Monday, February 20, 2006

Die Tageszeitung review

Another review in German, this time by the critic Ekkehard Knörer, can be read here. And this is an English translation by Siegfried Ertl, who lives in KL and works in tourism:

Coals instead of communism

Thai Pop rhymes to Agit Prop: Amir Muhammad from Malaysia breaks the rules of documentary films, to save its heart and soul. “The Last Communist” on the Forum.

Amir Muhammad is a young film director from Malaysia, who recently caused a sensation at film festivals around the world with his comic and experimental movies. His work cannot be categorised or defined as one particular genre. ´The Last Communist´ now showing at the Forum attempts to entangle what seems to be incompatible. Muhammad recalls life in Malaysia from the 1930s to present day. In true expressionist fashion, he intersperses this with colourful Thai pop-style video clips.

The story is related in the third person of communist resistance fighter Chin Peng. Born in 1924, Peng now lives in exile. He has been separated from his comrades who have been granted amnesty for their past crimes. Muhammad depicts Peng´s life yet does not grant any screen time to the character central the story.

This is not the movie’s only anomaly. The first principle of "The Last Communist" is digression. It shows places at which his hero (Peng) lived and houses in which he negotiated. The movie jumps back in time through Malaysian history revisiting Peng´s old haunts whilst showing footage of present day activities in these neighbourhoods. While some characters have something in common with Chin Peng, others do not.

Where Peng once lived now stands a charcoal production plant. Whilst reliving the past, the viewer is taken on a tour of the production process of charcoal. Muhammad draws the movie to a climax by drawing attention to life now in the 21st century in small towns and villages in Malaysia. He draws the viewer’s attention to the daily chores and routine of village life.

The larger, more astonishing and often enough stunning anomaly of his film is portrayed through the juxtaposition of Thai pop-style music and a kind of agitprop texts. On first viewing its´ camp- aesthetics overwhelm, with a female singer in front of a waterfall. However, the movie is quite professionally produced. The result is unexpected, yet nevertheless a welcomed interruption and break from the norm.

Clearly, Muhammad does not want to adopt traditional mainstream production values with this film. Consciously, he undermines the traditional values of sequential storytelling and adopts a new twist. ´The Last Communist´ is not an experimental movie for the sake of experimental movies. The movie detracts from the mainstream documentary formula yet remains faithful to its original intention.

The Last Communist assumes a Monty Python approach to storytelling, recalling factual events with amusing graphic forms and images. In the words of Monty Python ´The Last Communist´ is ´something completely different´.

Ekkehard Knörer

Saturday, February 18, 2006 review

A review entirely in German! And it can be read here. This translation is by Sven Alexander Schottmann who works in KL as a lecturer:

Amusing communism

Certain follies can only be recognized when one is able to observe them in others and laugh about them. If European intellectual history forms the background and the folly is the story of communism, then the mere thought of the failed “workers’ and peasants’ states” of Eastern Europe is enough to produce a giggle. If on the other hand, one would rather take in the larger view to appreciate the comical impact of how a simple idea spread across the world, Lelaki Komunis Terakhir by Amir Muhammad is recommended viewing.

Malaysia’s last communist is Chin Peng. In the 1920s, he rose to prominence as the leader of the Chinese [sic] Communist Party (CPM) against foreign occupation: first against the British, then against the Japanese and after World War II against the British again. In fact, Malayan guerrilla warfare between 1948 and 1960 represents some of the bloodiest conflict in British colonial history. Chin Peng quickly became one of the most wanted men in the Empire. After decolonization, the independent Malaysian government continued its pro-western oriented policy. This included the prohibition of the CPM and denying its leader a return into his homeland, who is thought to remain in hiding in the Thai jungle to this day.

In Lelaki Komunis Terakhir Amir Muhammad traces the biographical stations of the last communist. He visits the house of his birth, his parents’ bicycle shop and the informer who almost had him imprisoned. The backdrop to all of this is contemporary Malaysia and only text boards re-connect the present with the history of these various locations. Chin Peng, the subject of the documentary, does not even appear even once. Amir Muhammad’s explains that it was intention to document a “landscape,” or somewhat more complex, “contested terrains.” What is shown is not a Malaysia bleeding in the anti-colonial struggle or the Malaysia of the Cold War, but rather the new, multilingual and plural Malaysia. The label “history” is always misleading when one adopts a narrow definition of history meaning past events without a bearing of the present, which is always the outcome of history.

