|The Last Communist
A documentary about Chin Peng without Chin Peng.
Reviewed by: Benjamin McKay
As many of the readers of this journal are already aware of, Lelaki Komunis Terakhir (The Last Communist, 2006) has been banned in Malaysia, the country that produced the film and which the film is so clearly about. I will explore that issue further towards the end of this assessment and place the film and the ban within a broader reading of contemporary Malaysian culture, but first let me review it as a film – or the semi-musical documentary that its makers describe it as.
Amir Muhammad has been described on a number of occasions as one of contemporary cinema’s most interesting essayists. His six short films 6horts and works such as The Big Durian and The Year of Living Vicariously have an essayed singularity about them that very much makes them a recognisably Amir Muhammad event. His filmed essays however, are not journalistic and tend to be rather grounded in the filmmaker’s own sense of satire, irony and observation. They are also deftly composed and often highly personal and yet they largely manage to avoid the rhetoric of obstinate certainty. Perhaps the avoidance of certainty and the reluctance to dogmatically essay his point is a reflection of the nuances and complexities of the very subjects that he treats. Amir weaves spoken and written words into the visuals in intriguing and sometimes subtle ways while never allowing that to detract from or mute his more obvious sense of the ironic.
By emphasising his satire and humour here, I do not in any way mean to diminish the seriousness of much of his work. A short film like Kamunting is unavoidably political and critical, but such a stance is never at the expense of revelling in moments of amusing whimsy. His work to date reveals a filmmaker at ease with being intelligently funny. His more experimentally driven Tokyo Magic Hour also showcased a director commanding with confidence the power of visual language and the capacity of images and sounds to give new and poetic possibilities to the building of an onscreen narrative and to explore that narrative in fresh and daring ways.
If The Big Durian is his hymn to the urban wonder, confusion and ethnic complexities of his hometown Kuala Lumpur and if The Year of Living Vicariously is his exploration of the differences and similarities that he, as the filmmaker, finds in his neighbouring Indonesia, then The Last Communist is Amir Muhammad’s whimsical road movie into the great heartland of peninsula Malaysia. It is a documentary only insofar as any of Amir’s other documentaries can assume that label with ease. In the past, he has blurred the distinctions between fact and fiction and here in his latest film he utilises a “factual” narrative to anchor and reveal another story entirely.
The “semi-musical documentary” follows a chronological and geographical journey through the life of Chin Peng, the exiled former leader of the Malayan Communist Party. There are no interviews with the man himself and his photographic image is not used. Rather we read an onscreen textual account of the different stages of Chin Peng’s life as the filmmaker and his crew take us to the towns and agricultural estates that featured in the chronology of that life and in the historical and still palpably present imaginary of a volatile, violent and contested part of Malaysian history.
The written narrative of Chin Peng along with an amusingly vibrant cartoon segue provide a form of cinematic architecture to interrogate another story and another film. I am not suggesting that we have a film within a film, for that is clearly not the case, but rather I feel that this is a filmed essay about politically and historically charged landscapes that are peopled by a new Malaysia that accommodates those legacies on their terms. It is a film about discovering ordinary Malaysian citizens whose voices might often be marginalised at the peripheries in the mainstream primacy of contested contemporary hegemonies and unashamed KL-centrism. It is a film that deliberately explores the manner in which the past resonates within the present and honours the prosaic land and urban scapes as memorials to our lived lives. It manages to interrogate the links between space and place and people.
If Amir is exploring the charged dialectic between continuity and change, between the past and the present, then the audience is rewarded with a series of delightful interviews with an assortment of characters that people these landscapes. We visit among other places, Setiawan, Taiping, Lumut, Ipoh, Penang and the Cameron Highlands and eventually we cross that porous and contested border with southern Thailand to meet the remnants of Chin Peng’s forces as they build anew their lives in exile.
To remind us that we are in Malaysia everywhere we go, we often encounter food and produce. Indeed the development of the Taiping specialty of Lotus Flower Buns is an occasion to dwell on the history of the region itself where we see food, personal accounts, history and myth fused as we watch the art of the baker at work onscreen and revel in a tale of sacrifice and longing given to us by a local informant. We meet a bicycle salesman, a retired expatriate officer, pomelo growers and merchants, an old man who remembers and recounts the horrible brutality of the Japanese occupation and a man who proudly takes us on a tour of his charcoal factory.
