A Conversation with Amir Muhammad
Interview by: Benjamin McKay
BM: Have you eaten it elsewhere?
AM: Yeh, yeh. Out of personal curiosity. You are told you can’t do certain things and at university you tend to try all kinds of things. OK – so this is what it is like – it is enough, you know. But you know I think that there is a great Malaysian story to be made about Pork.
BM: I think you have touched on it in Pangyau with that analogy of swallowing pork…
AM: With other taboos!
BM: Indeed – other taboos.
AM: I suppose it might be a simplistic way of looking at it, but it is not entirely wrong – because the taboo here is attached to the fact that Pork is associated with Chineseness. Because even Hindus don’t really eat pork, even though they can. So it must be that –because why is it different here than for Muslims in other countries? In Tokyo Magic Hour if I had gone with my original idea of putting my own original narration in it, there was pork in that as well. The concept of vegetarianism is just alien to the Japanese. You would order salad and it would have sprinklings of bacon – that is just so vegetarian! There is pork in everything. A great Malaysian movie or novel can be made about pork. We were talking about Malaysian novels – this is kind of a tangent – I want to return to my main ambition to be a writer. I am only making movies because it is easy I think. It is easy because you collaborate – and there are other people helping to make it, so you have an added incentive to do it well, as their names will be there and you don’t want them to be let down by it. It gives you that compulsion when you have that group dynamic. But with writing it is just yourself – no one pushing you. So this book, whatever book I am supposed to write – it is still not written. I don’t think it will be a novel anyway – it will be non-fiction. But we were just saying yesterday that the great Malaysian novel – there isn’t as yet even a very good Malaysian novel – but the great Malaysian novel will be written by one of these thousands of Bangladeshi or Indonesian immigrants who serve you and you don’t even look at them, because you treat them as invisible. You know, ten years from now, one of them will write a great novel that will really show Malaysia to Malaysians. We would never think to look at it that way. I think it is the most logical thing that the greatest Malaysian novelist will be one of them and not the people who go through our education system and take writing courses and win junior literary awards. It is my hope-lah! It keeps me interested in Malaysia – I am looking forward to this great novelist who today is serving me fried rice and maybe knows only ten words of Malay - but in ten years from now – yeh, it is quite exciting actually. Sorry – what was your question?
BM: That is OK. It was only about pork.
AM: Yeh, yeh. Maybe he will write a novel called Pork. Of course there is Salleh’s poem Harum Scarum which sort of sums it up in the most pithy way, I think. “So long as we hate pigs and pray/ We’ll remain Muslim and Malay.” The funny thing is if you try and translate that line into Malay it will have two meanings – as long as we hate pork and hate praying. So you can hate pigs and praying in equal measure. By the way after my next film I am making my first mainstream movie. Did you know?
BM: Well yes – I had my umbrella explode all over that meeting you were having that night with that American chap when you were talking at one of those chain store coffee shops. You were talking about that then.
AM: Oh yes, right.
BM: But I don’t remember if you had a script or a scriptwriter.
AM: We have now – didn’t we have one at that time? We were doing separate drafts of the treatment.
BM: So what is Amir Muhammad’s entry into mainstream commercial filmmaking going to be?
AM: The experience has been just like Belle de Jour – which is my favourite film – I see my job as being like Belle de Jour – like working in the whorehouse during the day (laughs) and you really like it but pretend not too! But there is a certain crisis looming, for it reminds me of when Faulkner – name dropping again – when Faulkner went to Hollywood and was working as a scriptwriter and he had a clash with the studio – who was it Mayer? – in the end he said “The problem is that Mr Mayer is only interested in art and I am only interested in money.” I think I was hired on the pretence and assumption that I would do something really classy and that you can show overseas, but I want to do something really trashy (laughs). You know I even look at the first draft and I think we really need a swimming pool scene, just for the sake of having a swimming pool scene. It is quite exciting that they agreed to fund it based purely on the title – one word – Susuk.
BM: So you have a swimming pool scene?
AM: One swimming pool scene. I am not happy with it now. I am changing it.
BM: And you have nearly got a script?
BM: And when will that start filming?
AM: We are filming in December.
BM: So in August a musical on Malaysian communism and December a mainstream movie with money. They wanted you to add dignity to their art house pretence of a mainstream movie? And you just want to revel in the trash.
AM: (laughs) Yes – shameless! As Nabokov once said – one of my favourite writers – there is nothing more exhilarating than philistine vulgarity. I think it is such a delicious idea – no one has made a movie with the theme before in Malaysia – maybe in Indonesia they have – so to do something very modern, very in-jokey; it is meant to be a horror film. I am seeing it more as a black comedy – but eventually it will have to be a horror film. You know susuk, right?
AM: Oh you don’t. Susuk is this belief that if you want to stay young you embed like gold or silver under your skin – or diamonds under your skin. So you will stay young – not so much that you will be beautiful, but people will be attracted to you. A bomoh  will do it – not the insertion, but he will do some magical process under your skin. The trick is you cannot die with it still on because if you die with it still on the grave will not accept you. It is like an abomination – like having an artificial limb. You are altering what God gave you, so you will be a kind of restless spirit if you die with it. There are a lot of urban legends about it about with celebrities. There are a lot of rumours about Siti Nurhaliza  – but I don’t think she does it – it is a sign that people still get quite enthusiastic about it.
BM: She is still looking not much older than she was when she first appeared though.
AM: Yeh, yeh, but people talk more about someone like Sarimah. For decades people have thought that she was doing susuk – but she always denies it.
BM: So the denial of this in Malaysia is like the denial of plastic surgery in Beverly Hills.
AM: Yes, right. It is more prevalent in Indonesia. So probably there has been an Indonesian movie about it. But I am co-directing it with Naeim Ghalili this friend of mine. It will be quite interesting too to co-direct for the first time. He is much more skilled at the technical requirements that this sort of film needs. It is not just one person with a video camera anymore. Suddenly it will be a 35mm film with Dolby sound.
BM: And the capacity to spend money.
AM: Yes. It will be quite fun-lah!