Michelle Yeoh And Malaysia Madani
“Academia is the death of cinema. It is the very opposite of passion. Film is not the art of scholars, but of illiterates.”
- Werner Herzog
Like columnist Zan Azlee, I did not like the movie ‘Everything Everywhere All At Once’.
The last good role I saw Michele Yeoh was in a season of the TV series ‘Strike Back’, which if memory serves me right had a few scenes in good ole’ Malaysia or at least, what Westerners thought of as Malaysia.
Also, Zan’s piece is one of his best pieces so far but I think people really missed out on some of the issues he raised because, for some people, it became all about how Malaysia is bad because people like Yeoh cannot practice their trade here.
And really, if Pete Teoh wants to talk about “skin crawling”, I felt the exact same way when I saw his music video, ‘Here in My Home’ directed by him, the late Yasmin Ahmad, and another festival darling - Ho Yuhang.
‘Here in My Home’ is as much propaganda as ‘Malaysia Madani’, but really this whole idea of claiming Yeoh as one of us or dissing the establishment for making such claims is missing the point.
Artistes all over the world gravitate towards Hollywood or leave their homeland to peddle their trade in foreign countries for various reasons.
Tsai Ming Liang sought greener pastures in Taiwan (and there’s a reason for that) and good for him but it is not as if what he is interested in would really find an audience in Malaysia and I say this as someone who has seen some of his work.
Zan made an important point – “It was difficult to get support from agencies like Finas and whatnot. There were grants and funding opportunities, but we mainly saw them being given to the mainstream players who were already making films that were very profitable in the local market”.
Should the state fund artistic endeavours?
One of my favourite films of all time – and I am not even going to qualify it as “Malaysian” – is ‘Kaki Bakar’ and it did not find an audience.
The film's theme of hubris and self-destructive behaviour struck a chord with this movie buff but that is another story.
‘Kaki Bakar’ did not find an audience, like many films that Zan and his crew made back in the day.
I am an outlier when it comes to the state funding art. Do not get me wrong. I think arts and whatever passes for art adjacent should be a part of an education policy.
But the idea that the state should fund films or art of any kind is not something that I necessarily find useful in cultivating an artistic ecosystem.
Also, there is a racial artistic ecosystem predicated on the subject matter which is profitable and aimed at specific racial demographics.
To cite an example, a couple of years back, a young Indian couple asked me to hook them up with an Indian producer who not only makes local content but also has connections with the Indian film industry.
So, I set up the meeting and when it was over, they told me that he wasn’t interested in the project because it did not conform to what he believed were the expectations of the Indian community. And believe me, this producer knew what he was talking about when it came to profit.
I read the script, it was a Tamil and Malay language film that dealt with a marginalised group of people who were labelled outcasts by the Malay and Indian communities.
There is a happy ending to this story – funny because there was a literal happy ending in the script too – because the couple reworked the script so it dealt with immigrant communities in Australia and sold it to an Australian production house and are working on the film down under.
Keep in mind that the “independent” artistes ecosystem here is also a cosy group of people who exists in a state of artistic mutual co-dependency, which is another reason why some filmmakers and artistes leave this country and seek to peddle their trade elsewhere, or at least this is what a few young people have told me, who have left the country to pursue their celluloid dreams abroad.
The state is about a specific kind of propaganda. I get what Pakatan Harapan is doing with its ‘Malaysia Madani’ idea but all the institutions of the state are there to transmit a specific type of propaganda no matter which coalition is in control.
In Malaysia, where race and religion are not mutually exclusive, it gets much worse, but this is a secondary problem to art in this country. Non-Malay filmmakers are just as marginalised as those Malays who do not buy into what the state is selling.
Art by definition is the dialectic between individual liberties and societal stability. Artistes, by definition, are supposed to be outsiders and those who are sanctioned by the state are merely salespeople.
This is what the conversation is about or at least should be about.
Furthermore, there is hypocrisy in this country, especially amongst the dominant polity but not confined to them, which makes artistic endeavours even more problematic.
All this nonsense about the movie ‘Pulau’ being obscene is the kind of horse manure that plays well politically but does not address real issues in this country.
Just look at the outrage over something like ‘Pulau’ and read the article by Emir Research titled ‘Addressing M'sia's 'premarital' children issue’ and you will see the kind of hypocrisy at play here.
Furthermore, the amount of homemade Malaysian porn that permeates the Malaysian social media landscape makes the outrage over the film ‘Perempuan, Isteri Dan…’ look even more bizarre. Yes, I know my film references are dated but you should get my meaning.
It is also about the control of our language as well as religious interpretations. I say our language because, like it or not, and believe it or not, all Malaysians communicate in this language every single day.
We communicate in Bahasa Malaysia not as some sort of patriotic impulse but rather because this is the language that cuts through class and race.
Only Malays who use the Malay language to further propagandistic ideas are coddled by the state and of course, non-Malays who write about such subjects are hounded like writer Uthaya Sankar SB.
Uthaya learnt his lesson - “I always read about Islam, but I have learnt my lesson. I will keep away from Islam and not write anything about Islam in the future, that would be the best.”
That is why art exploring such issues, especially when done by a Muslim, hardly gets sanctioned by the state.
The main reason there has never been and will never be an authentic Bangsa Malaysia is that the censorship by the state has made it impossible even to discuss what it means to be Malaysian beyond political bromides and propaganda.
When the state controls how people talk to each other, they define the people.
Forget the noise, this is not about how local institutions are racist or about people leaving this country and doing well overseas. This is really about how the state attempts to define a country and people, and how art is supposed to resist these attempts.
This is why profitable films and artistes are easier to cultivate than people who have something to say, even though they may not find anyone to listen to them.
A late great Malaysian polymath who wrote poems that were sacred and profane once told me, when it comes to art, “Thaya, don’t blame the system because the people are also the system. We get the art we deserve.” - Mkini
S THAYAPARAN is Commander (Rtd) of the Royal Malaysian Navy. Fīat jūstitia ruat cælum - “Let justice be done though the heavens fall.”
The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of MMKtT.
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