From Today (Singapore)
On the edge
By Yong Shu Chiang
Today. 27 April
GROWING up in Malaysia, independent film-maker Amir Muhammad learned to be afraid of ghosts and evil spirits — and communists.
"Yes, communists were the big bogeymen, next to Hantu Kumkum (a legendary blood-thirsty ghost)," Muhammad told Today in an email interview.
His latest film, The Last Communist (Lelaki Komunis Terakhir), which plays at the Singapore International Film Festival tonight, is a documentary loosely based on the life of Chin Peng, the 84-year-old former Communist Party of Malaya (CPM) leader now living in exile in Thailand.
The colourful history of Chin Peng and the CPM, and how they've become marginalised in public perception, prompted Muhammad to make his film.
"There are about 30 people who lived in Malaysia whose lives interest me because something about them — either the whole track of their lives, or one specific act — put them outside the mainstream of lived experience. Chin Peng happens to be one of them," said Muhammad.
"The CPM is similarly interesting because it was such a small movement that everyone knew about. You can always find out more about a society from people who live on its periphery rather than its centre, no?"
Trained as a lawyer before he became a film-maker, Muhammad described himself as political, but said he doesn't make movies just to make political statements.
"I make movies for a whole host of reasons, not all of them polemical. Party politics per se bore me, though. So, I will never join a party."
And what are Muhammad's thoughts on communism?
"It is the most beautiful political ideology because it assumes that, given a choice, people will want to share. But in practice it has almost always descended into tyranny.
"There's also this leadership cult that I would find pernicious in any political system."
Last month, Muhammad's film was surprisingly passed without cuts — ahead of its May 18 theatrical release — by normally ultra-conservative censors in Malaysia, where Chin Peng is still persona non grata.
This is especially astonishing in light of criticism last month from Malaysian politicians who expressed distaste that a film had been made about a "communist bandit".
During World War II, Chin Peng led ethnic Chinese Malaysians in a guerrilla resistance movement against the Japanese invaders.
He later retreated to the jungles where he led a bloody insurrection in the 1960s that claimed an estimated 7,000 victims, mainly Malay policemen and civilian home guards, before surrendering in 1989.
The Last Communist, which premiered at February's Berlin International Film Festival, where critic Tony Rayns heaped praise on it, is described by Muhammad as a "semi-musical" documentary because it has several tongue-in-cheek musical interludes.
"The roots of documentary in Malaya were propaganda films made by the Malayan Film Unit in the 1940s and these often had songs. So, I'm paying an ironic tribute to them," Muhammad said.
Apart from its focus on Chin Peng, and interviews with his former comrades and fellow exiles, the film is also an affectionate look at the quirky side of contemporary Malaysia and an examination of "Malaysian-ness".
Muhammad's next movie will be a co-directed horror film, Susuk, about a Malay beauty ritual that uses black magic, with a sequel of sorts to The Last Communist also planned.
"I intend to go to all four of the 'communist villages' in southern Thailand (where Malaysian exiles live). We only managed to go to one last August during the shoot, due to the security situation at the time.
"If this happens, maybe a new, different sort of documentary can emerge."