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Realtime >> Friday November 07, 2008

An upcoming Malaysian filmmaker discusses selling out, Southeast Asia, and the complex identity of cinema south of our border


The new Malaysian film Sell Out! pokes fun at corporate greed and reality TV.


Corporate greed meets an ultra-shameless reality show, and Sondheimian musical numbers break out in the midst of English-Cantonese-Bahasa chattering. To call the whole shebang a Faustian tale is an understatement; the feature debut by upcoming Malaysian filmmaker Yeo Joon Han is a spiky satire of the new Malaysia - or to push it a little, of the creative and capitalistic topography of new Southeast Asia in which selling out is increasingly not an exception but a norm.

In Joon Han's bluntly titled Sell Out! (always with the exclamation mark!), exaggerated as well as subtle gags are deployed to mock ignorant journalists, bigheaded artists, fame-drunk TV hosts and rich, philistine company CEOs. In short, it's a story of our time. With clever humour the movie gets away with what could pass as provocative jokes as it teases stingy Chinese, lazy Malays and that special clan who dominate Southeast Asian showbiz: beautiful half-breeds with a posh English accent. Joon Han set out to make a stinging comedy. Yet along the way the Chinese-Malaysian also sketches the racial, economic and linguistic identities of his homeland.

"My film speaks English, Malay and Cantonese, because that's what we do in life, that's what's crazy and fascinating about Malaysia," says Joon Han, a trained lawyer who dumped litigation for copywriting and finally movie-making. "I make a comedy because I live my whole life in humour, I can't separate it from me," he continues. "Even when I think the concern is serious, I end up making jokes along the way. I think, hey, you're not going to be here a long time, so why be so depressed?"

The man felt the aversion about cracking jokes in the KL courtroom, where he believed it's not easy to practice law for either money or justice, so making movies seems more fitting. Spending years raising money, Joon Han made a short film called Adults Only in 2006. It went as far as winning a prize at the coveted Venice Film Festival, the occasion which brought him into contact with a number of excited but ignorant reporters at home ("they wanted to interview me, but never wanted to see my film!") This September the Critics' Week in Venice premiered Sell Out! to a positive reception, and the movie arrived on our shores last week at the World Film Festival of Bangkok, where audiences came out with satisfying titters.

They should. In Sell Out!, a Chinese-Malay host of an art programme, in a bid to outdo her pretty British-Malay rival, comes up with the ultimate reality show: for each episode, she'd interview a dying person on his/her deathbed, adamant to capture the magic moment of death on camera. Plucky and rabid, she doesn't rule out murder if necessary. In the meantime, an idealistic product designer is told by his bosses to build a self-destructive mechanism in his new appliance, so the company can sell more units. When he refuses, the two loony bosses take the man to an exorcist, who promises to drive out the dreamer in him. Amid all of this, the characters have the habit of breaking into songs - with the centrepiece sung by the ensemble of rich and poor Malaysians called Money.

"Many lines in the film came from my old boss," says Joon-han. "Once he barked at me when I was leaving the ad agency, telling me I couldn't quit because 'your parents have no money.' Can you believe that? You don't bring your parents into this, it's so un-Asian! I didn't know we'd gone down to that level!

Yeo Joon Han, left, on the set of his comedy debut.

"In Malaysia, issues like greed and money interest the Chinese more than they do the Malay," he continues. "I find the Malays are not so worried about practical issues as much as the Chinese [because of the government's affirmative action.] So our priorities are different. That's why the Malays are more soulful than the Chinese. They're more artistic, and they can dedicate themselves to painting or art or music. And that's why my movies are very Chinese in a sense."

Malaysia's complex ethnic structure is both a blessing and a burden for the film industry, says Joon Han. To put it bluntly, the country's racial make-up plays a part in the thinking of moviemakers and investors in the way that Thai studios wouldn't understand. Moreover, the burgeoning independent film scene, so championed by European art buffs, has compounded the issue of identity and relevance for young directors at work in the country today.

"In Malaysia, the Malays only watch the mainstream Malay-language films, but the Chinese won't, because the content is very Malay," says Joon Han. "There are no Chinese-language films made by Malaysians - we only watch those imported from Hong Kong. But there's also a Chinese movie company that only makes Malay-language films, because they make huge money from that. And now there's a Malay director who's making a kung fu film in Chinese.

"Thailand has one crucial thing that we don't have: A common language. I speak different languages everyday depending on who I'm talking to. For a director, all of this is weird and exciting at once, since you cannot make one film that everybody will get in all levels. For me, still, I don't think of my audience in terms of race. I think the real barrier is whether we can make good films or not."

It's complicated enough within the domestic map, but now that Malaysian indie movies have travelled to film festivals around the globe, the question of cultural honesty and audience participation become ever more potent. "When my short film won an award in Venice - and it was just a small award! -

reporters came to me and tried to make a hero out of me even though they didn't care to watch my film. Perhaps it's an inferiority complex. We want to feel good, we want to be able to say that Malaysian cinema is rising, though the fact remains that we have only a handful of good directors - and we can't even compete with Thailand!

"I think film festivals are important. They open my eyes and they show that human beings everywhere have something in common that makes them understand movies from different places. But still, what is more important, that my film won an award in Europe, or that 100,000 people in Malaysia, or in Thailand and Singapore - these people closer to my home - liked my films? Sometimes we may try to please film festivals in the West so that we end up making movies that are not true to ourselves. Some of us are scornful of commercial cinema, thinking it's the worst kind, but to make art films with the aim of getting into film festivals is probably just as bad."

In the strange, tastemaking business of the movies, it's unlikely that Sell Out! will secure a regular release in Thai multiplexes. Indeed this is an extension of the same issue about identity: this humorous, wink-filled comedy relies on jokes that most Southeast Asians can relate to (more than we can relate to, say, the Jewish-flavoured jokes in Zohan), but it will go largely unseen in the region it's supposed to belong. Likewise, we in Bangkok hardly see any Singaporean and Indonesian films despite the fact that many of them display significance in terms of social and cultural urgency.

"Sell Out! went to show at a few countries, and people laugh at different jokes at each place," says Joon Han. "At the Venice screening, one guy laughed his head off at this one joke about a half-breed VJ that no one else in the theatre seemed to get, and I knew that he must be from Malaysia or Southeast Asia. I'm glad that in Bangkok, people seemed to get that joke too."

By the way in Malaysia, Thai ghost movies are always big hits among both Malays and Chinese (maybe even with Indians). Not to mention the phenomenon of Ong-bak. In contrast, we don't have the luxury of seeing many Malaysian movies here. "Maybe we have to start making more movies for the region," says Joon Han, laughing. "We always look up to Thailand in terms of cinema. Now we have to start doing something to catch up."

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