Telling Stories to Her Nation

Six commercials by the late Malaysian filmmaker Yasmin Ahmad
by Amir Muhammad  posted January 29, 2010
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The Malaysian filmmaker Yasmin Ahmad (1958-2009) preferred Bollywood to Bazin, so she will be amused to be on this site. Her capacity for being amused is one of the things I remember the most about her; together with her courage, generosity, occasional prickliness as well as her "sentimental and annoying" (her own words) vision of the world.

After the canonical P. Ramlee, she is the Malaysian director who has made the biggest cultural impact. Her films penetrated the consciousness of (especially) the middle class in ways we had not seen in decades. Most Malaysian films were in the Malay language and aimed complacently at the majority ethnic Malay population; she boldly mixed the languages and colors of our multiethnic megamix. (This of course left her open to attacks by anti-pluralists.)

A month after her funeral, I found myself unable to sleep. I was by then troubled anew by the unexpected death of another friend: the Filipino film critic Alexis Tioseco. So I watched all of Yasmin's films again and wrote about what I saw in them, and my intended reader was, of all people, Alexis. It was my way of continuing my conversations with both of them, and the resulting book, Yasmin Ahmad's Films, is my way of making sure they stayed in the present tense a bit longer.

Yasmin started making feature-length films at the relatively late age of 45. She was already famous in Malaysia for her commercials, which were often fable-like narratives rather than hard-sell product pushers. Many of these commercials were made for the oil and gas company Petronas, Malaysia's largest corporation, and all were produced by the Leo Burnett agency in Kuala Lumpur, where she was executive creative director. She continued making commercials in her own style right to the end of her life.

This article is adapted from the chapter of my book devoted to Yasmin's commercials. Among the jaded, the very phrase "Petronas commercial" became shorthand for emotional manipulation. But if one of these commercials were to come on TV at one of Malaysia's crowded open-air eateries, most people would stop to watch. Anything that can tear Malaysians away from their food, at least temporarily, must be special. Then you realize the truth of one of her favorite sayings: A nation is nothing without the stories it tells (about) itself.

I hope that Yasmin's six feature-length films—Rabun (2003), Sepet (2004), Gubra (2006), Mukhsin (2006, the only one to have received a U.S. theatrical run), Muallaf (2008), and Talentime (2009)—will soon be widely available internationally. (A few of them are on Torrent, anyway—not that she would have disapproved: "Piracy is stealing from greedy people." she said.) Her extant blogs Yasmin the Storyteller and Yasmin the Filmmaker are already a good introduction to her voice. It's a voice that can still be heard—because it's still needed.

Little Indian Boy (1996)

Client: Petronas

Director: Kamal Mustafa

Duration: 90 seconds

Air date: Independence Day

This commercial made Yasmin's name as a writer and it's probably still my favorite. It was very unconventional to have a commercial that wasn't trying to sell a product but tell a story instead. The story itself is familiar to every Malaysian, of course, but the proclamation of independence by our first prime minister is given a spin by being told from the point of view of the eponymous boy. (You never even get to see Tunku Abdul Rahman, but you do hear his iconic shout.)

The fact that the boy is Indian is immediately striking: even today, Indians are rarely shown in Malaysian advertisements because they have the lowest buying power of the country's ethnic groups and are thus considered the least "glamorous." Seeing him being fussed over by his family in the beginning, you think he's going through some kind of rite of passage (just like Ganesh's pre-wedding oil bath later in Talentime). It is only at the end, when everything becomes color and set in the present day, that you appreciate that it's not only him but the whole nation that is shown in a pivotal moment of growing up. When Indians do appear in local films, they are often slapstick figures. But the boy and his father (who are never shown speaking) radiate dignity.

There were people, foreigners as well as locals, who worried in 1957 whether Malaya (as it was then called) would ever become a viable nation or instead be torn apart by post-colonial internecine strife. The whites had been seen as benevolent protectors for so long (our colonial history wasn't all that bloody; some Indonesian friends tell me, "You should be grateful you had the British: they left behind good schools!") that the future seemed literally unimaginable. But the boy's family feels that they have a stake in this nation; after all, they had helped to build it and would continue to do so. No one in the flashback scene is shown wearing glasses, but the adult he becomes at the end has glasses, a sign of education.  There are two separate shots that show the father lifting up the son. This is like the famous Newton line: "If I have seen farther than others, it is because I was standing on the shoulders of giants."

At the time the commercial aired, the stadium it was set in, Merdeka, was on the verge of being demolished to make way for another commercial project—yet another sign of how little we value our history. Thankfully the proposal was shelved. Speaking of history: Independence Day had become a hoary nationalistic cliché by this time, replete with tacky parade floats and bombastic speeches. But for a minute and a half, everything lived again with a thrilling immediacy that brought goose pimples to more than a few.

Different World (1997)

Client: Petronas

Director: Kamal Mustafa

Duration: 90 seconds

Air date: Kongsi Raya (Chinese New Year and Hari Raya Aidilfitri)

The attraction between a Chinese boy and a Malay girl would later get a larger canvas in Sepet, but this one has many local fruits! The colorful variety of our agricultural produce represents the abundance of not only economic opportunity but sensual pleasures that await the intrepid explorer. That serious German, Bertolt Brecht, had said: "First we'll eat, then we'll have morality." For "morality" we can substitute "patriotism." The sticky and the sweet, the sour and the tart: this flirtation has the blazing confidence of optimism.

