Wednesday, August 8, 2007

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

No.1 movie download site wordwide


No comments: