Thursday, January 12, 2006


Well, it's like this:

As the birthplace of Chin Peng, and the place where he spent most of his early life, Perak is the most prominently featured Malaysian state in Lelaki Komunis Terakhir. From a tender age, if you were to ask me to name a single thing that I would link with Perak, it would be the pomelo fruit. So I knew right off the bat that our poster needed a pomelo ... or more.

The fact that the pomeloes have eyes can be attributed (or blamed) to the designer Deepak Kumaran Menon. I cunningly got him to do this for very little money by choosing his movie Chemman Chaalai as one of my 5 favourites in one of those celebrity year-end polls . The Men At Work signs were the inspiration of our composer Hardesh Singh.

And it's a cartoon because no live pomeloes were willing to pose for us.

Friday, January 06, 2006


Got an email this morning confirming that Lelaki Komunis Terakhir will make its world premiere next month at the 56th Berlin Film Festival.

It will screen in the section known as International Forum of New Cinema, described as "the most daring section of the [festival] programme."

Berlin is of course one of the Big 3 film festivals in Europe, together with Cannes and Venice. What makes this selection special is that another Malaysian movie - Monday Morning Glory, directed by Woo Ming Jin - will also screen in the same section this year.

The only two other Malaysian movies to ever be presented here were the 16mm Iban-language feature Bejalai (in 1989, directed by Stephen Teoh) and Kaki Bakar (1996; directed by U-Wei Haji Saari).

How on earth do films get selected for festivals anyway? Well, it depends on the film and it depends on the festival.

In this case, I will have to thank the indefatigable Wong Tuck Cheong, president of Kelab Seni Filem Malaysia. He brought with him a colour leaflet promoting New Malaysian Cinema (the leaflet was sponsored by the Multimedia Development Corridor) to last year's Pusan Film Festival.

Among the synopses of Upcoming Movies, the one for Lelaki K0munis Terakhir must have caught the eye of the Forum programmer Christoph Terhechte. Just for the record, this was the synopsis:

A semi-musical documentary road movie about the life and legacy of the former leader of the banned Communist Party of Malaya, who now lives in exile in Thailand. Pre-production funding from The Jan Vrijman Fund of the International Documentary Festival of Amsterdam IDFA).

He emailed me in November asking for a preview tape, so I sent a rough-cut with incomplete subtitles, which was all we had at that point.

The invite to Berlin was received today.


Wednesday, January 04, 2006

News report: 14 April 2005

UMNO Youth objects to filming Chin Peng's activities

Utusan Malaysia. 14 April 2005

KUALA LUMPUR - The Malaysian UMNO Youth movement opposes any attempts to film the struggle of Chin Peng, the former Secretary-General of the Communist Party of Malaya (CPM), who is considered a traitor to the government and entire population of Malaysia.

Its Information Chief Datuk Azimi Daim said, the struggle of the CPM was a crime of treason committed when Malaysia was beginning to develop after Independence.

"Instances of killing, torture and cruelty by Chin Peng and CPM members towards the public in Gerik, Bentong, Gua Musang and the Thai border are still fresh in the memory of the Malaysian people, including Chinese and Indians," he said in a statement today.

He opposes the plans of independent filmmaker Amir Muhammad who wants to make a documentary about Chin Peng, whose real name is Ong Boon Hua.

Amir admits he has already come up with a title for the documentary: Lelaki Komunis Terakhir.

Azimi stresses, any attempt to produce material about Chin Peng and the CPM, whether directly or subtly, is clearly intended to spread communist propaganda with the aim of overthrowing the democratic government of Malaysia.

"National warriors, army and security force personnel and their families are sure to be offended when there are attempts to popularise the former communist leader," he adds.

A translation of the original article here

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

The first documentary I liked

It's a truth universally acknowledged that watching documentaries used to be considered one of the least exciting things you could do with your clothes on. So I especially remember the very first time I enjoyed one.

This especial remembrance does not, however, extend to recalling the exact date I saw it. But it must have been in the early 1990s at the Australian High Commission in KL. The title was (and still is) Cane Toads: An Unnatural History.

These creatures were imported to north-eastern Australia from Hawaii to combat pests in the cane-fields, but not only did they fail to do so, they turned out to be an even bigger menace themselves. They multiplied at an alarming rate, caused in large part by their nasty habit of humping everything in sight. They had no natural predators due to their poisonous skin ... but this same skin when licked can produce an effect close to LSD, as a sombre testimony by a former addict (complete with privacy-ensuring blacked-out face) reveals.

It's 47 minutes long but contains more joy, absurdity and pathos than any CGI-fed 3-hour extravaganza. The Australians interviewed are all very serious, which of course ups the hilarity quotient ever more. (There's no unsexier English-speaking accent than the Australian one, just as there's no sexier accent than the Irish). Among the people I remember are a girl who dresses up cane toads in dresses; and a man who makes it a point to run over as many of these creatures as he can, with the requisite sound effects that are not for PETA or the prickly.

