Ho Yuhang's "Sanctuary": The Other Side of Malaysia
Reviewed by: Hassan Muthalib
Sanctuary noun (PL. sanctuaries )1 a holy or
sacred place, eg a church or temple. 2 the most
sacred area within such a place, eg around an
altar. 3 a place, historically a church, giving
immunity from arrest or other interference. 4
freedom from disturbance: the sanctuary of
the garden. 5 a nature reserve in which the
animals or plants are protected by law. From
Latin sanctuarium, from sanctus, holy)
- Chambers Encyclopedic English Dictionary
In 2004, on Malaysia's 47th birthday, the newspapers were replete with the successes of the multi-cultural, multi-religious, and multi-whatever of the nation. The headlines screamed: Unleash your potential, Keep the flag flying, Dreams are made of these, Proud to be N-Day babies, The joy of freedom, Rising to the challenge, A better tomorrow, etc. But for a brother and sister in Ho Yuhang's Sanctuary, such nationalistic fervour is hollow and meaningless. The siblings might as well exist on the other side of the moon. The landscape that they inhabit is one that is arid and lifeless.
Ah Lai and Ah See are fictional characters living in a fictional world, one that is alien - and absent for most of us. Art is free to invent such fictional entities and settings that appear to have no direct correspondence to normal existence. Yuhang shows us a side of Malaysia that, for many of us, either does not exist or is hidden from view. For some others, it is a side that they do not want to see (Feroz Khan's VCD film, Neon is a case in point, showing a Kuala Lumpur that few have seen - with the Petronas Twin Towers nowhere in sight!).
Cinema can make the absent present, and what is absent can be made present. Thus cinema is about illusion. But what Yuhang makes present is not illusion but reality. Yuhang wants us to separate appearance from reality. We cannot continue to be imprisoned in experience that contains only appearances. Only then can we be a truly 'developed nation' and experience the joy of freedom.
Malaysian mainstream cinema has been invariably about appearances - presenting images of images. It has been invariably about the Malays and their milieu. A foreigner would think that only the Malays had problems in Malaysia but not the other races (who appear to be blissfully happy and usually appear on screen as comedy relief). Alternative filmmakers are now slowly beginning to show the 'existence' of other races and their social milieu. In the forefront are Ho Yuhang, Yasmin Ahmad, James Lee and Deepak Kumaran Menon. They show us how things seem to be and how they really are by deftly separating appearance from reality. For these young, sensitive filmmakers, it is a bold step, and in the context of Malaysian cinema, a step that is fraught with perils. But it is one that needs to be taken
A Cinema of Disorientation, Alienation and Loneliness
The issues that these filmmakers have raised in their films are not new in world cinema. No less than George Lucas has commented on the issues of alienation, estrangement, disorientation and the widening gap between young and old. In his seminal American Graffitti, Lucas portrayed the 60s as a time of bewilderment for youths. They needed guidance, they needed mentors, but none were available. The adults were in a world alien to the young people. They had their own problems - and had no time for others. Closer to home, Mansor Puteh's Seman (The Lost Hero, 1987) and Namron's Gedebe (Gangsters, 2004) speak of the same issues. Seman's hero constantly comes up against a blank wall every time he tries to deal with adults. He is trapped in a world in which there is no future for him. In Gedebe, the antics of young punks and skinheads pale in comparison to the doings of the adults who hold power and authority. The youths in James Lee's Room to Let are no better than those who reside in prisons. The father in Deepak's Chemman Challai (The Gravel Road, 2005), suffers in quiet resignation at the lot of his daughter. Of such is the cinematic landscape in Sanctuary.
These filmmakers are not producers but generators or creators of film. They have ventured into the province of humanistic philosophy and literature, and as such their films are worthy of consideration as texts. Such texts need an equally worthy audience - one that has learned to experience cinematic art.
