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NEW-FOUND SUCCESS AND THE WAY FORWARD
by Hassan Abd Muthalib
This article was written for publication by the organizers of the first Hua Hin International Film
Festival in Thailand held from 27-3 !anuary" 2#2$
From the first film made in 1933 to the golden age of films in the 1950s and 1960s, and to
contemporary cinema up to the end of the 1990s, Malaysian cinema had alays been a Malay
cinema! Films ere only made in the Malay language "#ahasa Malaysia$ and aimed at a Malay
audience! %igital technology put paid to all of that and beginning in 1999, a re&olution of sorts
descended on the film community hen films began to be made in a multitude of languages that, for
the first time, truly reflected the multiethnic nature of the country!
'he Malaysian film industry is made up of players ho are di&ided into three ma(or groups! 'he
first are the studios ho fund themsel&es! 'he second are the independent producers ho procure
loans to ma)e films, usually from a go&ernment fund! 'he third are the motley group of young
filmma)ers "dubbed 'he *ittle +inema of Malaysia or simply, ,the indies-$, ith &ery little budgets
and ho shoot on digital cameras using a minimum cre mostly made up of their friends! 'hough
the studios and independents ha&e long been entrenched in the industry, it as the indies ho
brought idespread attention to alternati&e Malaysian cinema from the year .000 onards, and
inning accolades at international film festi&als to boot! 'heir cinema as grounded in realistic
portrayals of the nation and its peoples ith stylistics that ere lac)ing in the ma(ority of
mainstream films of the day!
'he seeds of the change actually began in the 19/0s ith the emergence of a ne group of
filmma)ers ho brought alternati&e storytelling ith mainstream sensibilities! %irectors such as
0ahim 0a1ali, Hafsham, 2haharom Mohd! %om, 3asir 4ani, Mansor 5uteh and 2huhaimi #aba
brought ne approaches to storytelling that ere paradigm shifts for local cinema! Hoe&er, then
"and also no$, a film literate audience as lac)ing, one that could appreciate their or)s! 'he
1990s sa many more serious directors entering the fray ith deeper e6plorations of national and
ethnic identities as ell as obser&ations on the socio7political problems of the country! 'hese films-
narrati&es and narration ere consonant ith that of orld cinema and, as a result, many of them
made it for e6hibition or competition at international film festi&als! 'he highlight as 879ei
Ha(isaari:s %a&i 'a&ar "'he Arsonist, 1995$ hich as selected for the 1995 +annes Film Festi&al:s
8n +ertain 0egard section!
9ith the turn of the century, more directors cast their critical eyes on rising social, cultural and
political issues in Malaysia! Hishamuddin 0ais as the more radical one in calling for changes
among youths in the country! ;n his one and only film, (ari !emapoh &e )anchestee "From
4emapoh to Manchestee, .001$, Hishamuddin called on Malay youths to do aay ith e&erything
that as holding them bac) from ta)ing control of their on li&es, be it Malay culture or national
politics! 'ec) 'an became the first to foreground +hinese issues and problems! 0eturning from a
long stay in Australia, he made *pinning +asing "2pinning 'op, .000$, about parental conflicts and
a lo&e affair beteen the male +hinese protagonist and a Malay girl! He ran into numerous
obstacles ith the authorities, not least because of a gay scene in the film "e&en though he had tried
to tone it don by treating the to characters humorously$! 'he film as finally alloed to be
screened after numerous cuts!
