manage to return Mukhsin’s romantic feelings, at least not openly. Only later, when the film reframes itself as a memory relived, are we assured of the lifelong significance of this puppy love. Having come and gone without being verbalized or verified, it nevertheless remains, for Orked, the original passion all her future loves echo. In a film whose quirkiness is so matter-of-fact, whose tone is so unassuming, and whose achievement seems at first more charming than brilliant, we somehow find a gift all too rare in movies: a reminder of how intensely private and isolated, how fueled by imagination, first love can be.
As the final installment of Ahmad’s “Orked Trilogy,” Mukhsin places itself in a tradition of semi-autobiographical, multi-part, predominantly masculine fictions that chronicle the author’s growing pains: think Tolstoy’s Childhood, Boyhood, Youth or Hou’s 80s trilogy, both works that reanimate (and monumentalize) a stage of life too often misted by nostalgia. Four films into her career, Ahmad is already known as the godmother of the new Malaysian digital cinema, and Mukhsin’s May premiere at MoMA (as the first of Ahmad’s films to receive a weeklong engagement in New York) marked another notable stateside appearance of the Malaysian new wave—which, despite festival acclaim, has seemed all but unexportable. It’s unfortunate that Mukhsin would never stand a chance of attracting today’s distributors, on the one hand because it is about Malays (an ethnic group most Americans know almost nothing about) and, on the other, because it lacks the air of aesthetic and thematic gravity that wins over the cinephilic press.
But at a time when questions about Barack Obama’s biography have brought Southeast Asian Islam under the microscope, Mukhsin might be just what American audiences need: a positive, deeply personal view of a religion whose followers are far more diverse in ideology and ethnicity than our government would have us presume. Watching Mukhsin in the U.S., it’s impossible to ignore Ahmad’s attempts to treat Islam with a sense of ease while, at the same time, defending Muslim culture to a foreign audience with quotidian scenes of Qu’ran readings and daily prayers. Ahmad, for the most part, succeeds in her balancing of tones, not only in regards to Muslim life but also to the film’s mix of comedy and drama, and its recognition of tragedy and class difference. These virtues end up substituting for a broad theme that is introduced early on but not explicitly explored: that of the modern Malay condition. There is a sense that, having emerged from colonial rule in 1957, Malaysia and its largest ethnic group still retain the prestige of being linked to the British (Orked’s mother speaks English every chance she gets), but also struggle with an inferiority complex (a frustrated young man in a bar asks a woman, “Are Malay men not good enough for you?”).
The film’s educative capacities aside, Mukhsin—one of the rare native crowd-pleasers in its country—is a thoroughly accessible film, sharing more in common with Malaysian TV serials than with the modern detachment of other digital filmmakers of the new wave, such as the Malaysian-Chinese James Lee and Woo Ming Jin. Ahmad maintains a lightness to her approach, even when the themes get dark, and she pulls this off without ever trivializing her characters’ struggles. Despite the glimpses of sadness in it, Mukshin is so reflective of its director’s joie de vivre (Ahmad describes herself on her blog as “optimistic” and “sentimental”) that it ends with a final sequence testifying to the collaborative pleasures of making the film. Compare this with the endless string of dysfunctional-family comedies that the commercialized American independents have thrown at us. After sitting through Little Miss Sunshine and Juno in the past two years—films that strained mightily to be both endearing and sardonic—it’s a welcome surprise to find a portrait of the ups and downs of family happiness that is complicated and believable, and that seems to spring from a genuine familiarity with its subject.
Andrew Chan is a poet and film critic currently studying at UNC-Chapel Hill. He is the creator of the blog Movie Love.