Celebrate diversity with these Malaysian films.
While Malaysian films are still strongly segmented by language and culture, with each race dishing out entertainment that is intended for a specific audience, ever so often we have filmmakers who step out of those boundaries to remind us what it means to be Malaysians. Case in point; Yasmin Ahmad's, "Sepet", which is one of the first few films to highlight the importance of diversity in the country and has been cited as a precedent of future Malaysian films.
Yasmin Ahmad's 2004 film, "Sepet" starring Sharifah Amani and Choo Seong Ng.
Nowhere else in the world is a country so blessed to have distinct races living under the same roof, growing generations, mixing cultures and identifying themselves in what can be only be uniquely described as Malaysian.
With the recent change of heart by FINAS and the PFM to remove all language barriers for the nominees to be the best Malaysian film in the upcoming Festival Film Malaysia (FFM), we may start to see that the message of diversity, in film and in society, have started to reach the hearts in the mainstream. With optimistic hopes for the future that Malaysian cinema will continue to embrace its diversity, we also want to look at the truly Malaysian films that have come before, and are worth celebrating in this national month of August.
This is possibly a controversial choice given the backlash that Mamat Khalid received having made the Indian cast in this Bollywood-inspired comedy speak mostly in Bahasa Malaysia instead of their native Tamil. But "Estet" was still a brave attempt from the director to have two races appearing on the same screen in a year that was dominated by purely Malay fare. Set in a rubber estate, revolving around a football match between two rival rubber estates, it was a rare moment to see the Malay and Indian cast committing to the boisterous, but otherwise Bollywood-like action, romance, and the unmissable dance number at the end was a sight to enjoy the joining of two races on screen.
Ola Bola (2016)
Having come from making Chinese New Year movies appealing to a Chinese audience, director Chiu Keng Guan finally struck a chord in all Malaysians with his loving road-trip movie, "The Journey". Despite having the testament of being loved by Malaysian audiences of all strips as the highest grossing film of 2014, "The Journey" was still rooted in Chinese cultures that may be lost on those who couldn't understand the taboo of giving a chicken head to an elder on Chinese New Year Eve.
It was Chiu's next effort; the inspired and inspiring football story of "Ola Bola", where he put the theme of diversity front and center on the field. Tracing along the lines of the glory days of Malaysian football built by a multiracial national team, "Ola Bola" was both nostalgic and representative of a better time for diversity in Malaysia (including East Malaysia). That's not to say that "Ola Bola" was the perfect Malaysian film that celebrated diversity; the little setbacks it had with certain audiences on its historical accuracies is a sign that there are some old wounds that has hurt our diversity, and needs to be treaded carefully.
Nasi Lemak 2.0 (2011)
Despite his political incorrectness and lack of a decent filter to his angry words, director Namewee's thoughts of diversity is anything, if not, crudely sincere. Making an astounding feature length directorial debut despite the political climate against him, "Nasi Lemak 2.0" was the first taste of his street-level diversity; the type that is seen, understood and felt by every Malaysian.
Playing as a heroic Chinese chef who is sent out of his little culture bubble to discover the secrets of making the perfect Nasi Lemak, Namewee's "Nasi Lemak 2.0" blares out the forgotten spirit of Muhibah with a multiracial cast of Chinese, Malay and Indian stereotypes, but still manages to deliver an entertaining message on the importance each race has to play in making the metaphorical perfect plate of a national cuisine. Namewee continues to deliver the same Muhibah message in his follow up "Hantu Gangster", but it was his first directorial where the message was not as muddled.
With the Digital New Wave of independent Malaysian filmmakers in the early 2000s, came also a different thinking in making Malaysian films that were driven by diversity. One product of such thinking was Amir Muhammad's directorial debut, "Lips to Lips"; an intertwined story following four sets of characters living in Kuala Lumpur through the events of one day. Despite the steamy indulgences that motivated the plot, "Lips to Lips" was an early example of how diversity is experienced in a metropolitan Malaysia, with its own stories being told from a multicultural perspective, through a multiracial cast.
Such attempts of diversely informed storytelling have been rare ever since until the 2013 multi-directed anthology "Kolumpo" that revisits the subject of diversity as a shared experience. Also set in the city of Kuala Lumpur, but consisting of three separate short stories, "Kolumpo" may not have been racially charged than the other entries on this list, but it still embraces that the spice of life is best served with diverse experiences.
Last but certainly not least, we should not begin to talk about celebrating Malaysian diversity without mentioning a film by the late Yasmin Ahmad, but it was probably more appropriate to let it punctuate as the climax of this list. Aside from her heartwarming ads, Yasmin's feature works were deeply indicative of her thoughts and feelings about seeing humanly Malaysians, past race and religion; a theme that permeates as the undertone of all her films.
While the blossoming of multiracial love in "Sepet" and its doomed fate in "Gubra" will always be a landmark of multiracial stories, it is admittedly limited in its scope of showing a more diverse Malaysia. With that, the honour sadly goes to her last film, "Talentime". Set in a national school that is suitably the bedrock of cultivating Malaysia's diversity, the central romance between Melur and Mahesh, backdropped by the tension between two overachieving students Hafiz and Howard, and watched over by a comical staff of multiracial teachers, "Talentime" is through and through a Malaysian film that shows all sides of growing up as a Malaysian; loving, fighting, understanding and celebrating our differences as the very thing that reminds us that we are only one Malaysian.
Cinema Online, 30 August 2016