Identity and Cinema: James Lee and the New Voice of Malaysian Cinema By Andronika Martonova

in 16th Brisbane International Film Festival

by Andronika Martonova

The Brisbane International Film Festival (BIFF [1] Australia) demonstrated great taste in its programming of Asian films this year. One of the highlights of the festival was the cinema of Malaysia under the banner “Riding the Malaysian New Wave”. Four films were selected in the program, Love Conquers All (Ai qing zhang sheng yi qie, 2006, director Tan Chui Mui, Malaysia/Netherlands), Mukshin (Mukshin, 2006, director Yasmin Ahmad), Village People Radio Show (Apa Khabar Orang Kampung, director Amir Muhammad) and Before We Fall in Love Again (Nina ni ru xi, 2006,director James Lee).

Lee’s film was in competition for the FIPRESCI prize and although it did not receive the award, it definitely deserves closer examination. Firstly, because James Lee is currently one of the leading young directors of independent Malaysian cinema. Secondly, the film is the first part of an exquisite film-trilogy where Lee demonstrates both a perfect cinematographic style and a unique sense of film language. And thirdly, although the jury unanimously chose another film [2], for the FIPRESCI prize, Before We Fall in Love Again was my initial favorite of all the films vying for the award.

Moreover, interest in Malaysian cinema is growing amongst international film festivals. Anne Démy-Geroe, the Executive Director of BIFF, notes in the program guide that Rotterdam was able to screen six strong and diverse Malaysian features this year which attests to the strength of the current film scene in Malaysia. The films are garnering not only increasing international attention but also awards. Tan Chui Mui arrived in Rotterdam to add a Tiger Award to the two major awards she had already collected in Pusan for Love Conquers All (2006). And Yasmin Ahmad, who was represented in Rotterdam with one film and another a week later in Berlin, was honored with retrospectives in Tokyo and Hawaii in 2007. The Malaysian indie scene, which is all but synonymous with digital, has developed in just seven years. In 2000, writer and documentary filmmaker Amir Muhammad wrote and directed Malaysia’s first digital video feature; later, his film The Big Durian (2003) was the first Malaysian film to be invited to Sundance. James Lee started making his own films in 2001, a year after Muhammad. He also started producing for Muhammad and later Yuhang Ho. Most of the filmmakers are under 35 and, although all three ethnic groups are represented in the teams making the films, for the first time there are proportionately more Chinese Malaysians involved. These filmmakers are telling stories with strong links to family that are also about ordinary working-and middle-class Chinese. Distribution and exhibition outside festivals remains as problematic for Malaysian indies as for their indie counterparts around the world, making the Brisbane festival a rare opportunity to catch an emerging cinema movement relatively early in its development. [3]

Before James Lee

When speaking of the cinema of Malaysia [4], we must pay attention to the wide ethnic palette of the country itself, its violent historical development, its confessional diversity and the innate cultural heteroglossia [5], which is also reflected in the cinematographic life of the archipelago. These aspects have been considered and analyzed in detail in both cultural and film criticism, an interdisciplinary approach adopted by William van der Heide (one of the leading writers on Malaysian cinema) in his significant work “Malaysian Cinema. Asian Film” [6], as well as in his study “Malaysia: Melodramatic Drive, Rural Discord, Urban Heartaches” [7]. The main thrust of the argument, not only in Van der Heide’s work, but also in the work of other writers [8], falls on an identity problem and its manifestation in Malaysian cinema. For centuries the archipelago has been situated on the crossroads between India, China and the Middle East; Southeast and East Asia [9]. In the course of the film history of Malaysia, a unique mixture of styles appears, originating in Indian, Arab and Chinese national literature, theatre [10] and film traditions [11]. The syncretism of Malaysia predetermines the different aspects of identity selection, which, according to Stuart Hall [12] is expressed by three global vectors:
— the object (in this case we can refer to it as film object — A.M.) aims for enlightenment, which is characterized by constancy, fixed ideas and identity conceptions and is often criticized for being too ontological and fundamental;
— the sociological object, showing fewer possibilities for identity manifestation and recommending a greater degree of interactive relation between personality and society. The identity concept is bounded by outside influences. These two categories, according to Van der Heide, represent the dichotomy between the occidental individualism and the Asian sense of community.
— the postmodernist object rejects the idea of fixing the ontological identity. The identity in this case is a fluid idea, fragmentary or even contradictory. It’s referred to as a multitude of identities rather than as one particular identity.

When approaching the complexity of heteroglossary from a global point of view in the cultural and cinematographic environment of Malaysia, it is necessary to point out the fundamental moments of the archipelago’s film history, which maybe seen as a kind of phenomenon in the world of film culture. Moments, which somehow express the different vectors of identity listed above. As a whole, according to Gregory Wee Lik Hoo, the films of Malaysia are Malay-centric [13], in Bahasa Malaysian with typical Malayan characters and plots, and are watched mainly by a Malayan audience. The Chinese and Indian public prefer cinema from Hong Kong, Hollywood or Bollywood [14]. Dr Anuar Nor Arai, film lecturer and critic, aptly lists five ‘voices’ in Malayan cinema [15]:
— The Chinese, and Indian pre-War filmmakers who are regarded as the First Voice.
— The Second Voice is made up of the post-War Indian and Filipino filmmakers (1940s to 1950s).
— The Third Voice belongs to locals in Singapore, who began to take over in the 50s and 60s.
— The Fourth Voice emerged from filmmakers working during the Merdeka Studio era and later.
— The Fifth Voice, the most eloquent of them all, slowly emerged in the 1980s.
We now can add a Sixth Voice, that of the digital independent filmmakers of whom James Lee is an eminent representative.

