Photo: A movie-goer looks at the "Tanda Putera" poster (2nd L) among other movie posters at a cinema in Putrajaya outside Kuala Lumpur August 29, 2013. "Tanda Putera" was a publicly funded, locally-produced movie that stirred up racial sentiment at a sensitive time over its depiction of the ethnic Chinese minority as the aggressors in the violent events of May 13, 1969. Picture taken August 29, 2013. REUTERS/Bazuki Muhammad
In Malaysia, the Malay-language film industry’s scattergun approach is squandering the benefits of incentives and government investment.
The 12-year delay of the release of the movie Dukun due to political and religious sensitivities proved worth the wait for Malaysia’s movie-goers and critics.
Filmed on a budget of 2.8 million Malaysian ringgit ($704,121), Dukun was expensive for a Malay-language film but its 6 million ringgit ($1.5 million) in ticket sales in just four days in April have more than made up for its price tag.
Critics have praised the horror film, which is loosely based on a real-life murder case in the 1990s in which a former pop starlet-turned-occultist was convicted of the grizzly murder of a politician.
But a good quality critically-acclaimed Malay-language film is rare these days. In the last 10 years, quality has largely remained stagnant even as more investors have been willing to back Malay-language films and technical expertise has improved markedly.
According to Dukun’s director, Dain Said, the Malay film industry has been seeing haphazard development, with production companies all too willing to pick the “low-hanging fruit”, instead of investing time and effort in finding the best projects and hiring saleable directors.
“It’s like paddy planting,” Said told Salaam Gateway. “For a long time they would throw a hundred seeds in the air, hoping that one might land in the right place and grow. But instead they should have been identifying people who are good, whose films travel.”
This has partly to do with the multiracial, multi-vernacular nature of the Malaysian viewing public. While Malay cinema has traditionally been the backbone of the domestic film industry, the number of local Chinese-language productions has been growing since the turn of this century.
Often gaining better funding from Hong Kong and China, and sometimes having access to overseas markets, Chinese filmmakers broke onto the scene in the 2000s mainly through arthouse films, and have since branched off into the mainstream.
This Chinese march has been putting the squeeze on Malay movies. The latter have in turn become more populist in their output, often featuring the kampong, or village, staples of gangsters, zombies and motorbikes. Dukun, however, has gone some way to buck this trend.
“Apparently we had a lot of people across all races going to see it,” said Said. “Another thing is that Dukun was popular with the middle-class, and the middle-class don’t usually go to see Malay films. They feel betrayed by the kind of films that have come out over the last 15 years which appeal to the lowest common denominator, always portraying working-class values.
“We need the middle-class to come back to the cinema. I don’t want to make these low-hanging fruit films, but you still have to rely on your homegrown audience in many ways; it’s your primary audience.”
LACK OF IDENTITY
Then there is the competition posed by international movies diluting Malay cinema’s pool. At any given time, Malaysian cinemas will be screening Hollywood films in English, movies in Mandarin and Cantonese, Korean movies with multi-language subtitles, and Bollywood and Kollywood hits in Hindi and Tamil—alongside the latest Malaysian productions.
“We compete with all these places, and having all these different films for different audiences is the sort of thing we should be trying to push away from—the idea that only Malays watch Malay films, Chinese watch Chinese films, Tamils go to Tamil films,” Nandita Solomon, an independent producer and a regular collaborator of Said’s, told Salaam Gateway.
“[O]ur films have to appeal to a broader audience. If you buy a ticket to a Malay film as a non-Malay, the guy at the ticket counter will often ask you, ‘Are you sure? This is a Malay film.’ It really does happen.”
Yet before Malaysia’s film industry can cross these boundaries, it must develop its own “flavour”, as Solomon put it. This is something it has largely failed to achieve since the days of P Ramlee, a prolific actor and director of the 1950s and 1960s, in what was seen as a golden age of Malay film.
Said, who has conducted numerous workshops for young people, speculates that this lack of identity stems from literature and storytelling no longer being valued by them, due in part by a school system whose “curriculum authors are essentially airport novelists”.
“The ability to relate creative ideas is there but it’s not yet fully formed,” he said. “Real art isn’t really considered any more, and when you look at a piece nowadays, it doesn’t have a historical context. History is not valued for what it can provide to stories so they float.”