We meet people who still work on the same rubber plantations that were the setting in the struggle that was the Malayan Emergency and we witness the timeless continuity of their day to day struggles to maintain a dignified life, while providing their children with greater hope and opportunities. We meet a multilingual Tamil food hawker complete with a white starched linen shirt and bowtie and for a moment, we all fall under the spell of his charm and recognise his dignified acceptance of his firmly ensconced place within the fabric of his community. The petai bean merchants, a handful of cheeky young men, capture the spirit and humour of Malaysian marketplaces. With no apparent sense of self-irony, they tell us that there are three types of petai bean – wood, nut and rice – and that each one caters specifically to the culinary tastes of the Malays, the Chinese or the Indians—a witty culinary metaphor for the diversity and the connections within the Malaysian mosaic.
The sense of timeless continuity and ever-present past is celebrated in the inclusion of a series of musical numbers within the broader rubric of a road movie documentary. Composed by Hardesh Singh and with lyrics by Jerome Kugan, these witty and campy inclusions may appear to foreign audiences as jarringly superfluous, but they also resonate with historical references to both time and place. They are a satirical homage to the style of musical numbers included in old British documentaries made through the Malayan Film Unit that were once screened on the road in frequent mobile screenings through the towns, villages and estates that we visit. Their aim was to educate and entertain and of course, to instil virtues and messages in line with the kinds of propaganda we associate with wartime conditions.
In The Last Communist, there are songs about agricultural and mining bounty, the threat of malaria, the importance of securing your identity card, and the importance of trade in the development of a prosperous Malaya. These all resonate in contemporary Malaysia. There are also campy renditions of communist songs that juxtapose nicely with our real life performances of quasi-revolutionary karaoke when we visit the border settlements in southern Thailand. The decision to make this a semi-musical documentary works well with the broader idea of lived memory and continuity, and it is perhaps no small irony that certain elements that are parodied in these songs may also well be satirizing a particular style still found in musical shows on the national RTM television network – lip synch out of time, a gaudy dress, and clumsy but earnest choreography. Bravo to any composer/lyricist who decides that a song on malaria can get away with a line like “comatose with renal failure”!
I understand that literally hundreds of hours of footage were shot for this film and therefore the task for both the director and his editor Azharr Rudin, must have amounted to something akin to a curatorial achievement in the selection of what to finally include and what to jettison. Having said that I am again impressed with the lovely fusion of form and content that Azharr Rudin’s editing style accomplishes. Like he has done in some of his own short films, Azharr once again manages to build and construct rather than cut and diminish. This works well with Amir’s style of essayed filmmaking, since I believe that like written essays, these films are composed rather scripted. It also gives added weight to Albert Hue’s camerawork.
The film is not without its apparent flaws. The home-movie-like roughness of handheld digital filmmaking has a rawness and immediacy that sometimes works against the more considered and lyrical moments in the film—the shots of lakes and gardens for instance, and a few moments of moving testimony—but the raw edges and the rough hues work well with the building narrative and are not overly at odds with the thematic and ironic twists and turns that this film builds upon. We are after all sharing a journey, and there are some beautifully composed shots, especially of architecture as it is situated within urban settings. The juxtaposition of the visual with the written narration is achieved with considerable finesse even if technically, the film is rough around the edges. Amir Muhammad’s recent foray into mainstream commercial filmmaking does not appear to have polished off the edginess and earthiness we often associate with independent digital filmmaking.
Amir Muhammad’s The Last Communist is not a film about communism nor is it a celebration of the life of Chin Peng. It is rather more intelligent and ambitious than that. It is a journey into the porous borders between fact and fiction, the past and the present, myth and memory and people and place. It celebrates the continuities and the changes that afflict the lives of ordinary people and it gives them a voice within their own understanding of Malaysia. Amir’s previous films have found an audience abroad and an audience often appreciative of his humour and irony. I only hope that foreign audiences pick up on the humour that permeates this latest film, because among all his work, it is perhaps the most deliberately localised. There is much onscreen here that Malaysians and those who know the country will recognize, laugh at and enjoy. The fact that we can laugh without resorting to being judgemental speaks volumes about the essential humanity that this film celebrates and explores. It is a film made out of love of country – its people, its shared history and its ironic and peculiar sense of necessary humour. By bringing his skills as a film essayist back to Malaysia again, Amir Muhammad, has in the process greatly extended his contribution to this unique cinematic form.
A note on the banning of Lelaki Komunis Terakhir in Malaysia
On March 1, 2006, the Malaysian Film Censorship Board passed The Last Communist without cuts. It was the first ever release of a Malaysian documentary for a limited commercial run that was granted a U rating, which meant that all ages could attend.
