Friday, March 10, 2006

MALAYSIAN CINEMAS—Sepet (Slit Eyes)

Yasmin Ahmad's second film Sepet, though often endearing and sweet, ultimately dissatisfied me. Still, as a paean to tolerance in a multiethnic society it commands respect. It bravely targets the social stratification determined by race (where the Malay race and Islamic religion have been institutionalized as superior) and shuffles the deck even further by profiling racial categorizations such as the Peranakan (those of mixed Malay-Chinese descent) that fall somewhere inbetween. It warns against the tyranny of group identification and makes individuality seem childlike in its aspirations.

My concerns about the film are not for the spoiler-wary, so please beware.

It was Sepet's ending that bothered me. In the final scenes Chinese Jason motorbikes to the airport in hopes of having one last chance to communicate with his departing love Malay Orked. He is hit and (presumedly) killed by a motorist. Orked, demonstrating that regrets are illuminations come too late, attempts to reach him on his cellular, which keeps ringing just out of reach of his bloodied corpse. Then suddenly a connection is made and Jason is on the line and Orked is finally able to tell him what she has refused to say until then: that she loves him.

I am growing weary of the belabored tragic conceit that in order for the transformation of a protagonist (whether male or female) to be complete, someone near them must die. Death is not the only transformer available to filmmakers and surely the best love story of all would be one where two individuals can become themselves through each other? It's wonderful that love can survive past death and all that, but, wouldn't it be sweet if it could survive with both lovers present to enjoy it?

Further, this last bit of "supernaturalism" bothered me. It reminded me of the Twilight Zone episode where Billy Mumy could talk to his deceased grandma on the telephone. Transpose this to modern times and cellular technology and it doesn't matter: it's still an old t.v. meme. That being said, however, I was struck by a comment made at the Malaysian symposium by Amir Muhammad who said that Jasmin came under scrutiny by the Islamic censors for this bit of disapproved supernaturalism. This reminded me that some irritations must be placed within cultural context.

Fellow reviewer Frako Loden advised me that her press kit mentioned the Malaysian public would not be able to see a number of scenes in Sepet; they have been censored by their government. One of these scenes is the stairwell hair-brushing sequence, where a chain of female relatives are shown brushing and braiding each other's hair. The father joins the groomers, sitting behind the top hair-brusher. Frako couldn't explain to me why this particular scene was excised for Malaysian audiences but suspected a few other scenes of affectionate display between the husband and wife (like their near-naked dance) have been taken out too. I'm curious if anyone more steeped in Malaysian mores could explain why such a simple scene would be censored?

Comparable to The Gravel Road, the character of the father in Sepet is portrayed as progressive. As Frako pointed out to me, he was not a factor in the interracial-love conflict, which is unusual. In other words, he did not oppose their relationship, even though he expressed his misgivings. In the scene where they are on their way to the airport, Orked's father suggests that he really doesn't think Jason is sufficient for Orked. His wife has a minor epiphany and exclaims, "What did you say? That's exactly what my father said when you asked to marry me!!"

Here's Roger Garcia's program synopsis for the 2005 San Francisco International Film Festival.

Dennis Harvey summarizes for Variety: "Helmer's deft hand with thesps, graceful stylistic fillips and warmth toward characters make Sepet a sharply crafted pleasure, marred only by closing histrionics that seem imported from another movie."

The "Great Swifty" has decided that the relationship in Sepet doesn't hold a candle to his own.

But it's Robert Williamson's dual reviews of Sepet, first from the 2005 Bangkok International Film Festival for Firecracker, Issue 3 and then later upon its commercial distribution for Firecracker, Issue 8, that best plumbs the film for its relevant social depths, placing criticism within an appropriate cultural context, and amplifying my appreciation retrospectively.

11 comments:

Brian said...

Yasmin Ahmad has a blog, in case you didn't know. I had a similar reaction to Sepet; I admired aspects of it but felt the tragedy of the ending was misplaced. It felt like a cheap shortcut to emotion. However, reading her blog I learned that Yasmin (or should I say Amhad; I've been told by a Singaporean film critic that it's more appropriate to refer to Amir Muhammad as Amir, but I don't know if that's universal for Malay names) was in a similar circumstance herself as a young woman when her boyfriend was killed in an accident. It made me want to revisit the film, if I somehow get the chance sometime. In the mean time, apparantly her new film Gubra is coming to the SFIFF this year.

Maya said...

I believe the "Variety" review actually links up to her blogsite. And I was wondering if "Gubra" was going to show up at this year's international film fest. That was one of my motivations in getting last year's baseline down so I could be up to speed this year. Thanks for the hint, Brian. Got anymore?

Maya said...

Thanks for embedding the link to Ahmad's blog in your post, Brian. Handy.

Brian said...

"Got anymore?" you ask. Answer: just the ones announced on the latest Castro calendar. Details here, in the comments section.

Maya said...

Ahhhh!! Excellent gumshoe work!!!

The Great Swifty said...

Brian: Eh? Yasmin is the first name, Ahmad's her family name. So just call her Yasmin. Ditto with Amir.

Maya: BTW: Gubra's a direct sequel of Sepet, and I know this is sort of a spoiler, but Jason is in this film, it's about him returning to Orket only to realize that she's married to someone else. So yeah, Jason survived in the end of Sepet, it wasn't a ghost (like I've assumed), he got up from his pool of blood and spoke to her. That sweet man, him.

Maya said...

My goodness!! That's quite the spoiler! I had read that the cast was the same and a continuance of the original story; but, I wasn't expecting that development!! I shall have to revisit my initial irritation and think twice.

The Great Swifty said...

I know, but I guess you'll pretty much know the spoiler once you've 1) seen the film poster or 2) seen the trailer.

The Great Swifty said...

But in truth, I'm pretty leery about having a sequel to such a film. Hmm.

3cinr3b said...

Nope, Jason IS dead. the man in Gubra is Alan, Jason's elder bro.

Anonymous said...

"Brian: Eh? Yasmin is the first name, Ahmad's her family name. So just call her Yasmin."

Ahmad is Yasmin's father's name. So when you refer Yasmin as Ahmad, you're actually referring to her father instead. They normally don't have such thing as a family name.