Nevertheless, there are people with genuine talent and a can-do spirit. These, Said believes, are often being nurtured by commercial broadcasters like Astro, a subscription digital television service, and Malaysia’s growing popularity as a destination for big international TV and movie productions.
GOVERNMENT INCENTIVES ‘INSTRUMENTAL’
A generous government-backed incentive scheme run by the National Film Development Corporation (FINAS) has been a boon in coaxing producers to bring their projects to Malaysia since it was established in 2013, after the government allocated 200 million ringgit to develop the film industry there.
At the same time, the state investment fund Khazanah opened a Southeast Asian outpost for Britain’s Pinewood Studios over 20 hectares in the southern state of Johor at a reputed cost of $170 million.
“This is a world-class facility,” broadcast consultant Kartik Chintamani told Salaam Gateway. “There are four sound stages; you could even film ‘Jaws’ in the swimming pool. The promise was that if you gave Pinewood a script, you would walk out with a film, which was fantastic. If you didn’t have the equipment, they would source it for you.”
Chintamani, formerly the head of programming at Astro, believes the studio’s facilities, along with the incentive for international filmmakers who spend a minimum of 5 million ringgit on production costs in Malaysia—or 2.5 million ringgit for domestic films—have been instrumental in developing the film industry.
"The incentive plan is for people both from within Malaysia and abroad,” he said. “Those from within would be able increase their budgets and so the quality of the film would improve. They would get back a 30 percent rebate—whereas in most other countries it’s just a tax incentive, it’s not just cost recovery here, it’s revenue, and it covers some of your risk.”
The benefit coaxed Hollywood director Michael Mann to bring part of the 2015 production of Blackhat, a $70 million cyberthriller, to Pinewood. It also helped deliver Marco Polo, a lavish Netflix production, to Malaysian shores.
“The financiers across the world look very closely at incentivised countries to shortlist locations,” said Bill Donovan of Kuala Lumpur-based Biscuit Films, who worked with Mann on Blackhat.
“An executive in one of the biggest film financing companies in the world once told me it’s not just about Malaysia’s rebate, it’s also the fact that the government is actively supporting the industry. That goes a long way for film companies that don’t like to step out of their comfort zones,” he told Salaam Gateway.
SKILLS, KNOWLEDGE TRANSFER
Donovan believes the growing number of movies partly made in Malaysia—the next big one will be Jon Chu’s Crazy Rich Asians, slated to open later this year—has had a positive impact on local, mostly Malay crews, who have benefited by learning from the world’s best filmmakers.
He has seen local technicians’ skills grow to the point that foreign producers are happy to use local hands, rather than flying their own teams to Malaysia.
“These international shows can’t afford to take just any local crew they are given—our crew are scrutinised the same way that Hollywood crews are scrutinised, to get onto the show. They now have enough pedigree,” he added.
But local filmmakers are yet to experience many of the benefits of the incentives plan, according to Solomon.
“You tend to get the same teams working on the same international productions, so it’s not spread out very widely,” she said. “Biscuit Films does a lot of the production support for most of the Hollywood productions. Then there are different ones that handle the Chinese productions, and others that handle Indian productions that come in. These have their usual teams around them, and those are the ones who improve.”
Moreover, the bumper paydays promised by international productions mean the best technicians devote their time only to the big-name movies and shows, choosing to sit out Malay movies, Solomon added.
HEART AND SEOUL
Fresh from the success of Dukun, Said believes Malaysia should look to South Korea to ensure the long-term growth and improvement of the film industry. The country’s incentive scheme is comparable to Malaysia’s, but it has come after Seoul took a hardline approach to building a market for local films.
“They built their film industry really fast,” he said. “Their plan was to develop their ecosystem, so they shut out Hollywood. Now there are quotas that mandate about 50 percent of films shown at cinemas must be Korean.
“If we can really focus on putting money into film schools and backing directors, we could follow Korea. But if we’re going to continue the way we are going, we will have squandered much the money the government has invested into our film industry.”
(Reporting by Richard Whitehead; Editing by Emmy Abdul Alim firstname.lastname@example.org)
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