879ei Ha(isaari has fe films to his name but is a highly7respected director locally and
internationally! His contro&ersial Isteri" ,erempuan dan< "9ife, 9oman and<!, 1993$ ash a
sociological study of the Malays that as se6ually fran)! Almost e&ery one of his films has been a
loose adaptation of short stories or no&els! %a&i 'a&ar "'he Arsonist, 1995$ as based on 9illiam
Faul)ner-s 'arn 'urning! !ogho "'he +hampion, 199=$ as based on Malaysian no&elist, >sman
?elantan-s boo), -hampion" hile 'uai .a/u-la/u "2ing my 2ing High, My %arling, .00@$ as
inspired by 4ames M! +ain-s, The ,ostman 0lways 1ings Twice! His big7budget epic, Hanyut
"+astaay$ dras on 4oseph +onrad-s no&el, 0lmayer2s Folly and is the most e6pensi&e film e&er
shot in Malaysia "to date, about 82A5!5 million$! ;t is currently in post7production!
'he most contro&ersial among the millenium-s filmma)ers as undoubtedly Basmin Ahmad! 2he
also became the most aarded director internationally for her socially7aare cinema! Her entry into
the film industry brought about hat can be termed as the middle cinema here she dabbled in
engaging stories ith a cast of ell7)non names in the industry ho acted alongside un)nons!
Her stories ere humourous and tragic at the same time in the style of the legendary actorCdirector
of the 1950s, 5! 0amlee! 'hough most of her films recei&ed a lu)earm reception at the bo6 office,
her style, hoe&er, became acceptable to a non7Malay audience D and of course, to cineastes and
critics! Her first cinema feature, *epet "2lant7eyed, .005$ as about an inter7racial lo&e beteen a
Malay girl and a +hinese boy! Her forte became the e6ploration of sensiti&e sub(ects li)e interracial
relationships and the practice of religion! 2he folloed up ith more critically7acclaimed films li)e
+ubra "An6iety, .006$, )u&hsin "'he #oy, Mu)hsin, .00=$, and )uallaf "'he +on&ert, .00/$!
Family and interracial relationships and education of children at home and in schools as a constant
theme in all her films !;n Talentime ".009$, her last film, Basmin signaled hope for family, race and
nation by depicting the country-s three dominant races "represented by Malay, +hinese and ;ndian
youths$, interacting and disco&ering a common ground! Almost e&ery one of her films ha&e recei&ed
aards locally as ell as internationally! )u&hsin became the first Malaysian film to ha&e limited
runs in France and 3e Bor)! Her death in .009 cut short a producti&e life as ell as a badly7
needed breath of fresh air in Malaysian cinema!
;n the decade immediately after the millennium, the local horror mo&ie genre hich had been
banned since the 19/0s "being deemed :un;slamic:$, came bac) into &ogue, than)s to the lifting of
the ban by the Malaysian +ensorship #oard! 3o one could ha&e predicted the ,tsunami- of horror
films that as to follo! ;n a span of si6 years up to .011, more than 60 horror mo&ies ha&e
appeared that included horror comedies 7 a popular dra! Mainstream films began to ma)e money
unli)e any time in the history of Malaysian cinema and the trend appears set to continue into .01.
ith many more horror films lined up! 'he folloing are the gross ta)ings for local films
.005 7 0M.1= million "82A=. million$
.006 7 0M.35 million "82A=/ million$
.00= D 0M./9 million "82A96 million$
.00/ D 0M3/1 million "82A1.= million$
.009 D 0M@03 million "82A13@ million$
.010 7 0M51/ million "82A1=. million$
.011 0M@=3 million "82A=9 million$ "up to >ctober$!
"2ourceE 3ational Film %e&elopment +orporation, Malaysia, .011$!
