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ROTTERDAM ’07 CRITICS NOTEBOOK | Malaysian Cinema Steps Into Spotlight at Rotterdam Fest

ROTTERDAM '07 CRITICS NOTEBOOK | Malaysian Cinema Steps Into Spotlight at Rotterdam Fest

Instead of the usual trio of winners, the Tiger Awards at this year’s International Film Festival Rotterdam went to four films. One can only assume this reflected a jury impasse as opposed to a surfeit of quality. Many here seemed to agree that this was not the finest year for the Tiger competition, a longstanding showcase for young filmmakers that has launched – or, in the case of one of last year’s winners, Kelly Reichardt, relaunched – some major art-house careers.

The jury, which included “Summer Palace” director Lou Ye (a former Tiger winner for “Suzhou River“), British artist and filmmaker Isaac Julien, and Toronto International Film Festival director Piers Handling, awarded their top two prizes to young women directors. German first-timer Pia Marais was acknowledged for “The Unerzogenen” (“The Unpolished“), a darkly comic depiction of adolescence in the shadow of parental neglect. And Malaysian filmmaker Tan Chui Mui, who had already picked up a New Currents prize at Pusan last fall, won for her debut feature, “Love Conquers All,” an intimate love story that turns into a single-minded study of masochism.

The jury also made the unusual decision of awarding an ex aequo Tiger to two films. Sharing third place were “Bog of Beasts,” the widely dismissed and determinedly abject Brazilian entry by Claudio Assis (acknowledged “for its crudeness,” among other things), and Morten Hartz Kaplers‘ “AFR,” a Danish “D.O.A.P.,” in which the assassination of current prime minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen is imagined in mockumentary format.

In the tradition of Sundance, there was a conspicuously equitable distribution of wealth among the Tiger competitors. The FIPRESCI critics picked Rafa Cortes‘ “Yo” (from Spain) and the NETPAC jury cited Hiromasa Hirosue‘s “Fourteen” (from Japan). One of the more divisive movies in the competition, Belgian director Koen Mortier‘s “Ex Drummer,” a spasm of trash-metal cartoon nihilism that suggests Gaspar Noe remaking “Trainspotting” (and is even more tiresome than that sounds), left empty-handed.

Tan’s prize for “Love Conquers All” was an apt finale for a festival where the big story – to the extent that there was one – was the strong showing of the Malaysian contingent. A festival programmer reportedly introduced a screening here by proclaiming Malaysian film “the future of cinema.”

Which is obviously going a little far. Still, this does seem to be a moment of heightened visibility for Malaysian cinema. U-Wei bin Hajisaari, director of “Kaki Bakar,” the first and only Malaysian film to play at Cannes (in 1995) and a spiritual father to the current generation, served on the world dramatic competition jury at Sundance last month. Berlin will see two anticipated premieres by key figures of the scene: Yasmin Ahmad‘s “Mukhsin,” the conclusion of a trilogy started with “Sepet” and “Gubra,” and Amir Muhammad‘s “Village People Radio Show,” his sequel to last year’s banned-in-Malaysia documentary travelogue “The Last Communist.” And there were six Malaysian features in Rotterdam – an impressive number for a country that was a non-entity on the festival circuit just a few years ago.

On first glance, and to casual observers, the Malaysian new wave (the Malaysian Chinese division in particular) seems simply like the latest outpost of the internationally sanctioned Asian art film. Granted, there is a general adherence to that movement’s house style: patient realism characterized by long takes, a fondness for ellipses, and a focus on stoic, alienated youth. But the Rotterdam crop indicates that within this close-knit group (the filmmakers all know each other and often work together), distinctive voices are emerging. It also confirms that even in the absence of local funds, more and more financing opportunities are becoming available: Malaysian producer Lorna Tee heads the new Hong Kong-based company Focus Films (which has so far produced a few Malaysian titles) and Rotterdam’s Hubert Bals Fund continues to be an important supporter.

A scene from Ho Yu-hang’s “Rain Dogs”. Image provided by IFFR

One of the Focus productions, Ho Yu-hang‘s “Rain Dogs” arrived here as one of the most widely exposed Malaysian films of all time, having steadily made the festival rounds since its Locarno debut last year. A poetic, melancholy portrait of a young man suspended between adolescence and adulthood, caught between city and country life, “Rain Dogs” is also the most accomplished of the new bunch. Tan’s “Love Conquers All,” edited by Ho, produced by Amir Muhammad, and shot by another compatriot James Lee, has a few things in common with “Rain Dogs,” both thematically and temperamentally, but it is notable for its strong female point of view. Lee, best known for “The Beautiful Washing Machine,” also had a new film here, “Before We Fall in Love Again” (coproduced by Tan), a relationship post-mortem loosely derived from Harold Pinter‘s “Betrayal.” More stylized than Ho’s and Tan’s films, it also departs from its contemporaries by focusing on middle-class urbanites.

The growing diversity of Malaysian film reflects the irreducible complexity of Malaysian society, which is composed of not fully integrated Malay, Chinese, and Indian ethnic groups and where identity is intricately bound up with race, religion, class and stark differences between rural and urban experiences. The lone Malaysian Indian representative, Deepak Kumaran Menon‘s “Dancing Bells” is a modest but affecting family story, attuned to the street-level rhythms of the predominantly Indian, working-class Kuala Lumpur neighborhood of Brickfields. Like Menon’s first feature “The Gravel Road,” set on a rubber plantation in the 1960s, it’s a telling glimpse into a community so isolated it’s essentially forgotten.

It was yet another Malaysian filmmaker, Woo Ming Jin, who counted as the discovery of the festival for me. His lovely, low-key drama “The Elephant and the Sea” (featuring Tan in a small role) was in many ways the most satisfying film I saw here. The setting is a fishing village where the fish have mysteriously become toxic – or prophetic. (Woo’s previous feature, the little-seen “Monday Morning Glory,” also had an apocalyptic tinge – it concerned a terrorist bombing.) Two parallel plots follow the impacted lives of a middle-aged fisherman and a sullen teen, both of whom have suffered a recent loss. Much about the film is familiar, especially the trajectory of the young man, who, like most young men in most East Asian films, drifts inexorably from idleness to criminal activity. But more than compensating for the lack of surprises are the economical storytelling, evocative details, dry wit, and ample visual intelligence. The film was a world premiere here; with any luck, there’s a festival life in its future.

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