The first Malaysian review
Lelaki Komunis Terakhir (The Last Communist)
Directed by Amir Muhammad
Review by Jeremy Mahadevan.
New Straits Times. 18 May.
LET’S imagine that the communists triumphed back in the day, defeating the British and the local military and police. Picture a world where we’re all lining up for weekly food allocations, living in dormitories, singing songs about Engels and carrying around little red books with Chin Peng’s face on the first verso.
Had that unlikely victory taken place, what would our history books look like? Would the Emergency be remembered as a time of Imperialist brutality and bourgeois excess? Would Henry Gurney, Harold Rowdon Briggs and Tunku Abdul Rahman have joined Voldemort as “they-who-shall-not-be-named”?
We’ll never know for sure. But we do know how our country turned out under a conservative, capitalist government — the proof is all around us. Looking at us now, with our business-savvy MPs and foreign investments, it’s almost unimaginable that history once held us in a fork between godless communality and religious profitability. Yet it did, and this is why Amir Muhammad’s new film Lelaki Komunis Terakhir is such affecting viewing.
All right, we all know it’s banned, it’s a danger to us all, and it might resuscitate communism and send it trampling all over the fragile edifices of our prosperity like a big red Godzilla. It’s strange when people assume that silence will change history, because it won’t. Any Malaysian lucky enough to see this film will realise that all Malaysians should see it, because it elucidates parts of our history that are locked out of our school syllabuses.
The film’s not perfect; in fact, it’s one of Amir’s less polished works, although considering the ambition involved, that’s understandable. Most of the movie runs like the documentary that it is, but it’s loosely divided into chapters by the inclusion of musical interludes, allowing Amir to revel — as he undoubtedly does — in having made a “semi-musical documentary road movie”.
The songs are not without reason, though — they provide vital comic uplifts and give the audience space to breathe after each chapter’s barrage of images and information. The narration is presented as text on-screen rather than a voiceover, so at points you might hurt your head trying to concentrate on two things at once. I know I did... that pau-making machine was just too fascinating.
The songs, written by Hardesh Singh with lyrics by Jerome Kugan, successfully parody the patriotic and/or motivational music that anyone who has tuned in to RTM will be familiar with. The multi-racial “dance troupe” ought to have hammed things up a bit more, but the “singer” Zalila Lee does a wonderfully poker-faced job.
More spectacular musical sequences would have immersed the audience deeper in the movie, dispelling a bit of the wackiness that causes people to shift uneasily and glance at each other, but criticising a film for not having a big enough budget is entirely pointless.
The main strength of this movie, aptly enough, is in the people. Amir has an uncanny ability to display the individualities of his subjects, focusing on the things that make them true characters. The “Petai Boys” of Bidor are particularly cool, as well as the boss of the charcoal factory who, for some reason, addresses the camera as “ladies and gentlemen”.
As we’re taken from town to town, retracing the path of Chin Peng’s life, we get to see how things are now in the landmarks of the famous communist’s life. The interviews are not always skewed towards the Emergency — rather, these are just people outlining how they live and work, what they do and why they do it. This is not a movie about communism, it’s a movie about Malaysia and Malaysians, which makes the ban all the more unfair.
Amir is not interested in glorifying communism — in fact, Chin Peng doesn’t even appear in his movie, a gap that he justifies by saying that he’s “never liked talking to politicians” and that “on one level, the documentary is about the idea of absence”.
He has said in the past that if we were living in a communist country today, he’d be making a film about capitalists. What he wants to study are the outcasts, those relegated from society.
Hence, the movie builds up to a visit to the villages in Thailand that now house the communist cadre and their families. It then becomes clear that this is also a film about how history deals with people, and how people deal with history.
It’s sad that due to unrest in Southern Thailand, Amir failed to visit the villages occupied by Malay communists, since this would have helped to dispel the misconception that the Communist Party was made up exclusively of ethnic Chinese.
As it is, those other villages are only mentioned, not shown. But it’s still exceedingly heartening to see a film that stoically portrays our nation’s history, choosing not to honour or to criticise, but simply to document.
* The reviewer caught Lelaki Komunis Terakhir in Singapore.