Tuesday, March 07, 2006

MALAYSIAN CINEMAS: Amir Muhammad

Amir Muhammad has become one of my favorite independent Malaysian filmmakers … and I haven't even seen one of his films! How can this be? Could it be because at last year's San Francisco International Film Festival—which showcased a sextet of Malaysian films and a concomitant panel discussion—he came off as intelligent, articulate and downright hilarious? It must be. It's been a while since I've had someone make me laugh so hard and so often as this young man whose wit and wisdom skewers stereotypes with unflinching intent.

I was sick during the festival last year and couldn't make it to the screening of Tokyo Magic Hour, but I recovered just enough for the panel discussion. Amir governed the session with enough quips to woo Comedy Central.

When an audience member lamented the fact that Yasmin Ahmad (Sepet) could not attend the Malaysian panel and, thereby, balance out the all-male representation, Amir wryly explained that Yasmin's husband had beaten her and would not let her leave the house and "that's the way we Muslims like it." The audience roared with disapproving laughter.

When Saw Teong Hin spoke about being "crucified" over his mainstream film Princess of Mount Ledang, Amir protested that it was clear he was not a Muslim, using words like "crucified." A good Muslim would have said "whipped."

When concerns were posed about piracy in Malaysia, Amir countered that "piracy is the best film school", providing Malaysian independent filmmakers opportunities to see movies that the censors will not allow.

I regret that I didn't feel quite well enough to mingle with the Malaysian filmmakers after the panel; I would have liked to have befriended Amir. It seemed a given. A day later I saw him at the screening of The Hero and, without missing a beat, we reached our hands out to each other. "You are so funny," I told him. "You ask the best questions," he responded.

Afterwards, of course, I began to research Amir's work by reading the reviews. For the sixth issue of Firecracker, Robert Williamson expressed his appreciation of Tokyo Magic Hour.

Novelist Lawrence Durrell once wrote that a new lover can make a city a new world and Tokyo Magic Hour—prefaced by the quote "All love affairs take place in foreign cities"—seems to confirm the disorientation that appears in the midst of an affair. Muhammad asked a group of Japanese film students to shoot images of Tokyo which he then compiled and manipulated to create a visual accompaniment to a series of traditional Malaysian poems. He specified that shooting should take place at sunset—the time at which things fade away (thus, the film's title).

http://www.firecracker-magazine.com/

Earlier on, the ever-prescient Chuck Stephens was already championing 6horts—Muhammad's "first forays into short-form satire, low-tech trenchancy, and occasional sensuality"—predicting that the next Southeast Asian filmmaker everyone would be talking about and claiming to have discovered would be Amir Muhammad:

http://www.sfbg.com/39/13/cover_ae04_undiscovered.html

Robert Williamson continued his exploration of Muhammad's films in the tenth issue of Firecracker wherein he wrote up The Big Durian. A durian, it appears, is a foul-smelling but sweet-tasting fruit common to Malaysia and—whereas Americans fondly refer to New York City as the Big Apple—Malaysians nickname their capital city the Big Durian. Williamson is keen to note that Muhammad has successfully harnessed digital technology to "surreptitiously delve into sensitive areas that otherwise might be considered off-limits." The Big Durian examines the sociocultural undertones of a politically-sensitive event, rarely discussed in Malaysian society, namely that of a soldier known only as Private Adam running amok with an M-16 through a predominantly-Chinese district of Kuala Lumpur, killing one and injuring two. Past the amplifications spelled out in Williamson's review, what struck me was the discovery that the term "amok" (as in Duck Amok) is one of only two Malay words to have established themselves in English. More interestingly, Muhammad ponders that this might have specific and unique relevance to the Malay mindset.

http://www.firecracker-magazine.com/

More recently, Muhammad has been interviewed by Benjamin McKay for Criticine:

http://www.criticine.com/interview_article.php?id=18

And even more recently, in the wake of his just-completed documentary The Last Communist (Lelaki Komunis Terakhir), Muhammad has created a blog to track the life of the piece though he is quick to assert that his blog "isn't a promotional tool disguised as personal musings" but rather "a promotional tool that isn't disguised as anything else."

http://lastcommunist.blogspot.com/

A delightful development for a fan such as myself who might one day actually see one of his films!

12 comments:

Zach Campbell said...

Great round-up, Michael! I've had my eye on Muhammad for a while and would like to see more of his stuff (only The Year of Living Vicariously so far). Thanks for the info.

Maya said...

You're most welcome, Zach. Thanks for strolling by. More Malaysian cinema to come!

Anonymous said...

after The Last Communist, there will be Susuk:

http://www.susukthemovie.com

Anonymous said...

If all love affairs happen in foreign cities then San Francisco is a foreign city...from your secret admirer.

Maya said...

Heh. A secret all over the block, I suspect.

Anonymous No. 1: Thanks for the heads-up on "Susuk"; what an interesting premise!

Brian said...

I chatted with him a bit after the panel discussion and found him to be a very affable and down-to-earth guy too. He's also quite web-saavy and I wouldn't be surprised if he's read this by now.

But my research tells me there are more than just two Malay words established in English; along with "amok" there's "gong", "bamboo" and "orangutan".

Maya said...

Heh. Good research!! I actually think Anonymous No. One up above is a guised visit from Amir. Just a hunch. But that may be just wishful thinking on my part.

The Great Swifty said...

Ah, great entry. Unfortunately for me, I've never watched a single Amir Muhammad flick either, but I'll direct some attention to your entry. Stay tuned. Hah.

The Great Swifty said...

Congrats, my friend, this entry of yours is featured at Blogsmalaysia, a Malaysian blog-aggregrator fashioned after BoingBoing and Slashdot!

The Great Swifty said...

Oops, here's the permalink.

Maya said...

Thanks Great Swifty for taking the time to port this entry over to BlogsMalaysia. Kind of you.

fathi aris omar said...

Do you know the Amir's latest semi-musical doc 'The Last Communist' was banned last Friday (5 May)?

See reports from Malaysia:

http://www.malaysiakini.com/news/50719 (Malaysiakini.com)

http://www.sun2surf.com/article.cfm?id=14052 (The Sun, website)

faomar@yahoo.com