A new generation of filmmakers are changing the face of Malaysian cinema in their quiet and humble way. The next big challenge is for them to find wider acceptance among home and foreign audiences.

The Scenario

During the years 2001-2003, a steady stream of films from Malaysia started appearing at international film festivals, beginning with the smaller festivals, but in time graduating to the more prestigious ones. As these films appeared at more festivals, festival programmers began to take notice of the directors, and soon they were eagerly anticipating and keeping track of new works from Malaysia. At the same time, these films also began getting special mentions and even winning awards, and receiving favourable reviews from critics and reviewers. Malaysian films had become part of the international scene.

The leading lights of this new generation of directors are Amir Muhammad, James Lee, Ho Yuhang and Yasmin Ahmad. 

Amir Muhammad, a lawyer by training,  is usually credited with having made the first DV feature Malaysian film, Lips to Lips (2000), which went on to screen at a number of international festivals, including Hong Kong, Singapore, Los Angeles, Fukuoka and Manila. His second feature The Big Durian (2003) was the first Malaysian film to screen at Sundance, and received wide critical praise from the international press. 

James Lee, a graphic designer, achieved fame by being the most prolific of the group. His best known films are Room to Let (2002) and The Beautiful Washing Machine (2004), which screened at a large number of film festivals (Hong Kong, Singapore, New York, Cinefan, Montreal. Rotterdam, among others). 

Ho Yuhang, who was trained as an engineer, cut his teeth on TV commercials and achieved fame by winning a special jury prize for his debut feature film : Min (2003) at the Festival of Three Continents at Nantes. His second film Sanctuary had the distinction of being invited for competition at the Pusan International Film Festival 2004, and garnered a special mention there.

While Yasmin Ahmad, the leading producer of TV commercials in Malaysia, made an impact with her debut feature Rabun (2003) which was invited to compete in the Torino Film Festival. Her second film Sepet won the best film award at two festivals, Creteil and Tokyo, as well as at the 2005 Malaysian Film Festival.

Two other young directors who are following closely on the heels of the four directors mentioned above are Deepak Kumaran Menon and Woo Ming Jin, both film lecturers. Deepak’s debut feature The Gravel Road had the distinction of being shown at four major festivals: Rotterdam, San Francisco, Osian’s-Cinefan and Pusan, while Woo’s debut feature Monday Morning Glory has had a similar distinction, having been selected for the Pusan, Tokyo and Berlin (2006) festivals.

Special programs were also accorded to these films at Osian’s-Cinefan (New Delhi) in 2003 and at the  Rotterdam and Vancouver festivals in 2005, and programmers from the New York, Cannes, Rotterdam, Hong Kong and Oberhausen (short films) festivals have come to Malaysia to preview new works by them.

By all accounts, these achievements are unprecedented. Malaysian cinema was being recognised in the international arena, whereas hitherto very few Malaysian films had ever been seen by international audiences or received critical attention. At the most, the odd films managed to get shown at festivals, including Cannes, but now it was apparent that a new film movement was taking shape and growing steadily in stature. What prompted this sudden development?

Characteristics of the New Cinema

Because these filmmakers have great difficulty in getting money to make their films, they have evolved ingenious and highly practical production methods. Firstly the films are mainly shot cheaply on DV, a medium that has been a boon to budding filmmakers all over the world. Then they write and work on minimalist scripts and tend to shoot at simple and easily available locations. They also band together and help each out: thus James Lee has doubled as photographer and producer on some of these productions. Many of their crew have either worked for free or for a mere pittance. These filmmakers have actually turned adversity into an advantage and their efforts are being emulated by  young aspiring filmmakers, to whom they readily lend the wisdom of their expertise and experience. They bond closely with each other and the whole community is infused with a sense of mutual support and struggle in advancement of a common cause.  

Even when these films have been accepted for screening by film festivals (sometimes in competition), the directors have not been able to get funding to transfer their DV films into acceptable screening formats (usually 35mm for the bigger festivals, and also because the 35mm format enhances their quality and thus their competitiveness).  Fortunately there are festivals that will settle for the Beta screening format (eg Pusan), thus increasing the chances for these films to be exhibited and disseminated to a wider audience.  

