Thursday, May 18, 2006

The first Malaysian review

In the interest of history

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.

28 Comments:

Blogger Amir said...

The trailer as edited by our very own Azharr Rudin is now online:

http://www.redfilms.com.my/trailers.htm

It is kind of odd, though. And therefore apposite.

6:26 pm  
Blogger Amir said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

6:28 pm  
Blogger Amir said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

6:29 pm  
Anonymous ted said...

Now THIS is the type of person they should refer to before making that ban decision - one who has ACTUALY SEEN THE MOVIE!

6:31 pm  
Anonymous ted said...

from Chow Kon Yeow's blog (16 May 06)
(http://chow.blogsome.com/2006/05/16/mps-invited-to-watch-lelaki-komunis-terakhir/)

[Thank you Rais Yatim for honouring your pledge to arrange for MPs a special preview of “Lelaki Komunis Terakhir”..............

The invitation came by Poslaju this morning. The preview is to be held on Sunday, 21 May 2006 at FINAS complex in Jalan Hulu Klang, Ampang at 3.30pm.]

Wow. Waiting with bated breath the outcome of that one.

6:46 pm  
Blogger teh tarik said...

Hi Amir,

Great that NST has reviewed it. Did they kena any flak?
Am writing something on the banning in this Saturday's Star.

Actually, would like to view the movie and maybe do a review.
Perhaps also interview you and Yasmin about this whole banning business.
Lost your phone number. You can
email me at: pulltea@yahoo.com

Cheers,
Andrew Sia

6:51 pm  
Anonymous Ann Lee said...

Hi Amir (and all involved in the movie),
Been worried for your senses of humour and hoping they are intact. Am sure they are, what with all the hoo-ha!
It's depressing though and intimidating that unseen hands can get a ban organised so fast, yet again, and this time, despite state organisations having approved it. The hands get bolder and bolder, it seems.

(Meanwhile, am crossing fingers for the day when a newspaper in 'my national language' actually reflects my point of view. Reading BH (and UM) can be like assault and battery.)

Hang in there man!
Ann

7:54 pm  
Blogger James Wong Wing-On said...

For colour photographs of Chin Peng, Abdullah CD, Rashid Maidin, Abu Samah, etc and texts of the 1989 Peace Accords, please visit

http://jameswongwingon-online.blogspot.com

8:41 pm  
Blogger James Wong Wing-On said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

8:42 pm  
Anonymous patah & balek said...

See Utusan Malaysia's letter today (19 May 2006)

http://www.utusan.com.my/utusan/content.asp?y=2006&dt=0519&pub=Utusan_Malaysia&sec=Forum&pg=fo_02.htm

5:16 am  
Blogger Amir said...

I have appeared in my first podcast, courtesy of Oon Yeoh:

http://oonyeoh.podomatic.com/entry/2006-05-18T09_24_52-07_00

7:36 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Another letter by the same guy who wrote the Utusan letter above, this time blaming the government for failing to make all non-Malays speak Malay:

http://www.malaysiakini.com/letters/49188

7:50 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ban a short-sighted move

NST (Letters). 19 May 2006

S.S. ALIAS Kuala Lumpur

THE ban on Amir Muhammad’s musical documentary Lelaki Komunis Terakhir is short-sighted and deprives Malaysians of an opportunity to learn about an interesting period in our history in a more creative form and presentation.

The period of the Malayan Emergency shaped our history significantly, leading to events such as our independence from colonialism and forming a multiracial, democratic Government. There is not much written about this period of our history by Malaysians, especially the younger generation.

Amir’s documentary would at the very least kindle the interest of young Malaysians to learn more about the personalities and events that shaped Malaysia’s history. Chin Peng is just a part of the story, and maybe an unsavoury part for those who struggled against the communist insurgency, but that does not mean his story should not be told.

We are mature enough to watch movies on arguably more controversial characters in world history, such as Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin, Mao Zedong and Alexander the Great, all of whom have been portrayed in various lights.

I believe Malaysians can make up their own mind as to what to make of characters and their roles in history without being influenced by movies and documentaries.

Whether they decide to be morally outraged or stay neutral about Chin Peng after reading or seeing a movie about him is their right, but at least they are further informed to make such a judgment, and can discuss it.

Banning a book or a movie just means we are going to be a society that is less informed but makes judgments on things anyway. Which is better?

I would also like to point out that the Prime Minister recently launched a book The Malayan Emergency Revisited 1948-1960. This book has pictures and stories of Chin Peng, and explains how he started out fighting against the Japanese occupation in Malaya with support from the British and other peoples of Malaya, and ironically, later found himself on the other side of the fence, fighting the British and other peoples of Malaya to uphold communist ideology.

The Prime Minister mentioned that one of the lessons of the Emergency was that we can never defeat the enemy (which at that time was the Communist Party of Malaya) without addressing and neutralising the factors which drive people to take up arms. He also mentioned that intelligence was crucial.

Learning about Chin Peng, circumstances surrounding Malaya’s colonial history and the various struggles of different races and communities of the time are some of the lessons that Malaysians, especially young Malaysians, could benefit from, because history can repeat itself.

Our history textbooks are not sufficiently meaningful for us to piece together the jigsaw puzzle of Malaysian history.

Books and movies, especially those creatively presented by Malaysians on Malaysian history, can further inform us, spark interesting debates, and enable us to judge with more intelligence and understanding, and to see the bigger picture.

Please reconsider the ban.

9:17 am  
Blogger Pak Tuo said...

Bro,
insyalla I am with you.

