Delinquencies in films and the Malaysian New Waves
By Yow Chong Lee
French New Wave is an umbrella term widely used to describe two groups of French filmmakers whose films show distinctive styles and themes compared to films made before them in France and other parts of the world.
In general, they consist of Right Bank and Left Bank filmmakers; the former are relatively younger and thus use bolder approaches in their films and vice versa.
Right Bank French New Wave filmmakers Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, and Claude Chabrol, just to name a few, have their deep interest in films thanks to the post-war economic boom and liberal approach taken by its hitherto xenophobic French government which previously harboured resentment towards the world and had polarised interest towards Hollywood films. France’s general public (including these filmmakers) have had their pleasure watching films from other parts of the world, especially those from Hollywood.
This happened concurrently with the mushrooming of many cine-clubs in Paris as well as European art cinema movements.
The filmmakers’ admiration for Hollywood auteurs such as Orson Welles, John Ford and Alfred Hitchcock are clearly seen in both their writings for the then famous film magazine, Cahiers du Cinéma as well as the films they made (ie. strong reference to these auteurs’ films) in the late 1950s and 1960s.
These filmmakers, as mentioned earlier, are bold and have developed a strong dissatisfaction with French cinema as well as the seemingly demotivating social and cultural condition in their country, hence taking the responsibility of making greater films reflecting their beliefs and ideals squarely onto their own shoulders.
Apart from making films that demonstrate unprecedented film form and techniques, they tend to include stories that surround characters with strong resentment towards their contemporary society.
Two stunning examples are Truffaut’s ‘The 400 Blows’ (1959) and Godard’s ‘Breathless’ (1960).
Compared to the former, Godard employed a daring technical approach, particularly true when audiences were (and still can be) astonished by the use of striking jump cuts, low angles and handheld camera movements.
Despite this stark difference, these two films inevitably share a similarity in term of their theme: delinquencies of their characters in films.
Delinquencies in Malaysian Cinema in the 2010s: From ‘KIL’ to ‘Juvana 3’
I believe that those who frequent theaters for local films have noticed the similarities shared between the films made by several filmmakers such as Nik Amir Mustapha, Shanjhey Kumar Perumal, Mohd Khairul Azri Mohd Noor and Faisal Ishak.
For the purpose of this write-up, I will refer mainly on the latest film that I watched recently, namely ‘Juvana 3’. It depicts a group of former juveniles trapped by their ex-school warden, Encik Raja for his own benefits. These juveniles are put into the ostensibly inescapable trap made parallel to the power imbalance present in Malaysia’s modern-day society.
Encik Raja, a mastermind behind the mishaps in these franchises, is described as an unscrupulous evil who has engulfed all the funds at his former-school and returns with a stronger line-up of thugs who can only be overthrown with violence.
Encik Raja, playfully acted by Hasnul Rahmat, bears a striking reference to Don Vito Corleone in the installations of ‘The Godfather’.
This reference is even made conspicuous through the film poster hung at the makeshift clinic in the film.
‘Juvana 3’, just like its ‘KIL’, ‘Jagat’ and ‘Pekak’ counterparts, features delinquencies in its foreground made justifiable by the traps these characters are caught in. This pattern is apparent in ‘Pekak’ when the filmmaker chose to use many ‘frame within a frame’ shots to deliver the very notion of being trapped in the seemingly inaudible world that we all live in.
Apart from such surface delinquencies, ‘Juvana 3’ and its counterparts have also shown delinquencies by breaking the film-making rules widely taught in film schools and acceptable by the mainstream filmmakers like the 180-degree rule and continuity editing… just to name two.
‘Juvana 3’, for instance, has challenged all these rules.
I would, however, expect a counter-reading of ‘Juvana 3’, by saying “well, after all these delinquencies, the film has to come to a happy ending that adheres to societal norms: the bad people are arrested by the cops and those who deserve to die are killed at the end of the film.”
That is a great reading that many would be happy to stand by.
I would like, however, to draw attention to how Malaysian cinema has been shackled (some would say ironically, ‘made creative’) by a scissors-happy censorship for decades.
In order to make their films available to a wider audience, the filmmakers have had to battle with the censorship board, possibly rendering them – if they are lucky – a ‘P13′ label instead of the unwelcomed ’18’.
To put it succinctly, these films have shown their resistance to the existing order in their own way – from breaking the film rules to including delinquent characters in films.
The Malaysian New Waves… really?
Generally, many academics have accepted that independent film-making in Malaysia as well as other Southeast Asian countries have been made possible with the advancement of cheaper technology available in the early 2000s.
In Malaysia, there was a rise of two different groups of filmmakers whom I would call “independent filmmakers” and “indie filmmakers” whose films are dissimilar altogether in term of their styles and themes.
The former consists of filmmakers brought prominent through ‘Odisi’ series on ntv7, ie. Bernard Chauly, Yasmin Ahmad and Osman Ali with relatively wider audiences of their own; and the latter such as Tan ChuiMui, Amir Muhammad and Woo JinMing whose films have gathered them their niche audience.
I would discreetly put them as the earliest Malaysian New Wave^ (2000s) filmmakers for the path they have built to the latter day of Malaysian cinema. (^I am aware of the repercussions in coining terminology like this as it renders an over-simplistic reading of a diverse group of filmmakers.)
Some of them still work towards encouraging and enriching the film culture in Malaysia.
Take Bernard Chauly and Tan ChuiMui, for instance, who never fail to organise film workshops for young aspiring filmmakers across Malaysia. Their love and passion for cinema has then been translated into their films and their actions have gone on to build the next new wave of filmmakers.
As much as I would like to make a parallel between the seemingly rightful term, ‘Malaysian New Wave (in 2010s)’ with the ‘French New Wave’, I would like to put an asterisk mark on it, in hopes that this will serve as a friendly reminder to readers that “Malaysian New Wave* (2010s)” is nonetheless a blanket term for a diverse group of filmmakers and therefore subject to debates and continuous redefinition of it.
While many have flourished with their debut features, there are still many young and upcoming filmmakers who have yet to be exposed to the general audience.
From my brief observation of the current trend, supported by the mushrooming film clubs and film schools in Malaysia, more urban-middle class youths are partaking in the film-making scene.
Most of them are making urban-hipster-like films which reflect their identity.
This movement is made possible with the ever-growing film culture especially in big cities across Malaysia supported by film festivals, homegrown film clubs and film-related events which are bolstered by existing technology, incentives provided by the state through FINAS and MDEC as well as filmmakers’ dissatisfaction towards the current state of Malaysia.
For aren’t these what make Malaysian cinema exciting?
Yow Chong Lee is a film lecturer from Universiti Malaysia Sarawak (UNIMAS). While he seems to be optimistic and expects imminent cinematic excitement in the near future, he wishes to urge Malaysian audiences to support quality local films while they are being shown in theaters.
*These are the opinions of the writer and does not necessarily reflect those of The Borneo Post SEEDS.