The use of songs is quite strange, but authentically Malaysian. British propaganda itself was often pepped up and spread through the use of these popular songs. Laden with irony, these songs poke fun at the sometimes abstruse history of communism in Malaysia. When the fathers of communism are praised and the typical revolutionary slogans in laughable nursery rhymes, then the partly amused, partly ashamed old European must ask himself how a number of crude ideas meant for a few industrial nations could have reached the last jungle and produced so much evil.

Thomas Hajduk review

This here review appears in the eminently readable English-language German site Sign and Sight, which has been keeping a watching brief on the Berlinale. At first I thought the website's name was a take on Sight & Sound, that venerable British film magazine, until I saw that it didn't just write about films. Then I just like it because it sounds like my favourite Vladimir Nabokov short story, "Signs and Symbols," that most sly and humane of fictions, which always opens up a whole raft of associations.

A factual error in the first paragraph: Sitiawan used to be known as Gajah Mati (Dead Elephant), but its current name does not refer to any animal being harmed.

The end of history: Amir Muhammad's "The Last Communist"

It's clear from the start that "The Last Communist" is not your average history lesson. In Sitiawan in Malaysia, the birthplace of communist leader Chin Peng (more
here), a street seller talks about how business is doing, who his customers are, and why this is a good place for selling drinks. You also learn that the city was called Sitiawan or "dead elephant" because it was here that long ago, two of the giant beasts collided so heavily that the both died on the spot.

Gradually Amir Muhammad acks down the legendary leader of the Malaysian Communist Party, city by city, person by person, from the past to present and his exile in Thailand. He talked to over 80 people on the way. But Chin Peng was not one of them. "Politicians are boring", the director explains cheekily, he prefers to concentrate on what really matters, the ordinary people. Like the communist fighter who lost an arm and a leg and is determined not to be a burden on anybody. Or the one-time sympathiser who still raves about the beautiful communist and about the reward he received from the British chief of police for turning her in. The communists in Malaysia have never stopped fighting: first the British, then the Japanese, then the British again and finally their own independent government. The few of them who survived to see the peace agreement, now live in exile in villages in Thailand, clearly segregated according to creed and ethnicity.

As the retired communists sing the old propaganda songs in broken voices, you sense how thoroughly the ideology failed because of the people; how total, total failure is. The end of history, here is it, right up close. The flame of the revolution is just strong enough to cook the rice for the day. One of the bloodiest battles in the British Commonwealth frays off into individual biographies, trickles down into everyday problems and gout. And Amir Muhammad takes all his protagonists seriously. He lets them talk and simply hears out their explanations of why they sacrificed their entire lives for a socialist Malaysia which no one seemed to want after a while.

Apart from that Amir Muhammad respects nothing and no one. And particularly not the propaganda songs that were deployed by the English and the communists alike to educate and indoctrinate the illiterate rural population. Muhammad turns them into little slapstick musical interludes where the Grim Reaper sings about the dangers of malaria or four merry women dance around Communism all dressed in red. Despite the hilarious hodge-podge of material, the film is never in danger of being ridiculous. And this is not only a result of its courage but also its tremendous sensitivity. I mean imagine the German equivalent: a young documentary film maker describes the terror of the German Autumn, by getting fidgety policemen to sing texts by Ulrike Meinhof. It's a recipe for disaster.

But Amir Muhammad pulls it off. It must be the mixture of grand Utopian designs and the everyday banality, deadly serious belief and oblivious silliness. Which is about as contradictory and distorted as the decades of fighting against colonialism, nationalism and communism must seem in eyes of rural Malays.

Christoph Mayer

Friday, February 17, 2006

Variety review

I am unable to attend the Berlin Film Festival personally as I am shooting something else in KL, but Hardesh Singh is representing it there. The first public screening is in a few hours! As someone from The Importance of Being Earnest (my favourite play, now that you asked) said, "The suspense is terrible; I hope it will last."