Before this, the film had already premiered at the 56th Berlin Film Festival and has since played at international film festivals in Hong Kong, Singapore, Buenos Aires, Toronto, Munich and Los Angeles. It will also screen in Seattle, New Delhi, Vancouver, London and Amsterdam. It also had a commercial screening in Singapore and a DVD edition of the film is due to be released in Singapore as this article goes online.
On May 3, 2006, with the impending commercial release in Malaysia (three digital capacity cinemas—one each in Kuala Lumpur, Ipoh and Penang), the conservative Malay language daily Berita Harian commenced a single-handed campaign against the screening of the film. The journalist who initiated the campaign, Akmal Abdullah had not seen the film nor had any of the supposed “detractors” that he interviewed.
On the evening of May 5, 2006, as members of the arts community gathered in Kuala Lumpur for the 4th Annual Boh Cameronian Arts Awards, the Home Ministry announced that the film would be banned, thus overruling the Film Censorship Board and the Ministry for Arts, Culture and Heritage. The arbitrary decision caused considerable media attention and many editorials and feature articles, as well as a number of online journals and blogs, collectively condemned the ban.
On May 21, 2006, Members of Parliament were invited to a special screening of the film at FINAS, the National Film Development Board. Many of these parliamentarians expressed their opinion that the film was not a danger to the public good and then chose to express their personal, rather critically uninformed opinions on the worth of the film. An attempt to screen the film after a week or so to members of the nation’s Senate was cancelled by the Home Affairs Ministry at the last minute.
Amir Muhammad published a long and detailed defence of his film, including a summary of the campaign that had been launched against him on the film’s blog site (http://lastcommunist.blogspot.com).While Red Films and Amir Muhammad attempted to appeal the decision, the ban remains enforced in Malaysia.
In Singapore, a country which shares the collective history of the Communist Emergency with Malaysia, the film was first shown at the Singapore International Film Festival and later on enjoyed a commercial release. The authorities in Singapore decided that the film was no threat to either the public good or to public taste and the island republic remains unchanged on this decision.
There is no sensible, rational reason to ban this film at all. It neither promotes a political ideology nor hero-worships any historical figures, including Chin Peng. Indeed the decision to ban this film speaks largely about apparent ruptures within both the broader context of Malaysian society and amidst the ruling elites. The initial decision to grant the film a U rating without cuts is still the most sensible decision made to date regarding this film.
One Malaysian government minister spoke on the record to defend the ban because he claimed the film was not violent enough and therefore, is not an accurate account of the period. This may be the first time a film has been banned anywhere for not being violent enough! The ban cannot be justified simply because the film touches on the communist history of the country—feature-length movies have dealt with the same subject, often violently—and the memoirs of Chin Peng, My Side of History continue to sell copies here after having been on the bestseller list for some time.
A climate of moral policing appears to be prevailing within contemporary Malaysian culture and is often driven to further an array of vested interests all trying to capture control of the supposed moral heartland. These interests do not necessarily represent the state, but it appears that the state is now responding to criticism and concern on some issues from certain quarters as if it were actually acting in the broader public interest. A solitary member of the public complains about the subject matter of a number of European and Asian art-house movies screened at FINAS and the state intervenes to cancel all further screenings. No right of reply, no review and no rational debate allowed. There is a battle at play that seeks to control the representation of all that is ethnically Malay and all that speaks to values and faith, primarily with regard to Islam. Difference is not encouraged and diversity is not being celebrated. In the earlier public vilification of the film (and again, before anyone had seen it) there was the odious suggestion that Amir, who is ethnically Malay, should stick to making films about the Malays—as if the communist history of Malaya was entirely ethnically Chinese anyway.
Amir’s film was banned before anyone banning it had seen it. Yasmin Ahmad’s two recent films, Sepet and Gubra were screened, but not without an enormous amount of vilification from within certain sectors of Malaysian society. The politics of ethnicity, religion and class are being contested in dangerous ways for a harmonious multicultural society and the role of the artist in such an environment is at best precarious. The Malay language newspaper that has vilified the work of Yasmin Ahmad and orchestrated the ban on The Last Communist has used palpably racist and ethnocentric sentiments in their critiques and yet there has been no move to censure them nor any call from the state for them to retract comments that are in fact demonstrably not in the greater public interest. This newspaper and those who allow it to vilify promote a proscribed cultural identity. If you appear to transgress those boundaries, then expect to be vilified.
The film will of course, live on and screen elsewhere, but the audience that it was clearly made for are thus far denied access to it. I implore all of you to see this semi-musical documentary road movie. It is a fine achievement and another reason why Malaysians everywhere should be proud of the work of their independent filmmakers.