Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Licence to Scare

Licence to Scare
By: Meor Shariman

Local Horror Movies Making Money

We love a good scare and are always fascinated with things that go bump in the night.

This fascination with the supernatural is universal - the reason why the horror genre is never out of date.

Producing the right horror flick means huge box-office returns. Even a poorly made horror movie can make lots of money if properly promoted. One good example was the recent low-budget Momok The Movie . It made RM2.1 million.

The History

The horror genre made a comeback in the Malaysian film industry in 2003 with Mistik, directed by Associate Professor Abdul Razak Mohaideen.

The film was a hit, but many viewers were unhappy with the ending which summarised the movie as a long dream sequence.

The National Censorship Board at that time was leery of supernatural elements in local movies.

The last local horror movie before Mistik was Aziz M. Osman's Fantasi in 1994.

Fantasi was banned by the board for a year. It was later passed for screening but was heavily censored. This deterred local producers from making scary flicks.

After Mistik, two low-budget horror films were made - Di Ambang Misteri and Makar (2004). Both tanked at the box-office.

Then came Pontianak Harum Sundal Malam (2004). The film made money but the ending, like Mistik, angered many viewers. It ended from the viewpoint of a delusional main character played by Rosyam Nor.

The film sparked a debate among filmmakers and government policymakers on who should "protect" the audience. In the end, the filmmakers prevailed with help from the media.

The New Era

Beginning with Pontianak Harum Sundal Malam 2 (2006), the board gave local filmmakers the freedom to make horror flicks, provided that they caution Muslim viewers from being influenced by such movies.

That "licence to scare" resulted in Gong (2006), Puaka Tebing Biru (2007), Chermin (2007) and Misteri Orang Minyak (2007).

But it took Jangan Pandang Belakang (2007), directed by Ahmad Idham Ahmad Nazri, to elevate the horror genre.

The film was the scariest local movie of the time as well as the most successful, grossing more than RM7 million in Malaysia, Brunei and Singapore.

It became the benchmark for local horror films and set a "high" standard to live up to, so much so that not even Ahmad Idham's follow-up - Congkak (2008) could match it.

Films such as Histeria (2008), Jangan Tegur (2009), Rasukan Ablasa (2009), Jin Hutan (2009) and Skrip 7707 (2009), tried to beat Jangan Pandang Belakang's "scare-o-meter" but to no avail.

Last Thursday, Santau was unleashed.

The film is based on a true story and those who've seen it may agree that it is the scariest local horror film ever made.

Directed by new director, Azahari Zain, Santau, a film about black magic, has set a new benchmark for the local horror film genre.

The Scary 10

Here's my personal list of Malaysia's 10 scariest movies.

1. Santau (2009), directed by Azahari Zain, starring Esma Daniel, Lisdawati and newcomer Putri Mardiana.

2. Jangan Pandang Belakang (2007) , directed by Ahmad Idham, starring Pierre Andre and Intan Ladyana.

3. Histeria (2008) directed by James Lee, starring Liyana Jasmay and Scha Al Yahya.

4. Jangan Tegur (2009) directed by Pierre Andre, starring Julia Ziegler and Ellie Suryati.

5. Pontianak Harum Sundal Malam (2004) directed by Datin Paduka Shuhaimi Baba, starring Maya Karin, Rusdi Ramli and Rosyam Nor.

6. Mistik (2003) directed by Associate Professor Abdul Razak Mohaideen, starring Rita Rudaini, Lisdawati and Cico Hararap.

7. Rahsia (1987) directed by Othman Hafsham, starring Shukery Hashim and Noor Kumalasari.

8. Congkak (2008) directed by Ahmad Idham, starring Nanu Baharuddin and Ruminah Sidik.

9. Puaka Tebing Biru (2007) directed by Osman Ali, starring Umie Aida, Sharifah Amani and Fahrin Ahmad.

10. Skrip 7707 (2009) directed by Associate Professor Abdul Razak Mohaideen, starring Fasha Sandha and Norman Abdul Halim.

Source: New Straits Times, December 12, 2009

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Actor Ahmad Mahmud

Datuk Ahmad Mahmud is A Role Model to All

He is best remembered as Dr Ismadi, the soft-spoken “pedantic” antagonist in Tan Sri P.Ramlee’s classic film, Ibu Mertuaku. He was also unforgettable in his portrayal of the handsome, righteous and dignified Malay hero Hang Jebat back in the 1960s.

Fans of actor-director-producer Datuk Ahmad Mahmud would recall his definitive interpretations of these two roles in the films directed by P. Ramlee in 1957 and 1962 respectively.

Ahmad died of kidney failure on Wednesday at 10pm at his residence in Kampung Tunku, Petaling Jaya. He proved he was a fighter and a hero till the end. He was 82.