Fconomically, Malaysian cinema has been successful but mainstream films did not reflect the &ision
and aspirations of the industry players as a hole! >ut of the si6teen feature films produced and
screened in .003, ten ere comedies! Almost a decade later, one of the biggest bo6 office hits as
Hantu %a& .imah 'ali& 1umah "*imah-s Ghost 0eturns Home, .010$, a comedy ith tongue7in7
chee) horror! Metroealth Films as a late player but has since become the most prolific and
successful compared to the other three studios, 'ayangan 8nggul, A2'0> 2ha and Grand
#rilliance! Metroealth produced a flurry of comedy, romance and action mo&ies! Almost e&ery
one of them as a hit! 'hough most of the films ere sorely lac)ing in terms of narrati&e Huality,
they tended to resonate ith a certain segment of the Malay audience through good promotion and
mar)eting! 'ayangan 8nggul and A2'0> 2ha belong to the same parent company! *i)e Grand
#rilliance, they ha&e pro&ided opportunities to young filmma)ers to ma)e films ith indie
approaches in an attempt to attract the young urban demographic! Hoe&er, the filmma)ers are still
obliged to follo the con&entions of popular genres such as horror, action and the teen flic)! 'he
most commercially successful of this bunch has been 4ames *ee ith his itty horror mo&ie,
Histeria ".009$ that grossed 0M.!/ million "82A900,000$!
2maller in scale, but also consistently successful, is 2)op 5roductions ith one hit after another!
2)op-s 2yamsul Busof made it big ith his fifth film, %. +angster ".011$, hich too) in an
unprecedented 0M1. million "82A@ million$ at the bo6 office, ma)ing it the highest7grossing
Malaysian film of all time! 'he film as an audience pleaser about gangsters in conflict ith each
other but carried no comments, subtle or otherise, about any serious issues pre&alent in the
country! Among the successful mainstream directors is Mamat ?halid ho has car&ed out an
interesting niche for himself by ma)ing Huir)y, sometimes satirical parodies that alays ha&e
something to say! As a result, some of his films ha&e been in&ited to international film festi&als!
Most of his films flopped but his most recent one, Hantu %a& .imah 'ali& 1umah "*imah-s Ghost
0eturns Home, .010$ as a huge, une6pected success, grossing almost 0M/ million "82A.!65
million$! 2tylistically, his most fascinating film is %ala )alam 'ulan )engambang "9hen the Full
Moon 0ises, .00/$, a blac) and hite, neo7noir homage to the 1950s Malaysian studio mo&ies! 'he
film included elements of the detecti&e story, romance, horror and artime intrigue into one
delightfully oddball pac)age ith some sly comments of the political scene!
Another gem appearing amidst the dearth of Huality mo&ies is first7time graduate filmma)er, 9an
A1li 9an 4usoh-s 'uda& %elantan "'he #oys from ?elantan, .00/$ about the angst of migrant
youths to the city that also Huestioned the role of religion in properly molding them! ;n terms of
genre, the ne )id7on7the7bloc) is the adaptation of lo&e stories from popular no&els! 'he first to
resonate ith the audience as 2harad 2haran-s .agenda 'uda& *etan "'he 'ale of the ;mpish #oy,
.010$! 'his as folloed by ?abir #hatia-s 3ur %asih the )ovie "'he *ight of *o&e, .011$, based
on a successful tele&ision series! An une6pected ma(or hit is >sman Ali-s 4mba& 1indu "9istful
9a&es, .011$ that grossed 0M11 million "82A3!/ million$! 9ith these successes,, the industry is
definitely set to mo&e into the area of adaptations of popular no&els!
#eteen .003 and .005, the indies had made a&es at international film festi&als! Amir
Muhammad-s acclaimed moc)umentary, The 'ig (urian" on a 2pecial Mention at the .003
Bamagata ;nternational Film Festi&al! ;n .003, three indie films ere featured at the 'orino Film
Festi&alE 1oom to .et "4ames *ee$, 1abun "Basmin Ahmad 7 in competition$, and )in "Ho Buhang$!
