The CIFF’s Spotlight on Malaysian Cinema program is set to give Phnom Penh audiences a taste of one of Southeast Asia’s lesser-known filmmaking scenes, which — like Cambodia’s — is still forging its own distinct identity.
From its earliest beginnings, Malaysian cinema has grappled with both the soft-power influence of larger countries and the diversity of its own national heritage.
An Indian director produced the first film in what is now Malaysia in 1932. During World War II, Japan used the country as backdrop for its own propaganda. And in the 1950s and ‘60s, the film industry blossomed with investments from The Shaw Brothers and Cathay Organisation, studios rooted in China and present-day Singapore.
In the decades since, filmmakers have embraced not only the “local cultures” – Malay, Chinese, Indian and other ethnic groups – but also popular elements of Hollywood, Bollywood and Japanese film that have come from a open and quickly growing economy, said Dato Mohd Mahyidin Mustakim, the chief executive of Creative Content Association Malaysia, which assisted with the CIFF program.
The industry remains relatively small, producing and screening an average of 70 films per year. That works out to be about 15 per cent of the movies shown in local cinemas, per a “compulsory screening scheme” that guarantees Malaysian films at least a two-week run in-country.
“Arguably, besides titles with historical background or culture, there [is] still not enough [of a] credible number of films to define Malaysian films,” Mustakim said.
But the four feature films and 17 shorts to be screened during the festival were chosen to reflect “the new generation” — each released in the last couple of years, according to festival programmer Cedric Eloy. “They cover a diversity of topics, innovative filmmaking and also films that are not too referenced to Malaysian culture and can be ‘exported’,” he said.
The short films represent the “largest retrospective of Malaysian short films ever made”, he added.
The features include Take Me To Dinner, a dark, comic romance centered around a weary assassin, and The Journey, a Chinese-Malaysian family drama that became the industry’s highest-grossing film
“The Journey is a family film that many people can relate to… The story basically mirrors the many changes that society is currently going through,” Mustakim explained.
But if that film embodies a kind of cross-cultural universality, the two mixed-genre films by the 30-year-old director Nik Amir Mustapha, Nova and Kil, represent another – perhaps more innovative – take on national cinema.
“In a way, Malaysian cinema is still kind of shy and a little conservative,” Mustakim said. “The films made here are mainly to cater to Malaysians first. Some people have called it ‘too local’.”
Mustapha draws his inspiration from diverse sources, but seeks to place it in the local context. In the Malay-language Nova and Kil, he blends genres: sci-fi, thriller, comic roadtrip, even romance.
Both films did well at regional awards festivals.
“These two films are kind of sitting on the fence, where I try to get Malaysians to appreciate a slightly different approach to films, and getting a more international audience to appreciate snapshots of Malaysian stories,” he said.
CIFF organiser Eloy draws a link between this kind of innovative filmmaking and the future of the industry here in Cambodia.
Malaysia has a dynamic industry with a strong commercial scene and also a vivid independent scene [with] arthouse filmmakers,” he said.
“We can assume that Cambodia’s industry is also taking this direction so these Malaysian films can inspire Cambodian film professionals and emerging filmmakers.”
The CIFF Spotlight on Malaysian Cinema opens today at 2:30pm at Major Cineplex (Aeon Mall) with a screening of The Journey.