Whither Malaysian films?

  • Nation
  • Sunday, 06 Jun 2010

Thailand won the Palme d’Or at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival recently. When can Malaysia do the same?

MARTIN SCORSESE, Federico Fellini, Akira Kurosawa, Luis Bunuel, Abbas Kiarostami, Michael Haneke – and now, Apichatpong Weerasethakul from Thailand has joined the glorious list of winners of Palme d’Or.

He has garnered arguably one of the biggest prizes for cinema outside of Hollywood – the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival with his film Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives.

Hence, this only begs the inevitable question – when can Malaysian films win such a grand award on the international stage?

While some of the more cynical cinephiles in the country may simply laugh it off as a foolhardy dream, akin to our age-old aspirations of winning the Nobel Prize, our local film fraternity is confident that Malaysia’s time will come.

One is Saw Teong Hin, who directed the historical epic Puteri Gunung Ledang, the first Malaysian film to be invited to the Venice Film Festival in 2004 and the sole homegrown movie to dare vie for a nomination in the Academy Award’s Best Foreign Language Film category.

“I feel that each country will have its time, and I feel that now is Thailand’s time. Apart from doing good work, it’s completely good fortune whether you win an international award or not. Our day will come but I cannot say when that day will be.

“As a filmmaker, all you can do is to make the best work that you can and just put it out there,” says Saw.

When he travelled with PGL to Italy for the world’s oldest film festival, he realised that many were still not aware of Malaysia, much less its films.

“I felt that PGL helped put Malaysia on the map then. Many people at the festival were asking ‘From where? Malaysia?’ They were curious about us and wanted to watch the film,” he recalls.

One of the most prolific producers in Malaysia, David Teo, feels that this is the main problem in selling Malaysian films to the international market.

“Many do not know about Malaysia and are not interested in Malaysia. First we have to sell the country before we can sell our films,” he says.

Saw, however, points out that many Malaysian films have been trail blazing the international film festival circuits in the last few years.

Our main problem is, he argues, sustainability.

“There has to be critical mass. Malaysian films are making an impact at the international festivals but the trend needs to be sustained. We can’t have one film at Cannes and then wait for another five years to see the second one there,” he says.

True, U-Wei’s Kaki Bakar was screened at the 1994 Cannes Film Festival while Osman Ali screened his short Malaikat di Jendela starring Ning Baizura there in 2004. In 2009, Chris Chong’s Karaoke was screened and this year, Woo Ming Jin was given the same opportunity with The Tiger Factory.

KRU Studios president and group CEO Norman Abdul Halim agrees that Malaysia does not lack talent, but feels that the production of award-winning films is slow because there is no market in Malaysia for “festival” films.

“Films that are shown at festival circuits like the Berlin Film Festival and Pusan International Film Festival are mostly drama-based, and these films generally do not do well in the box office.

Art films vs mainstream

“I see them as different types of films. You have those that target the mainstream market and there are those that are specifically tailored to win at these events.”

Adds Norman, the hard reality is that most Malaysian producers prefer to make mainstream films that can reap them money at the box-office.

“I feel that technically and artistically, we have the talent but many film producers in Malaysia do not want to make these types of films.

Their interest is not geared towards winning at festivals; they need to look at the business aspects of the industry, he notes.

Acknowledging that it is very rare to get films that can do well at the box office and win awards at the same time, Norman nonetheless laments the definition of quality films in the cinematic world.

“Personally, I think quality films should not just be those that win awards. To me, while winning awards, quality films must attract people to the cinema to watch them. But of course it is very rare to see that happening. Even in Hollywood they say that films that win awards usually do not do well in the box office,” he muses.

While the long-debated dichotomy between commercial and festival (or art) films continues in Malaysia, it must be noted that Thailand’s more mainstream films have also received worldwide recognition with a few, such as Shutter, even getting the Hollywood remake treatment.

As Lorna Tee, a Malaysian film producer based out of Hong Kong (Ho Yuhang’s Rain Dogs and At the End of Daybreak) points out, while winning awards at film festivals is subjective, depending on the taste of the respective jury, Thailand has proven internationally that its film industry is one to be reckoned with.

“Other than Apichatpong, Thailand has managed to make a mark with filmmakers such as Penek Ratanaruang and Wisit Sasanatiang with artistic integrity loved by cultured audiences worldwide. They also have mainstream filmmakers who have successfully broken the international borders with their commercial films such as Tony Jaa (Ong Bak). And Thailand has been able to do all that despite the Government never having taken a proactive stand in film education, promotion and support,” she says.

Tee adds that Malaysia has never had a commercially successful title that has crossed international borders (Singapore and Indonesia aside).

“Our mainstream films are made either as comedies with actors that have little appeal outside of the grassroot of the country or a rehash of Hollywood films without the technical skill or the special extra something that would give them a hook for international marketing,” she says.

Even those who are making a so-called mark at the international film festival circuit, she says, leave a lot to be desired.

“As for winning a Palme d’Or, I believe Malaysian filmmakers who are making arthouse films are not serious enough about making the best possible films that can proudly compete against any international arthouse title.