Wassalam

12:42 pm  
Anonymous anticipated said...

is there any way for us malaysian to catch this movie? is the movie available on dvd? just anticipating to appreciate a malaysian art film.

1:24 am  
Blogger Amir said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

10:26 am  
Blogger Amir said...

The screening for the MPs is this evening!

I will post an entry about it later tonight, I hope.

10:27 am  
Blogger Ng Yi-Sheng said...

You know, as much as I'm proud that this film wasn't censored in Singapore, I'm also ashamed that we don't have the press freedom or spirit of your journalists and newspapers. Over here, no film that had been officially banned would have been allowed to be reviewed in a national newspaper. We've still got too much government control (indirect now, but still effective) on our media.

I also have a feeling that one reason Singapore's been supportive is because we *love* the idea of foreign talent - even though Amir's just from up north, the idea that he had to be *imported* over here was probably enough to make authorities perk up.

I'm wondering - now don't stone me - if it might be in your interests to apply for some kind of Singapore artists' residency. Huzir Sulaiman applied for one not long ago, and that appears to have turned out rather well, but of course he had ties here through his girlfriend. You might be able to draw some decent grants for your work - am waiting with bated breath for your Peace Village documentary - and I doubt that they'd stop you making movies primarily about the Malaysian landscape.

Sigh, if only we had infrastructure like in P. Ramlee's days...

B).

1:42 pm  
Anonymous fida said...

I really need to watch this musical documentary! amir, where should I view it?

I think the ironic part of all this hu ha about glorifaying the communist and communism, is that more and more people are willing to part with their leg and arm to watch this docu, when actually it was on something else.

plan get backfired I guess...

6:09 pm  
Blogger Amir said...

The screening for the MPs is over. About 20 MPs but 40 journalists including photographers.

Unfortunately I had a massive sore throat and literally couldn't speak! First time it happened to me.

So I couldn't even answer the Bernama journalist who asked me after the screening: "Encik Amir...Ini filem ke apa?"

The MPs seemed disappointed as it wasn't the type of film they were expecting.

Rais Yatim wasn't thrilled with it. Neither was Jins Shamsuddin. And Akmal Abdullah (who was there) will be writing about it yet again, rest assured.

Meanwhile it plays in Singapore every night without the country going beserk.

8:31 pm  
Blogger Pak Tuo said...

Bro,

I tak tahulah,
but I did a project paper on Penal Code 121

http://akusufi.blogspot.com/2005_12_01_akusufi_archive.html

Questioning the decision made in the relevent case and its consequenses and in comparerison to Chin Peng.

I remember you way back during you first steps in the journalism world in NST in 1979/80 era.
I was fresh from school and just begins my new live as another migrate KLite from a solok.
It was you whom introduced me to the world of BOOKS.
I particularly remember you giving me a copy of 'Zen-The Art of Motorcycle Maintence by Robert M Pirsig.Though the original one was lost but I do have acopy of it remembering the memo form you.
I struggle to understand the book in the beginning but once I managed to understood the content at last.
It has been a journey of a thousand miles since.

Now..at fully ripe aged you being if I may call my early mentor in the world of journalism but I am no journalist do understood the reasons for the the bannish of the film .I am yet to see the preview and as far as the content or the making or the plot is concerned I reserve my comment.

I for one believed one need to understand the level to enable one to understand the level of the production.
I suppose one need to understand what is a film,a documentary,etc.etc.

I applaud you for the effort but unfortunely the understanding of the society at large is questionable.
As someone did mention "Cepat Melenting Tak Tentu Pasal" as a result terbantutlah segala usaha untuk mendidik minda rakyat.

I got this experience from you.
'This abang reads alot and very cool I thought'...
when I first met you 25 years ago.I was culture shock when I first met you.
Thus I flashbacking my experiencewith you I question ,is our people really able to diguest History in a right prespective?
Puzzle me.Thus,yes I dammed sure loves this country but I jes cant explain after looking a mirror image of me in the mirror.

Any way I do appreciate good movies probably we are not ready or possibility such films only to be view in certain sect of the society.

"Hanya untuk yang mahu mempelajari dari sejarah silam".

Bro,keep up the good work.
Insyallah I AM WITH YOU

9:24 pm  
Blogger Pak Tuo said...

p.s I hope i am refering to the right person.

Honest to God.

9:28 pm  
Blogger Sharanya Manivannan said...

Amir,

http://www.bernama.com/bernama/v3/news.php?id=198895

Rais Finds 'The Last Communist' Film Not Offensive
May 21, 2006 22:56 PM
Bernama

12:29 am  
Anonymous Jenn said...

Hey I just heard your podcast with Oon Yeoh.

I dig the comparison with the Da Vinci Code and if you're looking for adulation, boy, I think you seriously got some!

Sorry to sound like sycophant (although it was totally intentional)

12:45 am  
Anonymous Siew Eng said...

Last Boy, we can't lose another Malaysian talent to Singapore! Even if it's for their own good. I'm too selfish. Don't want Malaysia to be poorer than it already is.

Singapore, keep your hands off Amir!

1:31 pm  
Blogger Ng Yi-Sheng said...

Aiyah, our Alfian Sa'at want to migrate to your side already... we just do talent exchange, can...

9:36 pm  
Anonymous whatever it is said...

good job amir.

2:11 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Is there anyway i can watch it online or something? Is there a dvd or vcd available? I'm doing a research bout your movie and i hope to watch it so that i can understand your movie. Thnks.

8:49 pm  

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