Ahmad is survived by his wife Datin Khadijah Mohamad, three children and nine grandchildren.

His screen life remains evergreen, and the good natured and dedicated actor will be fondly remembered by Malaysians.

It was not just Ramlee who loved working with him; other film directors were equally awed by his professionalism. He was serious about his work and humble to fans and friends.

Born Ahmad B. Mahmud in Rembau, Negri Sembilan, he began his acting career in 1951.

He was regarded one of the pioneers in Jalan Ampas studio in Singapore and successfully collaborated with the heavyweights in the industry including Ramlee, Siput Sarawak, Nordin Ahmad, late Normadiah and Datuk Sarimah Ahmad.

Before he ventured into acting, Mahmud had done various odd jobs and worked as a rubber tapper, painter, bus conductor, and timekeeper.

When he joined film studio Cathy Keris Film, he was summoned by the late director Ho Ah Loke to act in Perwira di Lautan (alongside Mimi Nordin).

In 1951, Ahmad was featured in the lead role in Matahari, a black-and-white film directed by Datuk Maria Menado, Omar Rojik and Aziz Jaafar.

A year later, Ahmad signed up with Shaw Brothers to make Istana Impian, which starred Saadiah, and also for Gadis Buta, with Rosini Merican.

He was a darling among moviegoers. When he played good roles, he was exceptionally good, and when he portrayed bad guys, he was even better!

He played the villain in Raja Bersiong about a ruthless king who consumes human blood. The movie, a Merdeka Filem Productions and directed by Datuk Jamil Sulong, was screened in 1967, the same year he left Merdeka Filem.

During an interview with the New Straits Times in 1987, Ahmad was quoted as saying that Raja Bersiong was one of his favourites.

He was brilliant in the role of Lahuma in the heart-wrenching Ranjau Sepanjang Jalan directed by Jamil (Sulong) in 1983. The film, about the struggles of a poor family and adapted from Shahnon Ahmad’s novel, also starred Sarimah, Puteri Salbiah and Melissa Saila.

Ahmad had always dreamt of becoming a film director. Money, it seemed, had been the setback.

When the local film industry faced uncertainties and businesses slumped, the actor forked out RM164,000 to buy film equipment for his newly established production company, Ahmad Mahmood Film Company.

Ahmad’s maiden directorial, Mama oh Mama, in 1967 was a self-produced tearjerker starring Dharma Harun Al-Rashid and Azean Irdawaty.

One of his outstanding directorial achievements was for Dendam Dari Pusara in 1982, the chilling thriller in which he also starred, and earned him the Best Actor trophy at the Malaysian Film Festival in 1983.

Later, Ahmad produced and directed many films including May 13 and Komplot.

Perhaps not many knew that Ahmad also song. He sang in his own movies such as Pertarungan, Isi Neraka, Sri Andalas and Gerhana.

Ahmad was awarded the Ahli Mangku Negara in 1987 and bestowed the Pingat Datuk Setia DiRaja, which carries the title Datuk, in 2005.

Source: New Straits Times, September 1, 2009
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Sunday, August 2, 2009

Film Director Yasmin Dies

Yasmin Ahmad

Yasmin Ahmad died on July 25, 2009)when she was at 51.

Yasmin Ahmad left a legacy in film and advertisement with themes of love, family ties and comedy set against the backdrop of multiracial Malaysia.

Born in Johor on July 1 1958, Yasmin graduated in psychology from Newcastle University, Britain, and won local and international creativity awards.

Married to Abdullah Tan Yew Leong, she began her career as a copywriter with Ogilvy & Mather before joining Leo Burnett as joint creative director in 1993 and rose to become its creative executive director.

Her creativity could be seen in many Petronas commercials which evoked viewers' emotions, especially during Aidilfitri.

In the film industry, Yasmin's openness and boldness in analysing social issues drew much controversy. She was at the mercy of critics from when her first movie, Rabun, was screened in 2003 followed by Sepet (2004), Gubra (2006), Mukhsin (2006), Muallaf (2008) and Talentine (2009).

Despite the brickbats, she earned rave reviews for Sepet, which won Best Film and Best Original Screenplay at the 2005 Malaysian Film Festival.

Sepet also bagged the Asian Film Award at the Tokyo International Film Festival and the Grand Prix Award at the Creteil International Women's Film Festival in 2005. Gubra won Best Screenplay at the 2006 Malaysian Film Festival.

While leaving an indelible mark at home, Yasmin's movies gained international recognition as they were shown in Berlin, San Francisco, Singapore and at the Cannes Film Festival.