“Some are too cincai in their filmmaking because they think they can hide behind the ‘oh, we don’t have a big budget so we are allowed technical inferiority or slack on the pre-production’ excuses. They need to push themselves beyond their comfort zones,” Tee opines.

Malaysian Film Producers Association (MFPA) vice-president Datin Paduka Shuhaimi Baba agrees that this is a problem not only among aspiring filmmakers in Malaysia but also among the other young film “workers” from cinematographers and editors to actors.

“We have many film programmes here but the graduates we get don’t read and are not exposed to a wide range of films. Talent is one thing but if you are too lazy or do not know how to expand and hone your craft, we cannot help you.”

Still, she feels that many forget how young our local industry is.

“What many don’t realise is that Thailand’s film industry dates back to the 1920s. Hollywood started way before that. Ours is fledgling compared to their long history and tradition,” she says.

Film director and academic at Universiti Teknologi Mara (UiTM), Assoc Prof Razak Mohaideen, highlights another problem – the lack of cinema-going culture in Malaysia, not only for the art-film scene but also for mainstream film.

“For example, in Thailand, where its population is about 65 million people, there are 3,000 cinemas. In Malaysia, there are only 100 over cinemas for its 28 million population. Even then, out of that, only about 400,000 watch movies in the cinema.

“When we don’t have viewers, the industry cannot grow,” he says.

Teo, who is one of the biggest selling local film producers in the country, agrees that the local film scene lacks the support of local viewers.

Many Malaysian viewers prefer to watch Hollywood films. “For local films, they prefer comedies, romances or horror films.”

Shuhaimi, who is also managing director of Pesona Pictures, concedes that she has had to compromise her film ideas to sell at the local box office.

“As most films are self-funded, you have to think of the bottom line sometimes. Banks don’t want to hear your sob stories when they collect their loan, so most of the time you have to balance what you want with what you think the audience want,” she says.

Funding is a major problem, agrees Razak.

“When I was at Cannes last month, I saw that our film content is comparable. The main difference is in the budget of our films. The average budget of most films there is RM4mil when the average of our film budget is RM1.5mil.”

Norman, whose company is breaking into the international market with Hikayat Merong Mahawangsa – it has been sold to 34 countries – recounts the problem he faced when making the historical film.

“We lack the expertise for action films like this in Malaysia, specifically the technical experts such as special effects, make-up and stunt people. We have to bring in foreign experts, and they cost a bomb.”

The lack of money also meant that they were not able to hire a Hollywood “star”, which would have helped them sell the film at a higher price, he adds.

This shortage of money and trained talents has created a vicious cycle in the industry, says Shuhaimi.

“The few talents we have move to greener pastures. That is why we have not reached the professional level of the film industry in Thailand,” she says.

While government support has not been lacking, she says, it is often ill planned and sporadic.

“It has a lot to do with the people who are in charge of funding and administration. Sometimes, they don’t understand the nature of the industry and its needs, what more the changes brought by the closing of the borders and technological advance,” she says.

Room for more

The MFPA was happy when the Government announced big plans to boost the creative industries last year.

“But we feel that we needed to look at the big picture to push our film industry, which means that we cannot start at Step Two. We need to look back at how we started and identify what we did wrong, and then try to address that. Most importantly, we should not be afraid to admit that we had made mistakes and work to correct them,” Shuhaimi says, adding that the intellectual property issue is a major problem which has not been resolved since the 1950s.

While Finas has been looking at ways to develop the industry further, she adds, it is time for Malaysia to look at the formation of a national film commission to help thrust the local film industry into the new globalised era.

“For example, at the moment there are too many agencies handling funding and other film matters while there is a shortage of industry professionals or trained personnel handling these issues,” Shuhaimi says.

Norman, who is an MFPA committee member, urges local mainstream filmmakers to look beyond borders too.

“Moving forward, we need to do 3D films and we also need to look at movies that we can produce mainly on set in studios, like 300 and Star Wars. We have the facilities in Cyberjaya; we need to capitalise on our strengths and not focus on our weaknesses.”

Shuhaimi stresses that the Malaysian film industry also needs to be more inclusive of the different genres – from commercial films to art films and documentaries.

As Saw points out, if smaller countries can sustain the different kinds of film, then so can Malaysia.

The main problem, he says, is that Malaysian filmmakers and industry players lack risk-taking verve.

“We need people in the administration to believe in the risk of making art films, for one. Instead of banging everything on commercial films and making no allowances for films that will fail at box-office, they need to take a chance with the less commercial films,” he says.

For example, adds Saw, if a grant of RM100mil is allocated for film making, maybe a portion can be channelled into conventional and commercial films while the other portion is poured into riskier, loss-making, non-commercial films.

Like Saw, Shuhaimi feels that there have been “sparks” of brilliance from the local industry over the years, but they have not been sustained.

“Our problem is that we strike a momentum but we let go. When we lose the momentum, we have to start all over again to pick it up, and that takes time. If this continues, we will never move forward,” she laments.

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