Antecedents of the New Cinema

The majority of directors at the forefront of this new movement are relatively young, in their early or mid-thirties. They have had no formal training in film, although some of them have filmmaking experience. They are part of a new generation of Malaysians who are media savvy: serious film buffs and film activists who rail at the lack of quality home products and who in response turned to serious filmmaking in an effort to balance up the situation. They are also impatient at the bureaucratic procedures and incompetency which not only restrict but discourage the development of a genuine film culture in Malaysia. 

A negative environment can inspire the will to change and some of these directors are serious in their desire to effect change, and thus have expressed their impatience and frustration through film. Thus Amir Muhammad has highlighted Malaysia’s political and administrative iniquities through his feature film The Big Durian and his compilation of short films titled 6horts. And Yasmin Ahmad’s Sepet unflinchingly tackles issues bearing on the insecurities and sensitivities of her own Malay race. 

Reception of the New Cinema at Home

It is ironic that despite the success of the new cinema at international film festivals, the films themselves have a very limited audience at home. This may be ascribed to their subject matter: these are highly personal films compared to the easily accessible and highly digestible mainstream films (both foreign and local) that fill the country’s TV and cinema screens. The directors themselves have been criticised for making films only for film festivals. An apparently insuperable gap exists between acceptance abroad and at home, and it behoves the directors to try to narrow this gap. Then again, in retrospect, it is also remarkable that this generation of filmmakers have managed to produce films to the standards demanded by film festivals (if acceptance by film festivals were accepted as a measure of quality) instead of trying to find acceptance by the home crowd first.

Secondly, the films have limited exhibition venues. When the sole e-cinema in the country was launched a couple of years ago, it raised hope as a venue for alternative film. But it seems to have fallen prey to commercialism as it tends to screen only the more popular DV films. 

The filmmakers themselves also have their detractors in the shape of film reviewers and critics who either have personal bones to pick with them, or are not capable of appreciating the films because of their unfamiliar style, language or lack of storyline. There also exists a mainstream film industry with entrenched interests who feel uneasy at the international critical success of the new directors.

The filmmakers also often have to look for exhibition opportunities themselves by renting screening venues and charging small admission fees to recover production and hall rental costs. Local film clubs, film schools, colleges and universities also offer ready but limited screening opportunities. What is really needed is a regular venue like a cinematheque for wider exhibition. 

Aiming at Success Beyond Festival Exhibition

Hitherto, the new filmmakers have achieved critical but not commercial success. At home, their films hardly being screen enough to recover costs, or to generate income to help finance other projects. But because these are low-budget productions, coupled with the resilience of the filmmakers, the lack of income has so far not been a real obstacle to their work. 

But there are signs that their efforts are reaping rewards beyond mere exhibition at film festivals. James Lee’s The Beautiful Washing Machine was bought by CJ Entertainment of Korea for DVD, TV and arthouse cinema release – a first for a Malaysian film. Amir Muhammad received a grant from the Jan Vrijman Fund (administered by the International Documentary Film Festival of Amsterdam) for script development for his documentary The Last Communist. Ho Yuhang was one of the six young Asian filmmakers selected by HK superstar Andy Lau’s company Focus Films for financing their next film project. Yasmin Ahmad’s Sepet has also found commercial distribution beyond the borders of Malaysia.  

The Future

A strong boost was given to the New Malaysian Cinema when their achievements were acknowledged by the government. Where once they were regarded as mavericks and rebels, they have acquired respectability in official eyes. A special category for digital films has been created in the Malaysian Film Festival, the annual industry awards event. The filmmakers have been publicly feted for having won awards overseas and for having brought honour and prestige to the country. Malaysia now occupies a regular slot in the world’s film festival calendar. 

But the challenge is just beginning for the filmmakers. They have to show that they are capable of making films that the home audience can relate to and enjoy. This is not an unfair expectation for two reasons. Although they have risen to the challenge and succeeded in measuring themselves by the highest international standards, they should attempt to claim some credibility from home audiences. Secondly, and most importantly, their creativity and productivity should find a deep resonance among  

the next generation of filmmakers who will be capable of giving a new direction to Malaysian mainstream cinema which now mainly contends itself with producing uninspiring works of questionable critical quality.

Wong Tuck Cheong 

The president of Kelab Seni Filem Malaysia. Member of NETPAC. Participating as Jury Member in different International Film Festivals. Based in Kuala Lampur, Malaysia.