Source: New Sunday Times, July 26, 2009
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Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Pluralism and Bangsawan: Let us Learn From Our Past

Pluralism and bangsawan: Let Us Learn From Our Past

Discourses of Bangsa Malaysia in the last decade have instilled hope for the creation of a more inclusive notion of Malaysian nationhood. Nevertheless, ethnicism still persists in Malaysian politics and the daily lives of the people. As we search for a common Malaysian culture that can bring different races together, there is much to learn from bangsawan performers of the past.

These artists played important roles in promoting intercultural mixing and created a form of theatre that was not restricted to ethnicity or class. They were open to diversity and innovation.

Bangsawan was the first popular urban commercial theatre in Malaya. It is believed that the Parsi troupes from Bombay which traveled widely in Southeast Asia provided the model for the development of bangsawan in the 1880s. Known also as Malay opera, bangsawan engendered the first popular music and dance orchestra in the country.

Bangsawan gained popularity across a wide spectrum of society which derived from various ethnic and class backgrounds in the early 20th century.

Troupes performed in the towns and villages of Malaya, Sumatera, Java and Borneo. By the 1920s and 1930s, bangsawan had become so popular that its "culture" was widespread. In particular, songs performed in bangsawan became the "hits" of the day and formed the basis of new popular music which were performed live at dance halls in amusement parks, and recorded by gramophone companies.

To cater to as wide an audience as possible, stories of different nationalities, ethnic origins, and adaptations of literary classics from Europe, America, Asia and the Middle East were performed in bangsawan. Some of the popular stories included Laksamana Bentan, Sam Pek Eng Tai, Puteri Bakawali, Hamlet and Laila Majnun.

Bangsawan attracted multiethnic participation at all levels. Proprietors (or towkays) of opera troupes included Chinese, Malays and Indians.

Tan Tjeng Bok (a well-known Chinese actor from Java) and Sheikh Omar (an Arab singer) were said to have joined the Moonlight Opera of Penang and captivated audiences with their singing (Straits Echo, May 1, 1933). Minah Alias, the late bangsawan prima donna who recorded more than 30 songs for the HMV label in the 1930s, was of Javanese and European parentage.

The late Alfonso Soliano was a famous Filipino pianist and bangsawan band leader.

The bangsawan performers had to diversify their interests and familiarise themselves with the dances and songs of various cultures. They studied Malay, Western, Chinese, Hindustani and Arabic songs, silat Melayu and kuntau (Chinese art of self-defence using sticks) from one another.

Minah Alias recalled studying Javanese dance with the famous Miss Riboet when she was sent to Java at an early age. "After I became an actress, I studied kuntau from a Chinese opera actress and in return, I taught silat to her," said Minah Alias.

Menah Yem, known to her admirers as the "Queen of Dance", learnt the latest vaudeville dances from American movies.

Living together, learning elements of one another's culture, and the exposure to diverse cultures contributed directly and significantly to cultural and musical interaction, absorption and synthesis.

The evidence for this is to be found in the content of the theatrical performances as well as the musical compositions which emphasised eclecticism, syncretism and adaptability. The performers brought both a Malayan and a global resonance to bangsawan in the early 20th century.

Put another way, bangsawan captured the local spirit of organic hybridity. By crossing their own stylistic and ethnic boundaries, the bangsawan performers developed perspectives that were more inclusive.

All this is rather different from today's construction of national identity by officialdom which prioritises Malay-Islamic cultural elements. Attempts at combining the "Malaysia, Truly Asia" style have resulted in colourful spectacles which artificially juxtapose stereotypical elements of various cultures. These extravaganzas might show tourists that diversity is harmoniously integrated but they have a neutralising effect of rendering conflict and difference inconsequential.

Source: Tan Sooi Beng, The Sun, Wednesday, August 8, 2007
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Malaysian Cinema at 50

Malaysian Cinema at 50

The emergence of newly independent nation states in the heady aftermath of World War II coincided with a resurgence in global cinema. The most iconic art form and entertainment of the 20th century now found itself serving the spirit of modernism, and in newly emerging nations such as Malaysia, articulating visions of community and identity in the often contested service of nation-building. Cinema and nation became inextricably linked.

The emerging academic discipline of Film Studies began to talk about National Cinemas - collective cinematic achievements that both reflected a nation and helped to shape and sustain a nation - its history, belief systems, values and idiosyncratic anomalies.

What do these national cinemas, as opposed to the globally triumphant Hollywood films, say about a given nation, a people or peoples and their imagined sense of collectivity and identity? Such a question still provides some controversy in academic circles, and as I will explore in this brief essay on Malaysian cinema, tends to raise more questions than it ever succinctly and conclusively manages to answer.

