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.
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