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Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Cultural Uniqueness or Stereotypical Caricature?

"But as I think of the many myths, there is one that is very harmful, and that is the myth of countries. I mean, why should I think of myself as being an Argentine, and not a Chilean, and not an Uruguayan. I don't know really. All of those myths that we impose on ourselves - and they make for hatred, for war, for enmity - are very harmful. Well, I suppose in the long run, governments and countries will die out and we'll be just, well, cosmopolitans." - Jorge Luis Borges, 1980
Whilst attending a seminar organized by the Sin Chew Jit Poh Newspaper last year, where two acclaimed Malaysian filmmakers, James Lee and Tan Chui Mui, were featured as guests, one thing that left the deepest impression for me was when they started speaking about how some people, both the authorities and the filmmakers, have been trying too hard to produce a film with a 'distinct Malaysian feel', thus limiting the boundaries of creativity. After all, must all Malaysian films feature people speaking Manglish? (to proclaim proudly to people of other countries our sheer ineptitude with the English language?) Must all Malaysian films feature mamak stalls and coconut trees? Why, because Malaysia is all about mamak stalls and coconut trees? And that without these, Malaysian isn't Malaysia anymore?

A couple of weeks ago, I received a DVD from my friend, Sebastian, which is about the Malaysian Night held in the University of Warwick. Of course, such a cultural event organized by patriotic students of my country would feature numerous attempts to highlight the special characteristics of our country's culture. It was, after all, meant to be a feel-good event where homesick students can remember and appreciate what they have in their home country. Yet their stageplay bothered me, as well-produced and well-acted it was, it bothered me because I saw people conforming to certain formulas expected from a 'Malaysian' play written by a Malaysian for Malaysians. People speaking Manglish (oh, how I utterly hate this term), a Malay guy whose two best friends are conveniently a Chinese guy and an Indian guy, an impossible romance divided because of differences between social statuses, oh, and one token white guy who is potentially an obstacle for the relationship between the main guy and the main gal, and numerous other things I cannot remember off the top of my head. Playing it safe means producing a predictable crowd-pleaser (I would've crapped in my pants if the Malay, Chinese and Indian guy turned out to be psychotic murderers and attempted to murder the main female character) where everybody loves. Oh wait, did I say everybody, no, I just mean everybody FROM MALAYSIA.

(By the way, here's a trailer of the Malaysia Night put together by Sebastian for the DVD)

I'm not sure whether this is a Malaysian mentality, or something that happens almost everywhere else (I used to think that it was the former, but I begin to realize that it's the latter these days), but why are people embarking in creative endeavours SO desperate in trying to showcase the cultures of their home countries? Is that a form of patriotism? "Hah! I love Malaysia, therefore if I don't write anything about Malaysia, I am UNPATRIOTIC!"?? I voiced out my personal distaste for this popular belief, that a good Malaysian film (or anything else creative) has to 'play it safe', has to conform with the expectations of well, Malaysian audiences so that it can be accepted, and then totally alienate and disregard the non-Malaysians.

I have mentioned before that during my editing assignment, some guy chuckled annoyingly in his self-congratulatory manner that he had just dubbed his video with Malay voiceover, inserting them with Malaysian jokes so that Malaysians will love it. Yet when I asked what about the non-Malaysians, he was incapable of answering. He seemed so proud of what he did that he didn't even notice that the actual editing he did was pretty mediocre. But of course, for him, as long as it's accepted by Malaysians, as long as it shows him being a 'patriot', it's a good thing, right? Patriotism over quality. Hell yeah. (Oh, by the way, watch what I did with my editing assignment if you haven't already). Or can we all just disguise our shortcomings by being nationalistic? Artistic merits? Screw that, as long as it accentuates the 'Malaysian-ness', it is fine?

I tend to feel that if a good Malaysian story cannot be that good when the 'Malaysian' is taken away, then it isn't even that good a story. I believe a good story has to be more universal, that it can be something appreciated by anyone from anywhere. Malaysia is more complex than Manglish, coconut trees and mamak stalls, Malaysia isn't just about racial harmony, where three best friends of three different races make shallow juvenile jokes with each other. Shouldn't we be thinking how good a story we are telling instead of how 'Malaysian' it is? Or are shallow works featuring caricatures more appreciated and easily accepted by the mainstream audiences?

I don't see Ang Lee desperately trying to sell the greatness of Taiwan when he was doing Brokeback Mountain, nor randomly insert some Chinese people into the film just so that he can show his sheer patriotism by displaying the creative liberties he took from Annie Proulx's short story. New Zealand's Peter Jackson has a crew from New Zealand, and often shoots his films in New Zealand, but I don't see him inserting New Zealanders into King Kong just to show his sheer patriotism. I think Lord of the Rings films are great films, but no one would call them a great AMERICAN trilogy (it is financed by Hollywood anyway), or a great NEW ZEALAND trilogy (director and his crew are from New Zealand), or a great BRITISH trilogy (Tolkien's from England), or great whatever the hell country that is involved in their production. So why are people trying so hard to make great MALAYSIAN films? Write great MALAYSIAN stories? Sing great MALAYSIAN songs? Why not just think of making GREAT FILMS, write GREAT STORIES or sing GREAT SONGS?

For the sake of warming up and practising my craft, and also sheerly because of my love for filmmaking, I volunteered to join a group of Malaysian girls (my intentions were definitely pure) for my screen production unit, so that I will be involved in the production of two short films. Although the initial ideas being thrown around were about doomed interracial romance (I am starting to get annoyed with the universally-loved Sepet for this wonderful little trend) and white men getting shot because the interracial romance was doomed, I voiced out my personal disdain for making films 'too Malaysian'. Why try so hard to make your films Malaysian? When due to your background and upbringing, what you will produce in the end will ultimately reflect your own culture in a subconscious manner?

I am in the process of developing two screenplays for them (yes, of course I volunteered to be their screenwriter, who else could it be?), one a horror film, another a romantic comedy (remember when I asked about whether height is an issue for relationships? I was doing research for this short film). I have finished writing the treatment. Neither of them are specifically about Malaysians, nor are they about Australians. It is up to the group of filmmaking gals to choose their cast, and they have the freedom to choose Malaysians if they want to, but it wouldn't really have mattered since both stories could've been about anybody from any place. Hell, it could've been in any language (just that it would give me a hell of a headache... since it means that I have to translate my writings into Chinese, which, admittedly, is my weaker written language).

Of course, we are still in the preproduction process, and I have yet to write the actual screenplays for both shorts, so I'm not sure whether they'll be masterpieces or not. But even if they are, I hope they will be regarded more as 'masterpieces created by a bunch of Malaysians', than 'Malaysian masterpieces about Malaysians that will only be regarded as masterpieces by other Malaysians while giving non-Malaysians a goddamn terrible headache'.

Pretty lengthy entry. It's been a while since I've written something like this (besides my film reviews). So, is this the part where I'll be lynched by the angry mob for being 'not patriotic enough'?

Oh, and since this entry begun with a quote from Jorge Luis Borges, I'm putting two Borges-related videos as well.

Related Entry: Swifty Ponders The Concept Of A TRUE Malaysian Film