I love how the documentary had such affection for its interviewees, even the really weird ones, without being condescending. Contrast this with the way Michael Moore gets laughs out of embarrassing the poor secretaries, receptionists and security guards of CEOs he has a beef with; you know, those workers who make less in a year than our blue-collar hero does in a braying day. Along the way, and without undue signposting about Serious Issues, it also becomes an analogy about Australian attitudes to immigration. And their resilience, as when the cane toads foster a perverse but deeply felt civic pride: Sure they're ugly and useless, but they're ours!

Movie-watching is a community experience several times over. The primary act of sharing comes from being in the dark with a bunch of (mainly) strangers. Then there's the discussion with your own friends afterwards. And then comes the point, years later, when you talk about a movie to someone who, it turns out, had also seen it somehow - and felt the same way about it. The connection is instantaneous and multi-levelled. I remember mentioning Cane Toads: An Unnatural History to a friend during supper just last year, and he immediately started quoting lines from it, laughing so hard that he almost chocked, literally almost falling off his chair. People started to stare.

Now that's entertainment.

Monday, January 02, 2006

Opening credits

The best thing about being a director is getting to take credit for other people's work.

Let us ponder the example of Psycho. The world of course knows it as "Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho." But honestly, what would the film be without the brilliantly eerie soundtrack by Bernard Herrmann? (Using only one instrument somemore). Or the source novel by Robert Bloch, where the entire story was taken from? Or the acting turn by Anthony Perkins which became so emblematic that it marked, for better or for worse, his entire subsequent career?

Then of course there's Saul Bass.

Saul who? Well, sit your butts down and find out.

Saul Bass (1920-1996) was the most reknown title designer there ever was. He created the look for the opening credits for dozens of Hollywood films, including three Hitchcock ones: the gorgeously disturbing colour swirls of Vertigo, the playfully iconographic North by Northwest, and of course the starkly fractured look for Psycho. The credit sequence didn't just become a way for the audience to find out who the main crew members were, but gave a big fat hint to the style and themes of the film as a whole. If you notice, the notion of Norman Bates' split personality is right there in the way the words arrange themselves, and that's before "the story" has even "started."

The opening credit sequence for Lelaki Komunis Terakhir was not my idea. I did not tell the director of photography Albert Hue to hang out of my car in that way and record the road. I just assumed he'd had a few too many beers. When I gave all the footages to the editor Azharr Rudin, I didn't tell him to start with that image. But that's what he did.

And it works.

This is a road movie, so it's apposite to start with a road. The dusty look to my green Iswara isn't just a testament to slovenly car-keeping, it gives a nice, albeit shabby, personal touch. Since the whole movie is very talky, the fact that no words are heard now is also a good calm-before-the-wordstorm. All the better to concentrate on the only words on screen, which is where the credits come on. All the names of the main crew are on the road, since we are all workers, literally down to earth, while the title gets the sky, a consuming idea above all. It was also the editor's idea to have the word "Komunis" blink red for a while. It's a wink, a sign that some parts of this movie shouldn't be taken so seriously. Let's not even start on the choice of font; who do I look like, Saul Bass?

Perhaps in a Q & A session somewhere I could cite the opening road journey of one of them Abbas Kiarostami films as the reason for this opening shot. But if you read this and then attend that screening, you'll know I'll be untrue. But some other people might buy it. After all, they had just seen "Amir Muhammad's Lelaki Komunis Terakhir."

Sunday, January 01, 2006


Everyone's got a blog nowadays and far be it for me to buck a trend. But in contrast to the blogs by certain Malaysian celebrities, this isn't a promotional tool disguised as personal musings. This is a promotional tool that isn't disguised as anything else.

I spent a few weeks last year shooting Lelaki Komunis Terakhir. It's mostly a documentary, and we interviewed over 80 people in various locations in Malaysia and Thailand. Now that the thing is almost done I want to record, for posterity or its cyber equivalent, some of the people we met, places we saw, and things we experienced, most of which did not even make it to the final cut of the movie. (We shot over 50 hours, after all).

I also plan to have the movie released in Malaysian cinemas this year, so will take you through the process of how movies are distributed in this our fair country.

So, Gentle Surfers, take this blog as a mixture of snapshot recollections of some weeks in 2005, as well as a record of a distribution process that will begin in early 2006. There will be some thoughts on documentaries too. And maybe some other movies. And maybe even more. So let's get it on.

Disclaimer: I am what the English would call a Luddite and the Indonesians gatek (gagap teknologi) so you will have to excuse a certain bare-bonedness to this presentation. But there shall be pictures aplenty if it kills me.