While Malaysian movies have not made its mark at the prestigious Oscars, we could say that our ambition is halted not for the lack of trying. Although there are only three submissions that have been made so far, but FINAS has definitely an eye to one day see a Malaysian title among the five nominated films for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, if not bringing home the golden statuette altogether.
FINAS has already made known its intentions of producing an Oscar-worthy film in the next few years, and whether we will live to see the day that Malaysian filmmaking is given such high praise, is a day worth looking forward to.
Regardless, the long way must be paved by previous attempts, and we would like to honour these films that have tried and failed, but tried nonetheless.
"Puteri Gunung Ledang" (2004)
History could have been very different if our country's first submission to the Oscars was not made into a movie at all, much less one to represent Malaysia for the Oscars. Originally conceived by director Mamat Khalid to be a television series, it was later spun for the silver screen by producer and star Tiara Jacqueline. Funded with a tremendous budget of approximately RM16 million, making it one of the biggest budgets spent on a Malaysia movie then, every penny's worth of it shone through the production design, script and song writing, directing, cast and effect, weaving together an epic musical extravaganza. For that, "Puteri Gunung Ledang" would claim Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Art Direction, and Best Music Score at the Malaysian Film Festival on the year of its release.
Despite taking royal liberties from the original tale, the grand scale of this epic romance alone signaled that Malaysia had the resources to make its own unique entry that had the grandeur and glamour fit for an Oscar film. "Puteri Gunung Ledang" may not have made it to the shortlist of the 74th Academy Awards, but it has since cemented its place in Malaysian cinema, and even went on to live as a successful stage play, with Tiara Jacqueline reprising her groundbreaking role.
Despite having banned and buried his feature debut by FINAS, director Dain Iskandar Said was about to show that he was a cut above the rest with his second feature, "Bunohan". Detailing a blood-soaked tale between brothers set in the idyllic town of Bunohan, "Bunohan" was at times steeped in meditative mysticism and spiraling into visceral violence the next; a gruesome and grounding exploration of the masculine psyche. Staged and shot masterfully from a modest budget of that looked like small change to "Puteri Gunung Ledang", it demonstrated that production value wasn't a make or break for a film to be worthy, and Dain Iskandar Said was almost born to make Malaysian films for the Oscars.
Winning all but 2 of its 10 nominated categories (some with more than one contender in the same categories) at the 25th FFM, the same authority that had almost culled the early career of Dain, submitted "Bunohan" for the 85th Academy Awards; ending an 8 year drought of films submitted for the awards, and becoming the second to represent Malaysia. Needless to say, all eyes will be on his upcoming 2016 feature "Interchange", and there will be expectations that it will be carrying the Malaysian flag for the next Oscar race.
"Lelaki Harapan Dunia" (2014)
When the crest of the Malaysian New Wave had long washed over in 2014, there was a small resurgence in the independent Malaysian film scene that year. While 2014 saw the follow up from young director Nik Amir Mustapha in "Terbaik Dari Langit", it also welcomed back Malaysian New Wave alumni Liew Seng Tat with his second feature in 7 years since the heydays of the New Wave. Centered on a village community who have been brought together to help a widower carry an abandoned home found in a jungle as a wedding gift to his daughter, "Lelaki Harapan Dunia" dealt in the subtle subtext of the kampong mentality, its superstitions and its simple-mindedness, without being disparaging but providing thoughtful commentary.
Ultimately, it was probably the awards "Lelaki Harapan Dunia" had garnered outside of Malaysia (from the Rotterdam and Singapore International Film Festivals and recognition from the Locarno Film Festival), compared to the splash "Terbaik Dari Langit" made at the ASEAN International Film Festival, that gave "Lelaki Harapan Dunia" a better profile that FINAS favored its chances for the Oscars. The Best Picture of the 2015 FFM has since been sent for Oscar consideration at the 88th Academy Awards to no avail.
However, following so closely to its predecessor, we hope that this is a sign that Malaysian filmmakers as a whole have reached a new maturity in their concepts and construction of films that we should no longer see an Oscar nomination, if not an Oscar trophy, as an almost impossible dream. If anything, we surely hope that these films would be the ascendant steps being taken for future works as inspiration and quality so that one day, we will truly have a universal story to share with the world.