'he latter film as also shon in competition "the first time a digital &ideo film had been accorded
the honour$ at the Festi&al of 'hree +ontinents in 3antes, France, here it on the 2pecial 4ury
5ri1e! 'he entry of young, talented indies into the mainstream as history in the ma)ing! Among
them as 4ames *ee "ho had made the indie feature, 'eautiful 5ashing )achine, .00@$! *ee
directed the horror feature, Histeria ".00/$! 9oo Ming 4in "ho had made The 6lephant and the
*ea, .00/$ came up ith a mainstream feature, *alon in .005! Amir Muhammad collaborated ith
3aeim Ghalili, to direct *usu& "'alisman, .00/$! Ho Buhang has &entured on to the international
scene, first ith 1ain (ogs ".006$ and then ith 0t the 6nd of (aybrea& ".009$! 5roduced by
Focus Film of Hong ?ong, 1ain (ogs as about a young man-s search for his brother in the city
and of his coming to terms e&entually in the &illage ith the brother-s death! 'he film has on
numerous aards! (aybrea& as a crime drama about ill7fated characters ith the young
protagonist headed for an uncertain destiny &is7a7&is the social reality in Malaysia!
'he digital filmma)ers ere no not only shocasing issues and problems related to the Malays,
but also of the other ethnic peoples! Among the prominent directors ere 4ames *ee, %eepa)
?umaran Menon, 9oo Ming 4in, ?hoo Fng Bo, Ho Buhang, 'an +hui Mui, *ie 2eng 'at, +hris
+hong, 3g 'ian Hann, %esmond 'an, 2antosh ?esa&an, Beo 4oon Han, A1harr 0udin and +harlotte
*im! 'o outstanding films ere .ove -on7uers 0ll "'an +hui Mui, .006$ and Flower in the
,oc&et "*ie 2eng 'att, .00=$ that ha&e on numerous aards and screened at prestigious
international film festi&als! #oth films ere about young people and obliHuely Huestioned the status
and place of the +hinese in Malaysia! 'o filmma)ers ho did the country proud on the
international scene ere Beo 4oon Han and +hris +hong ith their debut features, *ell 4ut8 ".00/$
and %arao&e ".009$, respecti&ely! *ell 4ut8 orld7premiered at the Ienice Film Festi&al and
became the only commercially7released Malaysian film in +anada! 'he film as a humourous ta)e
on filmma)ing and bureaucracy but as, at the same time, a serious comment on the position of the
minority races and their place in the country! %arao&e made history by being the second film "after
879ei in 1995$ to screen at +annes in the %irectors Fortnight in .00/! ;t focused on the fate of a
Malay youth ho returns to his &illage in an oil7palm estate but finds he is unable to apply the
formal training he had secured in the city!
>n the animation scene, se&en features ha&e been producedE *ilat .egenda "*egendary 2ilat
9arriors, 199/$, 3ien 1esurrection ".000$, ,utih "'he Girl, 5utih, .001$, 'uda& .apo& "'he
0aggedy #oys, .00@$, +eng9 ,enggembaraan 'ermula "GangE 'he Ad&enture #egins, .009$ and
*eefood ".011$! 5ar of the 5orlds9 +oliath" a .% stereoscopic mo&ie is in the final stages of post7
production and is slated for release in .01. "together ith *eefood$! 3ien 1esurrection as the first
3% mo&ie but as only sold in the &ideo compact disc format "I+%$ locally and internationally! 2o
far, only +eng "the first cinema 3% feature$ has been a huge bo6 office hit grossing 0M6!3 million
"82. million$, and as screened in ;ndia after being dubbed into the Hindi language!
2011 and Beyond
A record @1 films ere released in .011 ith a number of them becoming une6pected successes! A
recent trend that is emerging in mainstream cinema is the production of films entirely in the +hinese
language! >ne of the most interesting as +hiu-s +reat (ay hich became a high7grosser ith
0M@!5million "82A1!5 million$, easily surpassing most Malay7language films! 5roduced by Astro
2ha, this poignant and cinematic seriocomic film as about family relations in con(unction ith
the +hinese 3e Bear celebration! 'he director had earlier made the comedy, Tiger 5oohoo in
.010, and it had also been a hit! 'he success of Ice %acang ,uppy .ove by Ah 3iu and Tiger
5oohoo" "both made in .010 but ith Ice %acang ,uppy .ove screening in .011$, shoed that a
mainstream Malaysian film need not necessarily be in the Malay language! 'his as further pro&en
right hen 3ameee-s entertaining parody of Malaysian filmma)ing, 3asi .ema& 2$ "Glutinous
0ice .!0$ in .011, made 0M= million "82.!5 million$! %ue to pressure from the +hinese producers,
the go&ernment decided to re&ise its earlier definition of :local film: "hich no need no longer be
at least =0 percent in Malay$! 'he ad&antage no is that these films ould not be ta6ed as if they
ere :foreign films: as had been the case before this! Hoe&er, the rele&ant go&ernment Minister
has only gi&en lip ser&ice to the issue ith it yet to be translated into action!
