In the heart of the old town in Ipoh, Malaysia’s third largest city, a cluster of colonial-era shophouses has been saved from destruction and, over the last decade or so, reincarnated as a hipster enclave. Boutique hotels with concrete and plywood interiors and cafés serving single origin coffee sit next to kopitiam, the traditional eating houses of Malaysia. It’s a beguiling cocktail of history, modernity, and multiculturalism that seems to perfectly embody the youthful energy of the country. Nestled in a back lane in one of the most touristy parts of town is a small crowdfunded museum dedicated to the work of the filmmaker Yasmin Ahmad, who, at the peak of her powers in 2009, died from complications arising from a stroke. In the first decade of the new millennium, she had made six feature-length films in the space of six years. She was only fifty-one when she died.
A picturesque city with a heavily ethnic-Chinese, largely Cantonese-speaking population, Ipoh is the setting for two of Ahmad’s most loved films, Sepet (2004) and its sequel, Gubra (2006). (A prequel, 2007’s Mukhsin, is set in a rural town a hundred miles south). Away from the frenetic and sometimes overwhelming rhythms of life in Kuala Lumpur, Ipoh is the perfect place to understand why Ahmad’s films left such an indelible mark on the emotional consciousness of many Malaysians. Its leafy middle-class suburbs blend happily into a compact city center whose architecture—less a victim of rampant real estate development than in other major cities—reflects the country’s rich mixture of ethnicities with their distinct languages and cultures. Here, the effects of Malaysia’s racial politics still feel secondary to the easy harmony of everyday life.
STILL FROM YASMIN AHMAD’S MUKHSIN (2007)
The three films that make up the loose trilogy revolve around a young woman called Orked and her quest for love, identity, and independence. Ethnically Malay, religiously Muslim, Orked has—according to her Malay friends—an unhealthy interest in Chinese people and culture, by which they mean Chinese Malaysians, who account for the country’s largest minority, rather than anyone from the mainland. Orked idolizes Takeshi Kaneshiro, the Japanese Taiwanese screen idol, and has watched Fallen Angels several times over. With her wisecracking friend Lin, she goes to the street market one day to buy more of his films, and at the counterfeit DVD stall, she meets a young Chinese vendor, Jason. It is love at first sight.
Wrapped in the framework of a comic teen melodrama is a constantly unsettling examination of race and class distinctions in Malaysia. Watching these films again, in a country made increasingly anxious by the politicization of racial differences, I’m reminded of the confrontational quality of Ahmad’s films, of the uncomfortable nature of hearing the same things delivered on screen that people say in real life. The casual racism that Malaysians live with on a daily basis takes on a distinctly threatening tone when captured on film, even if the film purports to be a teen romance.
Sepet is the Malay word for “slit-eyed,” a term that Orked’s ethnic-Malay friends use to describe Jason and other Chinese characters, so we know from the outset that the two young lovers have a tough time ahead of them. But this is more than just a formulaic story of Montagues and Capulets: in a country like Malaysia, Ahmad’s portrayal of innocent interracial love represents a challenge to the official narrative of nationality and belonging. I was six years old when I first heard the expression Cina babi (Chinese pig); balik Tongsan (go back to China) followed soon after. At first I thought that these things were being said to a random passerby from Beijing; I had no idea they related to me.
By the time I understood fully what they meant, the idea of being Chinese, and somehow distanced from the idea of Malaysian-ness, had become so much a part of myself that I thought about it as little as I did the birthmark on face. And yet, at the same time, I felt fully embedded in Malaysian life—in its cultures, languages, and history. What was I to do with this split personality? Listen to the official narrative that had me down as a migrant, or guest, or carry on living life as any ordinary Malaysian? Watching Ahmad’s films for the first time, I felt as though the dichotomy that was me, and so many other Malaysians, was finally being articulated on screen.
It’s unclear how much of Ahmad’s films are autobiographical, but it’s not hard to imagine that the intensely intimate portrait of Orked and Jason’s cross-cultural union was influenced by Ahmad’s own marriage to a Chinese Malaysian man. So much of Sepet is built upon a detailed exploration of Malaysia’s nuances of language and identity—a portrayal that fully inhabits the minority position. Jason, whose Chinese name is Siao Loong, moves in a world of petty gangsters, the type of Chinese triads who frequent pool halls and seedy nightclubs.
