Sat, 15 May 2004


Malaysian Cinema's Golden Age Crashes in the Whirlwind of Cultural and Political Change

Malaysian cinema dimmed in the cultural, political change

During a recent visit to Kuala Lumpur, The Jakarta Post film contributor, Paul F. Agusta, had the opportunity to meet with several important figures in Malaysian cinema. He shares more of what he learned in this second article of a series of three on the dynamic history and current creative state of moviemaking in our neighbor to the north.

As Malaysian cinema rocketed into its golden years, the rich multicultural input that fueled its success brought with it the sweeping changes that were among the factors that would bring it crashing down. A new, younger and more cosmopolitan educated audience was emerging in Malaysia.

They were less inhibited than previous generations and more adventurous. They were migrating to and settling in the cities, ready and eager for almost anything new and different. The old formulas combining Chinese and Malay storytelling and Indian song and dance no longer satisfied.

By the late 1950s and early 1960s soaring production costs, increasing demands from production staff and actors, as well as the introduction of television in 1963, exacerbated the impact of a dwindling market. Even the courageous forays of P. Ramlee into the realm of social commentary in films like Madu Tiga (Three Wives), 1964, could not draw the crowds of previous years.

The death knell for the Golden Age of Malaysian Cinema was sounded near the end of 1965 when Singapore left the Federation of Malaysia, motivating an influx of veteran directors, actors and screenplay writers into Kuala Lumpur's already excessively competitive and waning filmmaking sector.

The Shaw Brother's Malay Film Productions closed in 1967, with Cathay-Keris meeting a similar fate in 1973.

According to Hassan Muthalib, Malaysia's prime film historian, with the quantity and quality of local film productions falling, an influx of Indonesian and Indian films began to attract the hearts and minds of the increasingly sophisticated and discerning Malaysian audience.

These imports, such as Matjan Kemajoran (The Tiger of Kemayoran), Pahlawan Sembilan (Nine Warriors), and Bernafas Dalam Lumpur (Breathing in Mud) from Indonesia, and Sangam (Confluence) as well as Bobby from India, were shot in color and had strong storylines and top-class acting and directing. The films set Malaysian movie industry precedents by drawing large crowds into theaters for months at a time.

Merdeka Film Productions, founded in 1961 just outside of Kuala Lumpur by Ho Ah Loke and H.M. Shah, tried to counter this onslaught in 1975 by enhancing local production value with the importation of Hong Kong film crews.

Although Merdeka used Malay director Jamil Sulong for the flagship film of this collaboration, Permintaan Terakhir (The Last Request), the foreign crew's influence was obvious and drew an outcry from industry locals who felt their turf was being invaded.

Despite massive efforts to stay afloat, and occasional award- winning films, such as Adik Manja (Affectionate Child) in 1979, Merdeka Film Productions was forced to close down in 1980, ending Chinese domination of the Malaysian film industry.

As noted in the chapter Gentle Winds of Change on the development of the Malaysian film industry by Hassan Muthalib and Wong Tuck Cheong in the book Being and Becoming: The Cinemas of Asia, the time had come for the locals to take over.

The Filem Negara Malaysia (Malaysian State Film, initially established as the Malayan Film Unit in 1946), best known for its documentaries and anticommunist film campaigns, also produced several features, including Kisah Kampong Kita (the Story of Our Village) and the Tongkat Hitam (Black Baton) series of films in the 1960s and early 1970s.

By 1975, with Malay films holding only 12.1 percent of the local market share, the National Film Corporation was formed with the intention of contributing towards national unity and other nation-building efforts. In 1981, the National Film Development Corporation (FINAS) was established to assist the local film community's efforts to develop and improve its output.

Even so, throughout the 1970s and into the early 1980s, the local, or bumiputera, film companies relied heavily on their profits from distributing Indonesian films on the Malaysian market to fund their own productions.

Among the more successful movies produced were Sabah Film's Keluarga Si Comat (The Comat Family), 1975, Hapuslah Air Matamu (Wipe Away Your Tears), 1976, Pendekar (The Warrior), 1977, and the biggest box-office hit, Azura, 1984.

These successes lured other producers to try their hand, but not many survived, with some closing down after no more than one release due to a lack of understanding of the film industry fundamentals of production, marketing and distribution.

As the 1970s passed, more new faces emerged and faded as an emphasis on low budget films dominated the industry. The storylines were predictable, the characterizations stereotypical, the acting amateurish, and there was absolutely no attempt at technical innovation.

However, because some of the films actually made money, the mainstream directors found little motivation to pull themselves out of the rut they were in.

The 1970s also saw the introduction of the Malaysian government's New Economic Policy that encouraged young Malays to move into the cities and get involved in business, including the movie industry.

A generation of young film professionals emerged, who were eager to apply their own ideas as well as their varied education in the movie industry, and sought experience with the local commercial production houses, where they picked up the basics of cinematography, art direction and directing.

At the same time, the movie-going public began to find its own voice, a decidedly critical one that was answered by the development of film appreciation forums, the frequent appearance of articles on film criticism and letters to the editor in the local press.

Among the critical ideas raised by writers such as Johan Jaafar, Nasir Jani and Mansor Puteh, were the need to present an accurate onscreen depiction of the local culture, and the perception that storytelling in movies should be geared as much toward social comment as it was toward entertainment.

These thoughts were to inform the developments in the film industry well into the following decades.