A highly7hyped film as Hi&ayat )erong )ahawangsa "'he Malay +hronicles, Busry Abd! Halim,
.011$ by ?08 studios! ;t as a big7budget epic made ith a go&ernment subsidy and as based on
an old historical te6t that combined fanciful myth ith history! 'his tale of 0oman soldiers and
+hinese princesses, leading to the formation of the early Malay )ingdoms of *ang)asu)a used &ery
e6tensi&e +G; in an effort to seem :Hollyood:! More artistically articulate, although made ith a
much tinier budget, as !!! (alam 'otol "<in the #ottle$ by first7time actorCfilmma)er, ?hir
0ahman, a film graduate! ;t had strong performances, e6cellent use of &isual metaphors and use of
framing! ;t generally recei&ed positi&e re&ies but did not do ell at the bo6 office! 'he film as
about a gay relationship that goes ary! ;n a hasty and impulsi&e moment, the protagonist has a se6
change operation only to disco&er that his partner preferred him as a man! 'he film bra&ely e6plores
gay relationships as ell as family, religious and cultural issues! <(alam 'otol surprisingly passed
the +ensorship-s strict codes and this appears to be a harbinger of more serious and sensiti&e
sub(ects that could be e6plored!
4ames *ee amusingly moc)ed cinema audiences- penchant for horror mo&ies through his *ini 0da
Hantu "'here-s a Ghost Here, .011$! ;t as intelligently crafted but suffered at the bo6 office
because it did not ha&e ,name stars-! ;n *onglap "Abduction, .011$, Fffendee Ma1lan and Fari1a
;saha) e6plored the tribulations of to brothers ho get in&ol&ed in a baby7selling syndicate! ;t
recei&ed critical acclaim for its gritty narrati&e, stylishly7done &isuals and strong performances from
the actors! 1elationship *tatus ".011$, is an interesting digital feature by ?hairil M! #ahar,
depicting &arious couples, both married and unmarried, hose li&es are intertined and then
affected by their postings on Faceboo)!
'he year .011 sa only si6 films that stood out in terms of narrati&e and stylisticsE *ini 0da Hantu,
<(alam 'otol, +reat (ay, 3asi .ema& 2$" *onglap, and 1elationship *tatus! 'hese films ha&e
been made by a ne generation of Malaysians! 'he ,tsunami- at Malaysia-s general elections in
.00/ heralded the emergence of this ne generation see)ing to transform the social and political
landscape! %igital cinema and satellite tele&ision ha&e made the indies- films more accessible to a
ider audience, including on the ;nternet through Bou'ube! #ut to ha&e a greater impact on the
local audience that is geared to a populist cinema, there is a need for the films to be less personal,
less ambiguous and a little bit more engaging! For the mainstream filmma)ers, their films ha&e to
ha&e more substance and thin)ing before they can ma)e any headay into the international arena,
be it for commercial screenings or to be accepted into film festi&als! 'his doesn-t seem possible in
the near future as producers are too moti&ated in ma)ing profits and competition beteen them is
rife for a share of the mar)et! #ut until all this can happen, Malaysian +inema ill continue to be as
&ibrant and colourful as the motley group that is no acti&e in it!
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