The Malaysian Digital Invasions

in 22nd Torino Film Festival

by Eduardo Antin

In the last couple of years a handful of Malaysian films have traveled the festival circuit. I remember, notably, The Big Durian by Amir Muhammad, Min and Sanctuary by Ho Yuhang, and A Room to Let by James Lee, whose last movie, The Beautiful Washing Machine, was part of the competition line-up in Torino. These five films alone prove that there is something very interesting going on in the country in terms of film modernity and the emergence of new talents. In fact, Lee’s film, one of the runner-ups for our award in Torino, is the work of an artist with a clear understanding of his poetics, a critical view of contemporary society, and the will to explore cinematic language. Similar words could be said about Ho and Muhammad.

But also another thing should be said about these films. They were shot in digital and were never blown up to a celluloid print. Having seen the films in Amsterdam, Torino (2003 and 2004), Vancouver, and Pusan, I have to add a negative side to this promising situation: the films don’t look too good on the big screen. This is true for most of the films shot in digital. Two exceptions: HD projected in HD (always) and digital beta projected in digital beta (most of the cases). In general, theatres worldwide don’t have good projection systems for digital prints, including those venues used in festivals. IF HD quality is really remarkable, it is also true that for the time being most cities in the world don’t have a HD projection system and even a festival quite resourceful like Rotterdam hires the sole one available in the Netherlands by the day, given the astronomic cost of the equipment. To sum up and to put it in a very crude way, in spite of the changes in technology, films on video still look very often flat, dark and blurred. In a first sensorial approach, their images are usually not pleasant to watch.

Coming back to our Malaysian sample, and having spoken to the directors, they affirm a pattern common to many countries: young, independent, rebellious directors don’t find the resources for shooting in 35mm (the 16mm option is vanishing fast worldwide), not even for a blow-up of the digital images.

In principle, there is not much to be said. The Malaysian group shoots in video because they don’t have the resources for more, and even like this, they are managing to have their films shown to festival audiences around the world which is, no doubt, a big achievement.

But I would like to play devil’s advocate in this case. Not against the films, but as a word of caution to critics. When we watch the usual bad video projection in a festival, we tend to imagine a film beyond the images. Exaggerating of course, the experience is, in a way, like reading a script or following a storyboard: the real film is supposed to come after. Especially if, as in the case of the film that our jury watched in Torino, the filmmaker uses the digital camera for shots that we usually see in 35mm (slow, long takes for instance). The film resembles, in a way, the work of Tsai Ming-liang. But Tsai films, beyond his conceptual mastery, are beautiful to watch. What would happen if we take, for instance, The River and reshoot it in digital? I don’t know. But I have the suspicion that it would also look like the concept of the actual film. That’s why The Beautiful Washing Machine was better received (and highly praised, in fact) by critics more inclined to deal with interpretation and visual arts idioms, than those searching for more primary pleasures. To put another example from a film also shown in Torino, the last Straub-Huillet, A Visit to the Louvre (Une visite au Louvre), like the rest of their oeuvre, may be (wrongly) considered too arid or difficult by some of our colleagues, but nevertheless the images are as usual outstanding and extremely pleasant.

My conclusion, a very twisted one if you like, is not that films should be better projected. Of course they should, but we are getting more and more used to bad quality images with a resigned attitude on the grounds that democracy has arrived to filmmaking and we can now see films that wouldn’t be made otherwise, but not realizing that this attitude may well be pushing independent, daring cinema to museums and very specialized audiences. But I want to go further. I state that films that don’t look good enough shouldn’t be given, in the final appreciation, the benefit of the doubt. We shouldn’t say automaticaly that they would have been accomplished enough if shot or even finished in 35mm, but include the possibility that if done with the proper technology, they might not hold as sound works. After all, a shadow that looks harmonic, sensual or intriguing may not belong to an object with the same features. Maybe we need a shot of Platonism in these matters.

Eduardo Antin