The vision is blurred, but the heart if clear.
Reviewed by: Hassan Muthalib
Entertainment and enlightenment are ideally
(if often deviously) interconnected.
- JONATHAN ROSENBAUM
With the emergence of the novel in the 16th century, storytelling took a new turn. Those unhappy with the world began to express themselves with the written word. Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift was in reality, a veiled attack on certain people of the times who felt that they were above others intellectually. Putera Gunung Tahan by Malaysia’s Ishak Haji Muhamad, made fun of the British colonialists via a fantasy tale. Nevertheless, both these stories have been entertaining, and for the discerning ones – enlightening. As Jonathan Rosenbaum has remarked, entertainment and enlightenment can be deviously interconnected.
Cinema has been around for a little over a hundred years. Though quite a number of Hollywood’s prodigious output is mindless entertainment, a few gems, nevertheless, have emerged. The Oscar award winners have been mainly those films which are usually strong on character and whose stories were adapted from novels. What have we learned about film characters and the art of cinematic storytelling over these hundred years of film? Closer to home, are Malaysian films and filmmakers moving forward in the art? Is Malaysia’s latest alternative film, Rabun, worthy to be discussed as having enlightened us while at the same time, entertaining us? And if so, how did Yasmin Ahmad go about it?
Yasmin Ahmad’s Rabun
Self knowledge is the key – life plus deep
reflection on our reactions to life.
- ROBERT McKEE
I do not for a moment believe that Rabun is only a story about Yasmin’s parents (as she has always contended). Zhang Yimou’s explanation of his use of colours in his film Hero (2002), was in reality a red herring, camouflaging his real intentions in the story. I consider Yasmin’s statement also a red herring - one that disguises her real subject. Like P Ramlee, Yasmin is critical about her race. Like P Ramlee, Malaysia’s legendary actor, writer, director, musician, she is showing them for what they really are. And like P Ramlee, she is lemah dan lembut (literally, soft) in her criticism. This approach is what makes Rabun interesting. And the character of her parents, as observed by Yasmin, is indeed interesting. Their world view is exemplary. They have discovered the secret to living a life profound – that life is too short to be little and one must make the most of it. Yasmin’s story – based on the character of her parents - not only entertains us, but also enlightens us. Aristotle commented 2,500 years ago in his Poetics: stories are all about how a human being should lead his life.
True character can only be expressed through
choice in dilemma. How the person chooses to
act under pressure is who he is - the greater
the pressure, the truer and deeper the choice to
- ROBERT McKEE
The lotus is a Buddhist symbol of purity - to be in the world but not of the world. Maintaining calmness amidst chaos and turbulence - this perfectly describes Mak Inom and Pak Atan. Their daughter, Orkid and her boyfriend, Yasin will carry the baton (as the markers in the film show). At the end of the film, all the characters gather to play, forgetting their trials and tribulations. With this scene, Yasmin is in effect saying that this world will become a better place to live in if we react positively towards the things that happen to us.
Yasmin’s characters are very ‘P Ramlee’ – easy to identify and understand. It is perhaps this reason why P Ramlee’s films are a hit with everybody. Rabun is deceptively simple but in reality, very complex. Yasmin uses binary opposites throughout, but very subtly. We see Yem and his step-mother about to perform the dawn prayer. Strangely, we never see Mak Inom or Pak Atan ever doing it. Yasmin’s contention is that being religious does not necessarily mean that one is spiritual, but being spiritual makes one religious. Was there spiritual help when Mak Inom flung the stick and hit her target (Yem), even with her eyes closed?
Mak Inom and Pak Atan are like Forrest Gump. Good-natured innocence will enable us to survive -- and prevail. Yasmin begins with the voices of children playing – and ends with visuals of adults playing. If only the grown-ups’ hearts could be like children, couldn’t they ‘enter the Kingdom of God?’ I may not share Yasmin’s total optimism, but I give her the right to dream of a world where good people live – with their lives inspiring us to do better -- as Kurosawa also showed in the final episode of his film, Dreams . Likewise, Yasmin has created a world that corresponds to her desires.
If you want to know what a filmmaker is saying,
look at how he is saying it.
- INGMAR BERGMAN
Yasmin uses a formalist approach. As such, one needs to pay careful attention to the patterns that Yasmin creates – what the characters do and say (including what they do not do and say), their reactions, their mannerisms, their dress. One also needs to take into account the cinematography, the editing, and the use of sound and music. Only then may one appreciate the gestalt. Her story is multi-layered, details start to accumulate and form patterns -- and in those patterns where meaning lies. To find the story, observe the characters and their portrayal. The story is not just in the narrative, but also in the technique and style.
Rabun was for Yasmin, an experiment. And it has emerged as a radical break from the typical Malay drama or film. It begins with a very long take of a tin which contain rubber bands. Children are playing ‘hit the tin.’ We never see the children at all – we only hear their voices. This is a technique for getting the audience involved by forcing them to visualize the characters. Contrast this with the end where the adults are seen playing the same game, but after some time, their voices fade away to be replaced by music.
There are numerous long takes and non-diegetic sound in the form of voice-overs of people talking-- also in long takes, but we are never lost as to who are actually talking. Voice-overs actually allow audience involvement, and are more effective than the usual approach found in local telemovies. Distanciation provokes objectivity – and in turn, a contemplation of the subject. This method is a mark of Yasmin’s approach to storytelling in Rabun.
Christian Metz had it wrong when he said, “Cinema and narrativity is a great fact…but it was never predestined.” According to the Muslims, when Adam was created, his first act was to sneeze and he exclaimed: Praise be to God. For that reason, they, too, give praise to God whenever they sneeze. Christians would exclaim: (God) bless you, when in proximity with someone sneezing. The Creator is invoked in both religions. The first shot ever taken in the world was, coincidentally, that of a man sneezing. Film is without doubt, one of the most momentous developments in the history of Man. If for everything there is a reason, I contend that cinema is a grace from God for us to learn from the foibles of man as personified in the film’s characters -- characters that man’s art has ‘created,’ with the ultimate objective of giving us a better understanding of our world. Andre Bazin has said that the cinema screen is akin to a window through which we see the lives of others and in turn, we see our own lives reflected in them. Shouldn’t that be the true function of art – helping us to see ourselves?
There are many scenes in Rabun that cause us to contemplate the lot of man. But nothing can be more poignant than the scene of Mak Inom applying liniment to the body of Pak Atan, who had fallen down in the midnight chase of Yem (this scene is contrasted with an earlier scene of Yem and his step-mother. She calls out to him but gets hit by Yem in anger). As Mak Inom applies liniment, Pak Atan plaintively sings a popular P Ramlee song, Tanjong Katong. Mak Inom puts her head on his chest and cries silently, her grief articulated through the song’s lyrics, that they are in proximity in the same village, yet they still desire each other. Yem, Nor, Inom and Atan are all living in the same village, but why is there so much discontent and disharmony? Aren’t we all of Adam – whether Malays, Chinese, Indian or Thais? Shouldn’t living in peace and harmony be our ultimate aim?
Pak Atan mistakenly speaks to Mrs Yap, thinking that she was Mr Yap. He can be forgiven, for he has rabun (blurred vision), but can we forgive Yem, who does not? Pak Atan kills a blood-sucking mosquito on his arm, exclaiming, Adios, amigo But what can he do to a ‘human blood-sucker’ in the form of his own relative, Yem?
Yasmin has used cinema as a substitute to create a world that corresponds to her desires – a world in which there is no discord or enmity. She has entertained us, but have we been enlightened enough to help make her dream world a reality?