My second set of evening screenings was something of a disappointment after the excellent Afghanistan forum featuring Finding Ali. The Year Without a Summer (Malaysia 2010) is one of those festival films that require patience and perfect viewing conditions. I think I made the wrong choice at the time. The film was screened in a small auditorium, clearly a product of a conversion from an old large single screen cinema (as most of Oslo’s city centre cinemas seem to be). The image wasn’t masked and the film was projected from DigiBeta. Unfortunately the first half of the film was mainly nighttime scenes with only minimal lighting and little movement. It was hard to stay awake and concentrate. There was an introduction in Norwegian but that didn’t help me.
I’d chosen the film since it was an independent production by a Malaysian woman. I’d only seen commercial Malaysian films before and this offered something different. The story is simple. Two boys grow up in a small fishing community on Malaysia’s east coast (actually the director’s home region). Azam agitates to leave home and try to make it in Kuala Lumpur (or ‘KL’). Ali wants to stay home. After several years away, Azam suddenly reappears and with Ali and his wife Minah takes a night-time fishing trip to an island where the two men reminisce – but the trip ends badly. The non-linear narrative means that we learn more about the two boys’ childhood in the second half of the film. Without a great deal of narrative excitement as such, the main pleasures of the film are the beautiful locations, the insight into local customs and practices and how this informs our sense of the sadness caught in the unusual title (see below). The writer-director Tan Chui Mui does attempt to introduce more symbolic elements and moments of surrealism (e.g. there is discussion of various myths about mermaids) but I failed to decipher these.
A little research reveals that Ms Tan is an important figure in the Malaysian independent film scene (with her own company Da Huang Pictures) who has produced and directed several short films that brought her recognition at festivals including Rotterdam and Busan – this film was made possible partly by funding from the Hubert Bals Fund (associated with Rotterdam) and another fund via Busan as well as further support from Switzerland and France. I found this comment on the company website:
“I found the title The Year Without A Summer from Wikipedia, which I am addicted to. It was 1816, and there was no summer in that year. In some places in America and China, there were even snowfalls during summer. I can imagine the climate abnormalities must have stirred a sense of doom day at that time. The crops died, the sky was often orange tinted, famines and war broke out everywhere . . .
Many years later, scientists believe that the climate abnormalities was mainly caused by the eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia in 1815, the largest known eruption in over 1,600 years.
My story is not about volcano eruption, nor climate abnormalities. My story is about how people often live, without knowing much about what happened to them. In a way, my film is about history of sadness.”
My research suggests that I should have got much more out of the film than I did. Perhaps it’s just a function of moving between films with such different institutional and artistic contexts in the same day and perhaps you do need to know a little more about what to expect. For once, approaching a film without any kind of preparation didn’t work for me. I think if I watched this film a second time I’d get a lot more from it.
In most film territories around the world, screens are dominated by Hollywood and popular ‘domestic’ cinema. Malaysia is a striking exception in that although Hollywood is present and overall takes the largest proportion of the nation’s box office takings, it nevertheless has to share the pot with films from the three different film cultures representing Malaysia’s principal ethnic groups plus a significant minority of films from elsewhere in Asia.
There are at least a couple of useful websites covering film in Malaysia and I’m going to use these alongside the annual Focus International Market Reports and some primary research based on newspaper cinema listings.
Malaysia as a film market
To place the Malaysian film market in perspective, according to Focus 2010, Malaysia is a ‘mid-market’ film territory, ranked alongside Taiwan, Indonesia, Philippines, Thailand, Singapore and Hong Kong (now increasingly enmeshed with the mainland Chinese market). Malaysia is relatively small (28 million population) but also relatively affluent with a per capita income well ahead of all the others, barring Singapore and Hong Kong (both, in a sense, ‘special cases’ in their roles as important financial centres and entrepôt ports). In 2009, Malaysia produced only 25 local titles but still managed to capture nearly 14% of its total box office. With total admissions of 44 million, Malaysia was well ahead of larger countries such as Indonesia, Philippines and Thailand. The country is ‘underscreened’ and there is plenty of capacity for expanding the market. With a per capita attendance rate of only 1.59 visits per year (compared to the 4.63 of Singapore) we might expect to see expansion in the market.