This is a review that just already appeared in the Hollywood bible Variety, based on the Berlin press screening two days ago. The first-ever review it is, then.

The Last Communist (Malaysia) A Red Films production. (International sales: Red Films, Petaling Jaya.) Produced by Amir Muhammad. Co-producers, Naeim Ghalili, Dhojee. Directed, screenplay by Amir Muhammad.


Humor, humanism and sleight of hand are blended to create something out of virtually nothing in helmer Amir Muhammad's shoestring docu "The Last Communist." A kind of bio of Chin Peng, the exiled leader of the banned Communist Party of Malaya, pic eschews interviews with or archive footage of its subject, instead opting for catchy songs and chatty vox pops with those who have inhabited Chin's world. Fests with a political bent will snap this up

Chronologically charting Chin's life, pic begins by interviewing a street vendor who lives in Sitiawan, the town where Chin was raised and follows suit with other "non-entities" such as rubber tree workers. With moments divulging Chin's rise as a thorn in the side of the Japanese, the British and Malay government, the historical is smartly juxtaposed with the environment that spawned it. Helmer spices the mix with pop songs containing propagandist lyrics. One number parodying the multiculturalism of Malaysian tourism advertisements is particularly amusing. Tech credits are poverty row, but content is as rich as can be.

Camera (color MiniDV to DigiBeta), Albert Hue; editor, Azharr Rudin; music, Hardesh Singh with lyrics by Jerome Kugan; production designer. Reviewed at Berlin Film Festival Film Festival (Forum), Feb. 15, 2006. Original title: Lelaki komunis terakhir. Running time: 90 MIN.(Malay, Cantonese, Hokkien, English, Tamil dialogue)

Thursday, February 02, 2006

2 Asian fests in April

It behoooves me to announce that Lelaki Komunis Terakhir will screen virtually back-to-back in April, first at the Hong Kong International Film Festival and then at the Singapore International Film Festival.

I've screened at both festivals several times before, which is not to say I take it for granted that they will always accept my movies. Each time is like the first time, honest.

HKIFF attracts more foreign guests and journalists as it's better-funded. Plus, it's attached to a film market and also the local film awards, so the money and glam factors are present and accounted for. Given a choice, people just prefer going to Hong Kong than Singapore. I don't blame them; Hong Kong is indeed the most beautiful Asian city I've seen (not that I've seen many).

SIFF, on the other hand, has no local movie stars. The Singapore government also keeps slashing its grant to the festival, making its future look decidedly uncertain. The shame is that SIFF is the most vibrantly programmed annual film event in South-East Asia and deserves more support than it has been getting. This was the festival where I first saw films by people like Lino Brocka, Mario O'Hara, Lav Diaz, Garin Nuhrogo and Riri Riza, to mention just a few. It had early retrospectives of Apichatpong Weerasethakul and James Lee before the rest of the world had even heard of them. Its strength isn't just in regional cinema as there's always an interesting array of films, including documentaries, that would otherwise never get a theatrical release. I first attended SIFF in 1998 where (I'm ashamed to say) I only saw the two Malaysian films, Jogho and Dari Jemapoh ke Manchestee. I did the subtitles for both films and just wanted to check on them! Since 2001 I have been a better and more adventurous festival-goer.

I first attended HKIFF in 2001 where my DV camera promptly got stolen during a screening. It wasn't even mine; I'd borrowed it. Since then my experiences in Hong Kong have been much happier, thankyouverymuch.

I hope to attend both festivals again this year. Audiences in each city should, in theory, have some sort of relationship with the subject-matter. Singapore and Malaya went through the same historical trajectory during the Emergency Era (1948-60) and its first Chief Minister David Marshall is represented in the movie, albeit in cartoon form. (He took part in the 1955 Baling talks between the Malayan Communist Party led by Chin Peng and the incoming Alliance government led by Tunku Abdul Rahman). Hong Kong, meanwhile, is beginning to feel the effects of being handed back to the Chinese communist motherland.

It would therefore be interesting to see who will turn up at the screenings and how they will respond. Reports will be posted after the event. In the meantime, if you know anyone in those fine cities, tell them to turn up lah. Screening details should be announced on the websites by mid-March.