Kuala Lumpur's young, independent movie-makers focus their attention on the myriad diversity of Thailand's southern neighbour
In Malaysia, something potent is breaking aboveground. Finding their salvation in DV cameras, a handful of young, game, independent movie-makers stalk the fringe of KL multiplexes and beat the drum of their buzzing campaign. They may not be selling full-blown entertainment, but they're betting people are ready to buy their ideas.
Oiled by self-confidence and years of frustration, Malaysian indie directors are re-animating the cinema scene south of our border. As intrepid Thai filmmakers have graduated into the geo-politics of global cinema, all eyes are turning now to KL-based talents, whose low-budget, high-aspiration works represent a new cultural movement by means of movies.
"A lot of people, especially urban people, are fed up with the mainstream Malaysian cinema, and they're turning out to support independent movies," says Amir Muhammad, a documentary filmmaker. "It's not that they always like our works, but obviously they're glad that something different is happening."
At the same time, international spotlight is speeding up this wave of revival. Recently the International Film Festival Rotterdam, one of Europe's major cinefests, screened six Malaysian features in its programme. One of them, an urban drama Sanctuary by Ho Yu-hang, was promoted into the fest's main competition and came out with a critic's award.
Directors like Ho Yu-hang, Amir Muhammad, and James Lee, whose movie Beautiful Washing Machine has travelled the world's festival circuit, are the frontmen of this indie action. Their diverse backgrounds and cinematic influences thus bring forth the rich palettes of thematic ambitions. Yu-hang, a Chinese-Malaysian, was trained as an engineer and is an heir apparent to the hushed, meditative style of Taiwanese masters like Tsai Ming-liang and Hou Hsiao-hsien. Amir, an English-educated law graduate, focuses his effort in making political docs _ his lastest one is about the democracy movement in Indonesia, and his next one will concern the communist activities in the 1980s. Lee, meanwhile, has experience in theatre, which he says prepared him for the rocky road of independent filmmaking.
What fostered the rise of these new-wave Malaysians, they all agree, was the coming of the DV camera. "I'd say that that was the biggest factor that encouraged all of us to start making movies four, five years back," says Amir. "Shooting with digital cameras is quick and cheap, that's what important for us."
Like independent movie-makers everywhere, the KL bunch scrape the bottom of every barrel for their meagre budgets. Yu-hang's Sanctuary, for example, was made with US$15,000 (less than 600,000 baht), while Lee's Beautiful Washing Machine cost US$50,000 (2 million baht) _ and part of that was sponsored by a restaurant chain and a soft drinks company, quite unusual investors in the film business. Amir's 2004 experimental work Tokyo Magic Hour was funded by a Japan-based fellowship programme.
"In fact, the government has a programme to support filmmakers by giving out loans to make movies, just like when it gives loans for a company to open a factory," says Yu-hang, a plump, talkative 33-year-old.
"But the intention of it is strictly to support the commercial film industry _ for a movie to make a profit. In Malaysia, film is not considered part of the culture, and though there has been some interest in our movement _ indie movies are seen as fashionable _ it's still not clear how the authorities are going to deal with us."
In conservative societies, progressive, challenging artistic activities are often received with mixed feelings _ this applies both to Malaysia and Thailand. James Lee's Beautiful Washing Machine didn't get a wide national release when it came out last year, but after the movie was bought up by a Korean distributor, local theatres have grown more confident and began talking about opening the movie now. "We have the support from sectors of the audience as well as from the media," Lee says. "The government, too, seems to pay attention to what we're doing, though they might not understand everything."
The first Malaysian feature film, a folk opera about star-crossed lovers, was made in 1933 by an Indian director. The country enjoyed the boom years after World War II until mid-1960s, when many directors made popular films under the wing of Shaw Brothers Studio of Hong Kong. From the 1990s, Malaysia has turned out a dozen productions each year, and almost all of them were run-of-the-mill genre flicks, melodramas and comedies, mostly in the Malay language and with substandard production quality _ with sound dubbed, for example.
Since the mid-1980s, independent filmmaking emerged at the parameter of the stale, mass-market mainstream industry. In 1995, maverick U-Wei bin Hajisaari made The Arsonist, a cross-cultural family drama that became the first Malaysian film to be invited to Cannes; his latest film Swing My Swing High, My Darling was also featured at the Rotterdam festival. Despite the ongoing fringe-action, it was only from 2000 that Malaysia has witnessed a healthy package of forward-thinking directors surfacing with great dynamism.
"The next five years should be critical," says Amir. "If we're hard-working and consistent, the independent scene here may draw confidence from a larger audience. What was considered unusual 20 years ago has become ordinary now, so maybe our works are like that. It's only a matter of time."
Working with DV poses certain limits however, Amir adds. Digital features are still considered as a less ideal form of cinema, and commercially, it's difficult to distribute _ currently, the works of independent filmmakers are screened at only one special theatre in KL.
But in the ardent search for the first modern Malaysian masterpiece and continuing international recognition, the strength of this indie wave is its diversity born out of the country's ethnic makeup. As it happens, experts believe that the history of Malaysian cinema is closely linked to the attempt to find a cultural _expression in this peninsula of Malay, Chinese and Indian sub-cultures. Because the mainstream Malaysian cinema today is made up mostly of Malay-language movies, the independent scene is an open arena that displays the country's myriad mix. Ho Yu-hang and James Lee's movies are in Chinese; Amir's in Bahasa, and recently there was the first Tamil-language Malaysian film.
"That's not even diverse enough," says Amir. "I'd like to see films from Borneo and from the east coast of the peninsula. Malaysia is made up of so many parts."
And when all these parts wake up to work, Malaysia will have its turn to roar.