James Lee

James Lee was born in 1973 in Ipoh, Malaysia. He originally trained as a graphic designer. A self-taught filmmaker, he began acting and directing theatre plays before venturing into video filmmaking. In 2001, he directed his first feature film, Snipers, followed in the same year by Ah Beng Returns, a highly stylized experimental film. In 2002 Lee made Room To Let (You fang chu zu), a drama in Mandarin. The Beautiful Washing Machine (Mei li de xi yi ji, 2004) is his fourth DV-feature, which won both the Best Asian Feature Award and FIPRESCI Prize at the 2005 Bangkok International Film Festival [16]. As well as directing, producing and shooting feature-length films and numerous shorts, James Lee founded Doghouse73 Pictures, an independent DV-filmmaking company. The company has produced two award-winning films, Tan Chui Mui’s Love Conquers All and Azharr Rudin’s Majidee.

His last three features form a trilogy about love. Before We Fall in Love Again (made with the financial assistance of The Hubert Bals Fund, The Netherlands, and The Global Film Fund, USA) which screened at BIFF, is the first part of thetrilogy. It has been a month since Chang’s wife Ling Yue went missing. One day she goes to work as usual and then, without any apparent reason, never returns home. No one knows where she has gone or what has happened to her. Chang cannot figure out why she has disappeared all of a sudden. She left no message or clues. A man named Tong shows up and claims to be Ling Yue’s lover. Apparently Tong is looking for Ling Yue too. Both men form an uneasy alliance in order to find Ling Yue.

Things We Do When We Fall in Love (Dang wo men tong zai yi qi, 2007) tells the story of two unfortunate secret lovers who are constantly looking for a solution to their situation. Lai, a computer software programmer, is having an affair with Amy, a primary school teacher. One day they go on a trip out of the city to the suburbs. There, they hope they can solve their problems or at least escape them temporarily. They don’t find a solution and they don’t understand why they are together. Nobody knows or will understand. The thing that keeps them together is their mutual love.

Waiting for Love is the film James Lee is currently shooting. To date there has been no formal announcement of the title in Mandarin or the year of production. In this, the last part of his trilogy, Lee traces the stories of three sets of lovers. Lim and Amelia are a couple who have been together for almost five years. While he works as a salesman and is trying to save up for marriage, Amelia is not sure if he’s the one she wants to marry. He confronts her one day about a letter from an admirer. Pete and Bernice are a couple who have been together almost ten years. They’re not married because he doesn’t believe in marriage. While Bernice plays along, one day she realizes that Pete may not be the man she wants to end up with. Amy and Lai are secret lovers. They meet in what may be their last encounter. They may have loved each other in the past but perhaps they have fallen out of love.

How can we define the cinema of James Lee? Firstly his style, strongly exhibited in the love trilogy (or as the Betrayal Trilogy as it is sometimes called), is believed to be emblematic of the Malaysian New Wave. His themes are always explored through a love triangle. It is interesting that he explores this theme even in the absence of a physically present third character, as in Before We Fall in Love Again. Through his film language, Lee constructs an invisible presence of the other. The basic concept, which runs through all three films, is an imperceptible failure that happens when two people meet; the inner life of one member of the couple remains unrevealed to the other. The dramaturgy of the Malaysian director is surprising in a particular way. We watch what is happening on the screen and the stories of the love couples seem both idealistic and real in a documentary sense. One accidental coincidence of circumstances opens a floodgate of unexpected events [17]. For example, the encounter on the sidewalk between the husband and the lover at the beginning of Before We Fall in Love Again and again at the end of the film in the lavatory of the restaurant creates a narrative opening.

What is love according to James Lee? Love is actually … one mysterious and sad non-recognition by one partner of the other, is the signifier of the trilogy. This signifier is subtly present in the titles of Lee’s films when he uses words such as ‘before to…’’, ‘before again to…’, ‘expecting or waiting for…’, ‘the things we do, we usually don’t do — when…’. The audience receives an intrusive and confusing sense of invasion in the anomalies of love and life whilst avoiding falling into the abyss of triviality. ‘Alienation’ is only a small shade of the rich semantic depths massaged in the film trilogy. The rest of the concepts are discrete melancholy, veiled sentimentality, stifled passion, infinite time, fits of fear, missed events, illusions of happiness, permanent loneliness, emotional sadness, silence… James Lee does not condemn his characters. He is merciful, not merely tolerant, to both men and women [18]. He wants to understand everyone. He leaves the audience to judge, if they can. The characters in his films confess with a smile before the camera, using few words and calm movements, they are a seemingly static presence that hides the deep crises that lie within. This method is also reinforced in his cinematographic style. Lee has a perfect compositional sense. His backgrounds are almost deserted, deprived of exuberance, yet not ascetic. His characters seemingly float between the objective world of their homes without touching it. And yet the objects and the houses do not seem alien. The black and white imagery in Before We Fall in Love Again leaves us with both ice-cold and warm sensations. Even if one were unaware that the film is Malaysian, it would be apparent that it is a product of the so-called Cinocinema, a cinema which combines the cinematography of China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong. The atmosphere of Lee’s films is reminiscent of the style of Wong Kar Wai, only Lee’s is a more plain and refined version.

After James Lee

The Malaysian director reveals to the world on the screen something very significant but not always present in films, regardless of their country of origin. A good film can elegantly overcome regional and national peculiarities whilst preserving its own special identity. And by it, or despite it, build a global universality.