Films were a potent and enthusiastically consumed part of the Malaysian scene from very early on in the medium's history. In 1901, at City Hall in Singapore, audiences vicariously attended the funeral of that most colonial of monarchs, Queen Victoria, when a screening of that event was first shown, and the emerging art and entertainment that was cinema became an integral part of the Malay(si)an cultural landscape in the years that ensued.

Local Malay language films began production in the studios of Singapore during the 1930s and the industry itself took off with fervour and productivity again in the years following the Japanese occupation.

The years between 1946 and 1972 are referred to as Era Emas (the golden years) where in excess of 300 feature films in the Malay language were released, creating in the process a fully fledged industry and a recognisably unique local cinematic culture.

An early film - Seruan Merdeka- (1946) directed by B S Rajhans - captured the sense of post- war idealism and a rare vision of multiculturalism.

In the years that followed leading up to the proclamation of independence, a variety of contested and sometimes critical visions of post-colonial Malaysia were explored on screen - a film like Semerah Padi (1956, P. Ramlee) provided a particular template of possible post-colonial governance that was firmly informed by notions of traditional Malay culture and systems of order.

The films at this time were produced and released by the Chinese movie moguls of Shaw Brothers and Cathay Keris, with their uniquely localised version of the studio system, centred as it was in Singapore.

Many Indian directors helmed these features, but it was a mostly Malay world that was shown on screen. In time, Malay directors emerged who further explored, through localised genres, questions of identity, whether ethnic or national.

The iconic P. Ramlee tackled social issues such as class and competing value systems in his own onscreen version of an emerging nation. Tradition and modernity; a rising middle class; the city versus the Kampung (village) - all of these developments were assessed on screen at this time. The uniquely localised genre of the Kampung film characterised by liberal smatterings of comedy, melodrama and music, explored the clash of urbanity with traditional values and modes of living.

There was a cosmopolitan air about a lot of the cinema of this time, especially as the 1960s dawned. As academic Joel S Kahn has explored recently, no less a figure than P. Ramlee himself helped to shape the newly-emerging Malay identity.

This legacy is a legacy of possibilities rather than certainties and other great filmmakers such as Hussein Haniff, M Amin, Jamil Sulong and Salleh Ghani emerged, among others, to extend the possibilities of Malaysian cinema.

The split with Singapore in 1965 saw a schism in the industry that only highlighted the growing inadequacies of the studio-based culture, eventually helping to see its demise by 1972.

During the 1970s, a sporadic film culture emerged in Malaysia that in some ways reflected the cautious and contested creative terrain that had developed largely as a response to the political, economic and social fallout following the events in the country after May 13, 1969.

The cinema of the 70s, 80s and 90s were largely one of exclusion rather than of possibilities. Some important filmmakers did, however, stand out above the crowd including such talents as Shuhaimi Baba and U-Wei Haaji Sari who helped to launch Malaysian cinema into a more golbal viewership base.

But the cinema of this period did not largely extend the possibilities of that which had preceded it and rather than a truly national cinema, it can be likened more to a proto-national film culture - ethnically-based rather than a reflection of a mature and complex nation.

Matters began to take on an exciting sense of change in the new millennium with the rise of independent filmmakers such as Amir Muhammad, James Lee, Yasmin Ahmad, Ho Yuhang, Bernard Chauly, Deepak Kumaran Menon and Tan Chui Mui who again have begun to explore a cinema of possibilities and opportunities. They do not always speak to the nation per se but their narratives are infused with a diverse and complex sense of both characterisation and representation.

The cinematic legacy of the golden years was (and is) not without its detractors, and a similar sense of film being a site of debate and controversy exists today in the current assessment of the new wave of independent filmmakers.

National cinema should be a site for reflection and alternative versions of self and communal identity. The cinema of Malaysia will be a truly national cinema when it can, with confidence, represent the diversity and complexity of the nation as a whole - its diversity of peoples, of remembered histories, of differing values and complex identities.

If the new wave of independent filmmakers begin to cross over into the so-called mainstream terrain and infuse that cinema with their sense of inclusion and variety, then I believe we will witness the emergence of a truly mature national cinema in Malaysia.

Images of the Tunku proclaiming independence with a roar of "Merdeka!" launched the new nation - one borne as it were on cinema screens.

The cinematic legacy of Malaysia over the past 50 years has reflected and indeed shaped the historical reality of that time.

It now remains to be seen, as the nation enters its next 50 years of progress and development, whether the cinema of the nation will embrace the nation's complexities and rich diversity - its past, its present and its future. Only then will we be able to say that a mature national cinema has truly developed on Malaysia's cinema screens, fulfilling perhaps the promise of the golden years of its cinematic history.

Source:Benjamin McKay, The Sun, Wednesday, August 8, 2007

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