Malaysian Cinema Pt 1

(This is a reworking of the post I made from Malaysia last week. Now I’ve got more time and better access, I want to expand my thoughts.)

The only cinema visit I could make on the trip was on a Sunday afternoon in Georgetown, Penang, where I visited the Cathay Cineplex. The ‘plex has seven screens on the 5th floor of a large shopping mall. The context of cinemagoing was interesting in that we sat in a cavernous food hall before the show. Every cuisine in Asia was on offer from the various stalls but I limited myself to a bottle of Tiger and bought a bag of vegetable crisps for the film. Next to the cinema was a large and very noisy gaming area and the mall also housed several DVD stores (more on this later). The ticket was 9 RM (roughly £2 or US$3). I think that makes cinemagoing relatively inexpensive in a country which has one of the more successful Asian economies.

My film choice was on in Screen 1, a large, steeply-raked single block of seats. I sat about ten rows back — but everyone was behind me. Khurafat is the latest Malaysian horror film release and the young audience seemed to respond favourably with screams and laughter.

All the films at this cinema appeared to be subtitled in English and some in Chinese as well. The other titles on offer included Tamil, Thai and Korean films alongside Hollywood blockbusters and a second Malaysian horror. No doubt there will be some Chinese films for New Year in a week or so.

The subtitles meant that I could follow most of the film fairly easily. The problems I did have came mostly through the editing and some aspects of local culture. Horror is clearly popular – Thai and Korean as well as Malaysian. Khurafat seemed mostly derivative of J-horror, especially in the appearance of the various ghosts. Sadako (from Ringu) and The Grudge have got a lot to answer for. Unfortunately, in this case, there are far too many appearances of ghosts – less is usually more in this genre.

The difference here is that ‘Malay’ culture is mainly Muslim (as distinct from the Chinese and Indian communities in this multi-ethnic and multi-faith society) and so we enter the world of djinns and exorcism by the local Imam. This cultural difference has attracted some international interest according to the local press. The Muslim cultural base limits the display of overt sexual behaviour – so the ‘bad girl’ does not have to do much to be bad. More emphasis is given to family relationships and the respect and filial duty expected of a young man re his widowed mother. This is neatly utilised in one aspect of the plot.

Liyana Jasmay as Aisha and Syamsul Yusof as Johan

The outline story involves Johan, a young man who seems to be a hospital administrator of some kind in Kuala Lumpur. At the beginning of the film, he attends his father’s funeral and then returns to KL. He is clearly beset by demons of various kinds and the potential cause of this ‘disturbance’ is his ex-girlfriend, Anna. She is presented as a ‘goodtime girl’, getting drunk at a disco, whereas Johan’s new wife Aisha is demure and wears a head scarf in public (as do many women in Malaysia). There are various twists and turns in the plot including a major twist at the end. Overall the film is fairly conventional, but if it serves its local audience it will encourage a recent decision by the Malaysian film authorities to allow the release of one local film per week rather than the current one per month. This previous policy was designed to prevent competition between local titles which would spread the audience too thinly. I did attempt to see an earlier Malay horror release, now in its fifth week, but when I tried to buy a ticket, the manager told me that because no tickets had been sold she had cancelled the showing. I hope that this practice doesn’t catch on! Malaysia has a television industry producing drama serials and made for television films, but whether it is yet ready for a 50 plus annual production of features, I’m not sure. The only local review of Khurafat that I’ve found suggests that the acting performances are not that great. I think that I saw one of the actors in a television drama and the lead in the film, Syamsul Yusof, is also the film’s writer and director. Perhaps that is too big a role – but it shows ambition. From my brief time in the country, however, I got the sense that there is plenty of young talent waiting to break through – everywhere we went we came across photo shoots and occasionally video shoots. More on the Malaysian industry in a follow-up posting.

Here’s the trailer for Khurafat. This hasn’t got English subs – but it doesn’t really need them:

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