Not going down without a fight: a still from Kepong Gangster.

Read The Dream Factory Part 1 here.

A brave new world has opened up for Malaysian Chinese films. Kepong Gangster, one of the first local Chinese films to attempt the popular Asian gangster-genre, earned a respectable RM2.1 million in local ticket sales last year, but became the first Malaysian Chinese film to simultaneously premiere in Taiwan in the same month. “The film is still playing on local television movie channels right now,” says writer and director Teng Bee. “They had never seen this kind of gangster movie. It was very interesting to them as inside [the movie], our characters spoke Hokkien, Mandarin, Cantonese. It doesn’t look like a Hong Kong movie or a Taiwanese movie, and it was very unique.”

Success stories like Kepong Gangster will be celebrated on October 15 at the Golden Wau Awards, the first Malaysian Chinese film awards ceremony. 26 notable Chinese-language films made from 2010 onwards are up for prizes and jury members include the CEO of the Taipei Golden Horse Film Festival, Wen Tien-Hsiang. The awards ceremony itself acts as a platform to showcase the best that the country has to offer to the foreign public. “If you create an awards show, because an award itself is a platform, this gives a clear vision to foreign investors that hey, for the past few years, we are coming up,” says Adrian Teh, who is also the president of the Chinese Film Association of Malaysia, the group organising the Golden Wau Awards.

But there are questions for the men behind the silver screened-masks. For all the triumphs, this year has seen a deep dive in audience numbers for Malaysian Chinese flicks, and the bad habits of the industry—producers and investors entering purely for the cash and glory—are creeping in.

“We need a lot of people who really love movies to come into the industry,” says director Chiu Keng Guan. “A lot of people are coming in because of the money. If investors come because of the money, that’s okay. But if the creators themselves come in because of the money… some are not even from a film background, or haven’t even directed a short film, and suddenly direct a feature. They think it’s a simple way to make money faster, but it’s not happening. The honeymoon is gone.”

Hard truths: A still from The Wedding Diary.

Teh mentions that there are currently around ten completed local Chinese films without a fixed release date, because of fears that poor ticket sales will doom these titles to a huge loss. “Everything has slowed down. People are realising that maybe the films are not as good as they seem.” He cites a recent example last year called Tears of the Mom, a local title starring model Amber Chia that cost around RM2 million to make, and was released at around 80 screens, a relatively wide opening. It made a measly RM70,000 at the box office. “And this is just one example I’m sharing with you.”

“The problem I see is that Malaysian film producers have taken a rather complacent approach, and have not actively developed new audiences,” offers Amir Muhammad. “So it comes home to roost when all of a sudden, the audience you’ve complacently assumed is yours all along is faced with bigger choices and have the same salary. Logic means they are going to be more selective… I don’t see it reversing so soon, because there’s a queue of more and more stuff coming up.”

 

Skim Wajib Tayang compells exhibitors to screen two local films a week for 14 days.

 

Protectionist measures have been put in place to help local films; one such created by the National Film Development Corporation (known as Finas) in 2005 is called ‘Skim Wajib Tayang’, compelling exhibitors to screen two local films a week for 14 days (unless the respective local films fail to meet stipulated attendance requirements). This isn’t a rare move globally—at least eight other countries that include South Korea and Brazil have some sort of screen quota in place.

However, industry insiders are skeptical. “I heard rumours that cinema distributors are really pissed off with ‘Wajib Tayang’,” says filmmaker James Lee. “Because of the amount of shit films that come out every week, and they have to allocate two weeks for those films, it’s affecting their business. The minute ‘Wajib Tayang’ is out [disbanded], they will not screen these films.”

Then, the eternal question behind what constitutes a “Malaysian” film, and whether these vernacular Chinese films actually fracture audiences more than unite them. Lee, for instance, has choice words for the Golden Wau Awards. “It’s fucking racist. I’m not going. It’s a racist awards [show].” He stares back, and is asked to explain why. “Why do you need another awards show just for the Chinese industry? Fact is, we’re fighting so hard to integrate the whole bloody nation, and now you got this?”

Do what you gotta do: James Lee on the set of The Collector, an action comedy movie released last year.

Another festival that has subtle divides across race is Festival Filem Malaysia, the country’s most prestigious awards ceremony that has set up a special category to honour non-Malay films (called “Best Non-Malay Film Award”) and other categories that honour “Malay” films. “I’m not sure what non-Malay means,” says Teng Bee, who was nominated last year for Best New Director for Kepong Gangster. “This is a 100 percent Malaysian movie. I’m born in Malaysia, the actor and actresses and crew are from Malaysia, so how can you call it a non-Malay movie?”

 

“I still love films. I love them so much that I have moved to YouTube to retain my craft.”

 

Put aside these concerns, however, and there is a keyword: potential. It comes from the same root word as “potent”, and points to the belief some cling to in this industry: there’s power in hoping. For all his misgivings, Lee responded in kind when pointedly asked if we should even have local films. “We should. Because a lot of people are in the industry because we love films when they started,” he says. “Like me. I still love films. I love them so much that I have moved to YouTube to retain my craft.”

Lee is best known for The Beautiful Washing Machine, but has also churned out his share of Chinese-language offerings like Petaling Street Warriors and Claypot Curry Killers (the controversial cannibalistic-themed movie that was initially banned by the Censorship Board, and will finally be screened on Astro First on 10 October). However, Lee is abandoning the big screen to venture into creating short films for YouTube, with his first project being the horror anthology 3 Doors of Horror.

For all the talk of a creative dip, there are significant films ready to be showcased for approval. Teh will be embarking on Asia Tropical Film’s first non-Chinese language film in Balistik, an action film starring Rosyam Nor that will be released in January next year. Chiu’s eagerly anticipated road movie The Journeywhich saw him traverse places as far as Cameron Highlands, Johor and Sabah to invite ordinary people to be a part of his cast and crew—will premiere at the Taoyuan International Film Festival in Taiwan on October 12, alongside titles by Jim Jarmusch and Hou Hsiao-hsien.

Filmmakers across the world are realists at most, and doomsday prophets at worst. Even in Hollywood, no less a legend than Steven Spielberg has said established filmmakers are struggling to get their projects into the cinema right now. Yet, the one point all lovers of film can agree is that good stories sell. Put aside the issues of language and government intervention: “The script is the soul,” says Teng Bee.

“Malaysian films just need to explore the things that can only be explored in Malaysia,” says Teh. “The different races, the language we speak, all this creates a very unique environment about Malaysia… we just need to blend in all these Malaysian factors into a way Malaysians can accept and know.”

Hassan explains that the thread running through his historical tome of Malaysian cinema is that “Malaysian cinema is by anyone, in any language… I call it Malaysian Cinema in a Bottle because Malaysian cinema has so many things to it, and once you pour it out, everything will come out. And we are going to add more films to the bottle.”

Ultimately, our heroes aren’t arriving in a red cape with powers that destroy evil. In the real world, they probably drive Kancils, love Korean movies and are driven by the unshakeable thought that movies—maybe even their movies—can make a world of difference. “I strongly believe we have the talent,” says Teh before we shake hands and exit his glasshouse. “All we need is the right time.”

Jon Chew is a contributing editor at Poskod.MY and former associate editor of Esquire Malaysia. He has also written for Monocle, The Star, FHM and The Blurb (Australia), and is also a theatre and short film actor.