The Cinematic Apparatus in Sanctuary
Auteur cinema has been variously spoken of as using rhythms and signs. The meanings of a film emanate from the use of various cinematic devices which function as markers. In the act of expression of his attitude to his world, Yuhang has creatively transformed reality. Through such devices as ellipsis, selectivity, similarity, repetition, juxtaposition and disjunctive editing, he provides markers throughout the film to lead spectators to form their own conclusions. The creation of a sense of meaning is not proper to the images themselves but derived exclusively from their juxtaposition (Andre Bazin). This is clearly evident in Sanctuary. The images of humans are equated with animals. An old man who collects trash finds companionship with his dog, and finds it easier to communicate with the dog rather than with humans. Humans in Sanctuary do not appear to be human. They are more like zombies. And life drags one, every day is as dreary as the next. The only break is eating - and almost every character is shown eating. They have become no better than animals. They eat, they sleep, they wander around. There is no respite.
Ah See, the sister, performs her boring office job of photostating. Ah Lai's factory job is similarly portrayed to be boring. They sit and stare into space while machines do their job. The environment is no different in the old folks' home where their grandpa lives. Grandpa goes through a routine just like the brother and sister - sitting silently and staring into space. He goes to a prayer meeting but gets no respite, no sanctuary. The preacher simply drones on; the audience sits and listens listlessly, and then the inevitable collection plate is passed around. Religion offers no solace. Instead, it is the flock that provides help to advance the preacher's cause. His promise of paradise is equated with the promises on radio of elegant shopping in the city, going on a cruise or of owning a condominium. Ah Lai gazes at a model of a showhouse, a symbol of the all-powerful god of consumerism that promises young and old a rosy future - but one that it will result in indebtness for life.
Yuhang's cinema is a construct of a reality of selected images and sounds. Using realism, he shows the mostly negative effects of technological progress (much as Chaplin predicted in Modern Times). Using jump cuts, he disrupts the narrative by moving from one time and space to another without any explanation. This fragmen-tation of time and space produces a disorientating effect within the diegesis, and to the spectator (suggesting tension and instability). Subjective camerawork results in a naturalistic effect, placing the spectator voyeuristically into scenes. The spectator takes the position of the mediating camera. He is there alongside the characters, going where they go, experiencing what they experience, feeling what they feel. Depth of field filming is used as objective realism. Yuhang creates open shots through the mise-en-scene approach, one that allows the spectator a greater reading potential (as compared to the montage approach).
For the characters in Sanctuary, there is no escape from the world that they are in. It is their destiny. Ah Lai escapes to a room in the city but there is still no way out for him. The room is on the 4th floor (the No 4 signifying death for the Chinese). Divining at her dead parents' altar promises no way out for Ah See. Ah Lai squats, looking at his parents' ashes on the altar. Joss sticks burn, turning to ashes that are no different from that of the human ashes.
Ah See tries to get her grandpa to move in with them but he refuses because he has taken it upon himself to look after a sick woman. Ah See attempts to initiate a small change that could have changed their lives but fails. At the end of the film, the woman dies and grandpa decides to move in with the brother and sister, but by then it is too late. Ah Lai and Ah See's father committed suicide. The world of the brother and sister, too, has come to its inevitable end. Grandpa sits all alone outside the house, waiting for his grandchildren's return. He will wait for a long time. He is alone now as he was at the beginning. Life has come one full circle.
T. S. Eliot gave a bleak picture of life and the world through his poems in the 1920s. George Orwell pictured a world with Big Brother deciding what we can or cannot do. In the 21st century, we are no nearer to creating a better world for all of us to live in. We are more alienated than ever. The promises offered by science and technology have not materialized. In Sanctuary, the old man reads a psalm ending in: Thank the Lord. But thank Him for what, asks Yuhang?
Yuhang offers no solution as to how to cope with today's world. But if you could see a little bit of yourselves and your milieu among the characters and the setting, then he may just have made you see the difference between appearance and reality. The other side of Malaysia may not be pretty, but we must be brave enough to confront that reality. Only then may there be light at the end of the tunnel.
(This paper was presented at the film appreciation of Ho Yuhang's Sanctuary at FINAS, Merdeka Studios, Hulu Kelang on 2 April 2005)