The Star is one of the English language newspapers in Malaysia and on Saturday 22 January it carried display ads from Malaysia’s six major cinema chains, Cathay, Golden Screen, Lotus 5 Star, MBO, BIG Cinemas and TGV plus one single screen. I checked all the titles being advertised. Some were playing several times a day others only once and I was slightly confused by some of the ads for ‘de luxe screens’ – I wasn’t sure if I was double counting. Still, the results do reveal some of the interesting facets of Malaysian exhibition practice. Helpfully, the convention is to list the language of each title in the ad, so I am at least confident of the range of titles.
Here are the raw results which show the number of prints from each producing country/language across all screens.
Domestic Malay: 53
Chinese (Mandarin & Cantonese): 47
South Korea: 2
What do these figures mean in actual film titles? The Hollywood films are usually either the family orientated blockbusters (Gulliver’s Travels and the latest Narnia film both played during our stay in Malaysia) or action titles such as Faster, Season of the Witch and The Tourist or comedies such as Meet the Parents.
The Malay language numbers refer almost exclusively to Khurafat with occasional listings for two other horror films. The Indonesian, Korean and Thai imports all seem to be horror or action. The ‘art film’ sector appears to be confined to Kuala Lumpur which boasts three cinemas screening the Iranian title The Song of Sparrows (the Iranian 2009 Academy Award entrant) and one showing Dhobi Ghat in Hindi (the other Hindi screenings are mainstream Bollywood). The Japanese title was the main new 3D offer – an important development in the face of Hollywood 3D domination. This is Shock Labyrinth 3D: House of Horror, a 2009 film by shlockmeister Shimizu Takashi which is very poorly rated on IMDB and is only now creeping around international markets.
There were surprisingly few Chinese films on release in the period just before the New Year, but two titles stand out, Great Day and Homecoming are both family comedy-dramas for the New Year and both appear to be products of the domestic Malaysian-Chinese industry. The Yahoo Malaysia Movies website synopsis:
Great Day tells the story of two uncles who live in an old folks home. Aggravated by an argument and with the help of Ah Hock and Ultraman, the two men decide to escape from the home and find their children, just to show off whose children are better. The fun catches on with odd circumstances one after another, but in the end of the day it’s going to be a big reunion at the old folk’s home.
Homecoming is a Malaysia-Singapore co-production mining the generic possibilities in stories about Malaysians working in Singapore. Both these films, as far as I can see, include dialogue in Mandarin, Cantonese, Hokkienese and Malay and I suspect that they are also subtitled in English and/or Mandarin/Cantonese. They have a good chance of cleaning up before the arrival of the fifth sequel to the Hong Kong New Year Favourite All’s Well Ends Well. The other Chinese titles on offer are action films like Shaolin with Jacky Chan.
The strong showing for Tamil films might possibly be explained by the local festivals at this time of the year (e.g. Thaipusam and Thai Pongal). There is usually at least one Tamil film in each large multiplex and also in traditional cinemas such as the Penang Odeon shown at the head of this post. Distributors take the current Tamil film release from India on a ‘day and date’ basis and these may last a couple of weeks. Siruthai is an action comedy, Kaavalan is a romantic drama and Aadukalam a sports film based on cockfighting in Madurai. At the same time, there appears to be a local Malaysian Tamil industry and I came across Kaatu Rani in a newspaper cutting from the New Straits Times. This local horror film was made for just RM180,000 (around £37,000) with local cast and crew but some post-production in India. After two première screenings in local cinemas the film was scheduled for an immediate DVD release. Subtitled in English the film will also be sold in Singapore, Sri Lanka and India.
(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.
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: