Reviewed by: Benjamin McKay
Editor’s note: On July 18, 2010, Criticine’s regular contributor Benjamin McKay died of cardiac arrest in his Kuala Lumpur home. A gifted teacher and popular figure on the arts scene in the city, Benjamin wrote prolifically about cinema and culture in Malaysia and taught film studies at Monash University in KL. Shortly before he died Benjamin sent us a beautiful love letter to the late Yasmin Ahmad. To complement that piece, here is an edited extract of his recently published article on her work.
In 2007, Yasmin Ahmad released Mukhsin, the third film in a trilogy that details several stages in the life of Orked, the young Malay protagonist. Her work has generated, at times, some heated controversy within Malaysia, as she has deliberately challenged certain shibboleths of Malay identity—both in terms of adat (Malay customs) and Islam—but, as the following assessment reveals, her challenges and critiques are also, at times, paradoxically shaped and reshaped in her work by the hegemonic claims and demands of mainstream political, social, and religious discourses.
Mukhsin, is essentially a prequel to the earlier Sepet and Gubra, which transports us back to a time when Orked was just ten years of age and living in the idyllic world of a rural kampung,. It is also the film that most succinctly brings the independent ethos that Yasmin Ahmad explored in her earlier films into the mainstream commercial Malaysian cinema. In this film, we again meet her eccentric parents and the loving maid, and we see, too, in the development of the young Orked, many of the feisty and independent traits she displayed in those earlier films that looked at her adolescence and adulthood.
In many ways this narrative mirrors that of the earlier film Sepet. Into Orked’s life comes a young boy, Mukhsin, aged twelve, who comes from a troubled family background. He enters this film as a visitor who has come to stay with his aunt during the school vacation. Mukhsin meets Orked, and the film tells of their innocent friendship and of the pangs of early adolescent love.
Where this film is interesting politically is the manner in which the issues that the director wishes to tackle are given fresh aesthetic and stylistic terrain through Yasmin’s resuscitation of the old Malay film genre that looks specifically at kampung life—its idyllic setting becoming a site for the contestation of values that is shaped on screen through a heady but balanced mix of melodrama, romance, music, and comedy. The distinctly Malay kampung genre had its heyday in the golden era of commercial Malay cinema in the 1950s and 1960s. Many of those films used the locale to explore the battle between traditional values and encroaching modernity.
Like a number of the Malay film directors of the 1950s and 1960s, Yasmin Ahmad and her cinematographer Low Keong have clearly been influenced by the great Japanese filmmakers. Some scenes are Ozu-like in terms of framing, composition, angle, and pace. There are few close-ups in the film; instead, an array of long and medium still shots capture both the frenetic pace of some scenes and the gentler, laid-back kampung ambiance of others. Windows and doorframes are utilized to frame actions, and this again makes for an interesting exploration of private and public spheres. Gossip is never far away in the kampung, often taking place on front steps and in doorways—where private domains seep into public spaces. Yasmin addresses her critics and detractors by exuberantly capturing the warmth, love, and humor of Orked’s liberal family contrasted with the pious and sanctimonious hypocrisies of those unhappier souls who live near to them.
Midway through the film, there is a scene that I believe captures much of what is recognizably the essence of Yasmin’s auteur ingredients. It is night, and Orked and her family are at home with their maid and a family friend. Orked had previously had a falling out with Mukhsin and is being comforted by her parents. They put a record on the record player, and slowly they begin to dance to a song by Nina Simone. Outside in the dark of night stands Mukhsin, longingly looking in on this scene of family warmth and love—the window of the house framing him as an outsider and observer. Suddenly, the song changes diegesis as well as volume and becomes a part of the soundscape of the village as we segue to the wider world outside the previously intimate scene where we observed our characters dancing together to the recording.
The idyllic halcyon days of late childhood, early adolescence, work well with the resurrected genre format itself. For what is that genre but a reminder for contemporary audiences of the halcyon days of the nation’s own early postcolonial existence? Yasmin cleverly mutes the nostalgia here, but the references and images are there for all to interpret. Those heady younger times were, of course, complex, and contested visions of the future nation were not without a degree of sometimes bloody political volatility, but there was culturally a sense of immense possibilities, and no genre in earlier Malay cinema explored those possibilities better or more consistently than the kampung genre. Like early postcolonial Malay(si)a, the young Orked and her immediate world have the potential to revel in the fluidity and diversity of what youth (or a young nation) might offer. Traditional values are not necessarily at odds with a nuanced diversity that might lead, perhaps, to a fully realized and modern adulthood (both for Orked and her country).
While Mukhsin, is set in a decidedly more homogenous ethnoscape of a largely Malay kampung, the theme of multiculturalism is maintained—we learn, for instance, that Orked is being educated at a Chinese language school. The intertextual referencing of the dreamlike eternity of Orked and Jason’s partnership again is present here. Mukhsin and Orked are out in the fields flying kites when they are met by a young couple with a baby. Those familiar with the two earlier films will recognize this couple as Orked and Jason, who appear to have traversed time and space, and even death, to appear to the younger Orked in her youth. Can this be read as surreal? Or can we read this, again, as an allegorical representation of the manner in which culturally transcended love in the Malaysian context is sustained in the dream, rather than in practice? Love, consummated or not, transcends, through the dream, the barriers of a much more rigidly confused present reality.
This is an extract from ‘Auteur-ing Malaysia: Yasmin Ahmad,' in Glimpses of Freedom: Independent Cinema in Southeast Asia, May Adadol Ingawanij and Benjamin McKay, eds. Ithaca: Cornell University Southeast Asia Program Publications, 2012. With thanks to the publisher for granting permission to post this extract.