Malaysian Independent Cinema: On the rise

Mar 17, 2009
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Malaysian cinema has been winning awards and receiving critical acclaim. What’s the reason for its success?

There’s a quiet revolution going on in Malaysian cinema. Liew Seng Tat won the Audience Award for Best Film at the 2007 Pusan Film Festival with his film Flower in the Pocket. The year before, Tan Chui Mui, the producer of Flower, won a Tiger Award at the International Film Festival Rotterdam with her film Love Conquers All. Yasmin Ahmad’s Mukshin won two awards at the Berlin Film Festival.

It all underlines the rise of Malaysian independent cinema, which has garnered international attention, particularly at film festivals worldwide.

Many attribute the start of the movement to Amir Muhammad. According to Amir, his first film in 2000, Lips to Lips, “was so bad, that everyone started to think they could make a better film”. The film’s supposedly bad qualities did not prevent it from being invited to numerous film festivals around the world.

The success of that film made James Lee, who had an acting role in Lips, try his hand at directing, and he went on to make several films such as Ah Beng Returns and Room to Let. The latter earned him an invitation to the Rotterdam Film Festival, and Gertjan Zuilhof, one of the programmers of the festival, called Lee “the elder statesman of a movement”.

Soon others joined in, and before long, the films were winning awards for their stripped-down style and sincere storytelling.

Aided by the rise of digital cameras and cheap video editing facilities, other Malaysian filmmakers started making movies, allowing “new kinds of stories that were not dictated by market forces and mass popularity”, according to Malaysian film reviewer Allan Koay, who has been a close observer of the scene.

While Malays dominate the screen culture of most mainstream Malaysian films, these independent films feature the other ethnic groups living in Malaysia. For example, Deepak Menon’s Dancing Bells focuses on Kuala Lumpur’s Tamil community in Brickfields, while Ho Yuhang’s Sanctuary portrays members of the Chinese minority.

These new films show Malaysia in a different light. “Most of these stories had deep societal concerns and showed a side of Malaysia that few have seen before. These were meaningful ‘people stories’ that reflected the realities of life in Malaysia,” says Allan.

There is also the kampong or village atmosphere imbibed amongst Malaysian filmmakers. Few of these independent films receive help from the Film Board in Malaysia, as the films do not use Malay as their main language. Tan Chui Mui spoke about the Malaysian “can-do” spirit. “Because we don't have money, we just help each other and we take turns producing, directing, acting, editing.”

Besides difficulties in getting financing from the Malaysian government, there are other obstacles. Some films have also been banned. Amir Muhammad has had three of his films banned in Malaysia, and expects his next film, Malaysian Gods – to be released in September – to face the same fate.

Despite the recent success of Malaysian independent movies, it remains to be seen if the movement can sustain itself.

“There were some who thought the international interest in Malaysian films was just a trend that would not last. So this may be the challenge for the Malaysian filmmakers, to prove that they do have something substantial to contribute to cinema and not just a momentary flash of interest,” says Allan. Nonetheless, the scene is still burgeoning. Film programmers and critics are keeping a close watch on developments in Malaysia, as it continues to produce some of the most exciting and incisive cinema in the region.


Four recent Malaysian films to check out. All are available on DVD.


Love Conquers All (2006, directed by Tan Chui Mui) – A small-town girl moves to Kuala Lumpur and attracts the attention of an enigmatic stranger. Hailed by the Pusan jury “for its audacious narrative structure and its intelligent work with sound and image”.


The Last Communist (2006, directed by Amir Muhammad) – A “hybrid documentary” that combines music and song to create a startlingly original film about Chin Peng, the last leader of the Communist Party of Malaysia..


Sepet (2004, directed by Yasmin Ahmad) – A Chinese VCD seller and a Malay schoolgirl fall in love in this entrancing romantic drama that garnered the Best Asian Film Award at the 18th Tokyo International Film Festival.


The Elephant and The Sea (2007, directed by Woo Ming Jin) – Variety called the film “brilliant” and newcomer Woo a “striking new voice on the East Asian film scene.” It is the story of a drifter and a widowed fisherman in the midst of a SARS-like plague.