Malaysian-Chinese film directors are earning award nominations at festivals around the world by depicting their country’s ethnic stereotypes, racial tensions and controversial history on the silver screen. The irony is that they often must do so in exile because in Malaysia their films are censored, if not banned, and misunderstood.
“Malaysia’s historical and social context is full of taboos,” director Lau Kek-huat says in an interview with the Post . Lau moved to Taiwan to study cinema at 27, where he produced three Chinese-language films that are too controversial to be screened in Malaysia.
“The [Malaysian government’s] logic is that in order to keep the country peaceful and harmonious, we shouldn’t touch on the wounds and pain of the past,” he says.
Lau’s debut documentary Absent Without Leave (2016), which won the Singapore International Film Festival’s audience award, digs into the secret history of his late grandfather, a Malayan Communist Party militant. Largely composed of Malayan Chinese fighters, this guerilla group fought British forces between 1948 and 1960 during what is known as the Malayan Emergency.
“For me, trying to cover up our history only makes things worse, confusing, and more easily manipulated by politicians,” says Lau.
Wee Meng-chee, better known as Namewee, is a provocative Malaysian rapper and film director who also made Taiwan his second creative home. Namewee’s previous film, Banglasia 2.0 , an irreverent satire of Malaysia’s 2013 general election, was released in Malaysian cinemas in 2019, after a six-year delay and with seven cuts ordered.
His latest film, Babi (2020) – which means “pig” in the Malay language and is often used as a racial slur – was produced in Taiwan with no plans for Malaysian distribution, as it revolves around a still-secret race riot in a southern Malaysian school in the year 2000.
That both filmmakers ended up in Taiwan is no coincidence. Government quotas introduced after the Sino-Malay riots of 1969 favour the Malay majority in the allocation of places in higher education, government jobs, and land and housing subsidies. Many Malaysian Chinese who can’t enter university at home turn to Taiwan because of the common language, more affordable tuition fees, and the fact they are allowed to take up part-time work.
Taiwan is also where the two Malaysian Chinese directors managed to secure the financial support needed to make their films.
Babi received award nominations at the Open World Toronto Film Festival, the Around International Film Festival Berlin, the International Thai Film Festival 2020, and the prestigious Golden Horse Awards in Taipei.
In Malaysia, the governing Perikatan Nasional alliance reported Namewee to the Malaysian police on the grounds that a poster promoting Babi ’, which depicts a school bathroom wall covered in graffiti, contained language that could disturb racial harmony.
Namewee declined to speak to the Post . However, he posted a video on YouTube on December 16 in which he said his intent in making Babi was to foster racial harmony, and that it was never intended for Malaysian audiences.
That there is an appetite in Malaysia for such films with controversial themes was shown by the million-plus views Lau’s Absent Without Leave received in the space of a week when it was screened online in March 2017, having been denied screening in the country.
Lau continued exploring his family’s Malayan Communist legacy in Boluomi (2019). His first feature-length film, it tells the story of Yifen (played by Wu Nien-hsuan), a young Malaysian Chinese man who, like Lau, moves to Taiwan to study because he’s not allowed a place in a Malaysian university.
Yifen struggles, juggling part-time jobs as he negotiates being a foreigner in a society that is quite intolerant towards Southeast Asian immigrants.
“At least in Taiwan there’s a chance to bring that out, and no one can really censor you,” says Lau.
Yifen’s present is juxtaposed with his father’s past during the Malayan Emergency. Born to a Communist insurgent mother and sent out of the jungle hidden in a jackfruit shell to stand a better chance of survival, he is adopted by a Malay family.
“Boluomi is more about contradicting the country’s historical narrative,” says Lau. “Malaysian history books mention the Malayan Communist Party (MCP) as a terrorist unit, and during the Emergency the common propaganda was that they were ‘Chinese’ rebels. This may be the first time a movie dares to say the MCP fought for the country’s independence.”
The Film Censorship Board of Malaysia demanded 27 cuts to Boluomi. Lau’s third documentary, The Tree Remembers (2019), which explores discriminatory race-based policies in Malaysia since the 1969 riots, with a focus on the plight of aboriginal Orang Asli communities, was not even submitted for screening in the country.
The country‘s complex history with race and communism and the alignment of economic status with race have made censors become crude in the way they try to tamp down on difficult subjects.
Even a much less controversial Malaysian Chinese film like The Story of Southern Islet (2020) by Chong Keat-aun, which won the best new director prize in this year’s Golden Horse Awards in November, has had to fight hard to avoid the blades of the censors.
Set in rural Kedah state and largely based on Chong’s childhood memories, The Story of Southern Islet is the apolitical, dreamy tale of a local ethnic Chinese woman and her unlikely spiritual journey to save her sick husband from what she believes is an evil curse.
“Black magic is only the ‘symbol’ of the story, but the film’s main theme is about the life of different ethnic groups in Kedah, the culturally fleeting border state between Malaysia and southern Thailand,” Chong tells the Post.
“I also included a lot of culture heritage from the original Malay-Siamese lifestyle of the 1980s, like the peculiar use of the wayang kulit gedek (Kedah’s shadow-puppet theatre) to cure illnesses, or the semangat padi, a religious ritual that farmers performed in the old days before planting rice.”
Film Censorship Malaysia’s first reaction was to demand that five sections of dialogue be cut and seven other scenes clarified. Chong and the National Film Development Corporation Malaysia – a body that works to raise the global profile of Malaysian cinema – had to explain that the cuts envisioned represented aspects of rural Kedah’s authentic Malay culture.
After the submission of two reports, the film will finally screen at the Malaysia International Film Festival on Jan 6.
Lau says: “It would be a pity if we celebrated cinema only in terms of the spotlight, the film festival glory and such, without understanding that it is a vital part of social change.”
But for that to happen, the Malaysian cultural landscape needs to become more progressive and self-reflective.
South China Morning Post / Asia One.