Like him, his friends are working class, primarily Cantonese- or Hokkien-speaking, although Jason himself is well versed in formal Mandarin. But his mother comes from the old ethnic-Chinese, Malay-speaking Peranakan communities of the Straits Settlements, so she and Jason do not communicate in the same language. Orked’s family, meanwhile, live in a tidy detached house in a pleasant suburb, and switch comfortably between Malay and English, the lingua franca of the Malaysian middle classes. Unusually for a Malay, she speaks some Cantonese, and is comfortable enough in her skin to use it openly, without fear of being thought to be a traitor to her race.
Issues of Malay-majority privilege are freely expressed in Sepet. Orked scores less well than Jason on their public exams, but wins a scholarship nonetheless, while his life appears to be consigned to street hustling and teenage parenthood. Although the film attempts to be unromantic in its depiction of ethnic-Chinese—witness Jason’s unpleasant on-again-off-again Chinese girlfriend and her exploitative gangster brother—its sympathies lie overwhelmingly in favor of the country’s minorities. Ahmad’s Chinese Malaysians do not come from the famous old-money families; they are the struggling and sometimes desperate people who make up the majority of the Chinese population in Malaysia.
By the time we next see Orked in Gubra, she has become even more aware of how questions of race and religion intertwine with those of gender. The conversation is not just about how to negotiate the endlessly sticky question of racial plurality, but how to live as a modern woman in a society that is itself facing existential questions. Orked is now married to an older man, with whom she appears to share a privileged, playful life, filled with foreign travel and nice restaurants. But it turns out that her husband is having an affair with another woman, and Orked’s deep-seated anxieties about being trapped in a marriage that robs her of her independence soon surface. She runs into Alan, Jason’s older brother, recently returned to Ipoh from Singapore following a divorce, and they start to hang out.
Maybe she sees something of Jason in Alan, maybe she is seeking an escape route from a marriage on the rocks—whatever the case, Orked rediscovers her wit and youthful joie de vivre. She discovers a sense of resolve, too, and refuses to accept the role of the traditional wealthy Malay Muslim wife, who turns a blind eye to her husband’s infidelities in return for a comfortable lifestyle. Elsewhere in the film, in a completely parallel storyline that never intersects with Orked’s, Temah, a prostitute with a son born out of wedlock, learns that she is HIV positive. She is badly versed in the Quran but eventually befriends Mas, the local muezzin’s wife, from whom she receives spiritual guidance.
In Ahmad’s films, women battle menacing male figures who threaten them with physical or emotional violent. Sexually and emotionally liberated—in Gubra, there are some outrageous conversations about the male anatomy, delivered with such a lightness of touch that they pass almost unnoticed—the women are bound by a sense of shared intelligence and resilience, and they skillfully navigate through a system that often seems to leave them no room to maneuver.
Above all, the women in Ahmad’s films talk. They talk across racial and gender divides, about anything at all, but mainly about race and gender. And in this constant, probing conversation, some of the most memorable lines in Malaysian cinema are born. Accused by her friends of only liking Chinese guys, Orked says, “Who cares when someone likes that other person because of their race? It’s when they hate them that’s the problem.” Singing along to Cantonese pop songs in Alan’s beat-up truck, she rejoices in the multilingual, multicultural nature of Malaysia and compares it favorably to her experience of living in England and France, with their dominance of a single national language and culture. Alan agrees, but cautions against sentimentalism, summing up his own experience: “Sometimes it feels like being in love with someone who doesn’t love you back,” he says. He’s talking about Malaysia, of course, but in a world that feels increasingly fractured, he could be talking about many other countries.
Watching Yasmin Ahmad’s films and much-loved commercials (touching stories of people reaching across racial boundaries, made for Petronas, the state oil and gas company, to celebrate Malaysia’s major festivals) a decade after they were made, I’m struck by how her vision of happy multiculturalism often feels at odds with the deepening narrative of a country wracked by disputes over majority privilege, and a generally divisive political rhetoric.
Today, this seemingly innocent optimism seems to carry a harder edge: it is not just a rosy celebration of crosscultural relationships, but an insistence that pluralism is the only fulfilling way of life.
(Source: The Paris Review)