Yes, the girl has a terribly sumbang (off-key) singing voice, but the way she sashays in her sarong speaks far more eloquently of who she is. He's dressed in somber black and white while she is in two shades of red: "order" meets "passion." The song that unites them (on the soundtrack) is neither Malay nor Chinese but gloriously tempting Hindi, just as Sepet was bookended not by a Malay or Chinese poet but by Tagore. The boy has probably had it drilled in him that he needs to study hard (is his father like Kahoe's in Talentime?) and he's doing his calculations; you think of the famous mathematical skills of Chinese schools, and the speed with which the abacus is used in Chinese shops! But she knows there's more to life than numbers.

Oh yes, we have been trained in the post-Independence era to scoff at the patronizing Orientalist descriptions, by colonial writers such as Frank Swettenham, of how lazy and sensuous the Malays are. But what's the point of education and hard work if you don't take time to be beguiled? In fact, the boy needs to fall into the ground to have his senses slightly altered: he's like Alice slipping down the rabbit hole. (Is the image meant to be a gynecological innuendo? Ah, people who study children's stories tend to be such perverts!) But sense-altering works both ways. She, too, can stop relying on the packaged escapism that emanates from her Walkman; there's much that can be appreciated, tasted, right here in the real world.

This commercial aired on one of those propitious occasions when two of our main holidays occurred close together, but it avoids the usual symbols of red fire crackers and green ketupat (compressed rice in woven coconut leaves) that commonly represent Chinese New Year and Hari Raya Aidilfitri (Eid-ul-Fitr) respectively. If anything, it shows that explosions can go off without those noisy crackers, and food can be appreciated raw without the hassle of long preparation. I don't know if the title is a reference to A Different World, that collegiate spinoff from The Cosby Show. But doesn't the girl have some of the naughty but nice allure of the teenage Lisa Bonet? Yet she has no piercings—at least none that are visible.

Local Hero (a.k.a Gombak Shoes) (1998)

Client: Petronas

Director: Yasmin Ahmad & Tan Yew Leong

Duration: 90 seconds

Air date: Independence Day

The two actors here, Ashraf Sinclair and Vanida Imran, later became movie stars, even though they never got the chance to appear in Yasmin's films. This is one of the first commercials she actually directed (as opposed to wrote and oversaw) and she later laughingly called the shooting style "pretentious." Certainly the fast cuts and sped-up crowd scene seem more like Wong Kar-wai (from the era of his films that Orked would have started seeing in Sepet) than the patient gaze of her own features.

Irony comes from the fact that Ashraf is clearly half white even though he's depicted as irredeemably local, so local that he wears shoes made in the unglamorous district of Gombak. (Less obviously, Vanida is also of mixed parentage; she's half Indian.) So when the ad tells us to be proud of our products, it's also telling us to be proud that we are all such colorful mixtures. Ashraf in films will usually be cast as a rich guy, an heir (since it's assumed that a poor local would never get a chance to marry a Caucasian) but here he has to take the bus and only dreams of Italian footwear. The fantasy shot where Ashraf imagines the two of them on the wedding dais anticipates the dream scene in Mukhsin, but while Mukhsin is lifted up into the air, Ashraf is brought down to earth by his humble shoes—which are also brown, the color of the earth. 

The fact that Ashraf and Vanida are in a moving bus is a sign of optimism, like the conversation between Orked and Alan in the latter's pickup truck in Gubra. And indeed, by the time the commercial aired, Malaysia needed a big dose of optimism. The country was racked by an economic slowdown, which the government blamed on foreigners who were currency speculators, and a brewing political crisis that reached a high point the very next month, when the prime minister dramatically sacked his deputy. The ad doesn't address this explicitly, of course, but subtly tells us to appreciate what we have around us. Local products should be supported because they are made by the people who are closest to us, the people on whom we can rely when the chips are down. This cheerful anecdote might seem to be about shoes, but the context and funder made the implication much bigger.

Cukudok Monster (2007)

Client: TV3

Director: Yasmin Ahmad

Duration: 2 minutes

Air date: Hari Raya Aidilfitri

This commercial makes you appreciate why Charlie Chaplin was one of Yasmin's favorite directors: it's a fast comedy with no dialogue but plenty of charm. Her feature films tended not to mark the holidays that dot our crowded calendar; she never shot a Deepavali scene, for example. Her films could have been set in any month of the year. But this ad is explicitly set toward the end of the Muslim fasting month. The actress Adibah Noor is all packed and excited to go back to her kampung (hometown). She's also hungry as hell.

The story is a well-known one. It perhaps qualifies as a benevolent urban legend and was seen in the American short film Lunch Date (1989), where an old white woman thinks a black guy just stole her food. Yasmin takes the same story and brilliantly invests it with local detail. She even seems to pay homage to Lunch Date by also setting it in a train station, but this time the action actually then moves to a train. The religious difference between Adibah and Ho Yuhang is significant because Muslims have to watch non-Muslims eat all around them during Ramadan. Adibah's hunger is hilariously amplified when she hallucinates about giant ais kacang (a shaved ice dessert) and ice cream; when you're fasting, you always want something sweet and cool. Malays make a big show of abstaining from sins like slander and porn-surfing during Ramadan, as if backbiting and perviness during the other 11 lunar months are fine and dandy! It's also the only month when Malay movies are never released, because the target audience will be staying away from the daytime popcorn and canoodling that are associated with cinema-going.

Adibah's embarrassment when she finds out what she has done makes you like her more, not less. Even the guy she inadvertently stole from forgives her, and this happens precisely at the moment he hears the azan. He is suddenly reminded of the month and assumes she was just hungry after a day's fast, but it now occurs to me that the timing of forgiveness with the call to prayer is a light-hearted and subtler summation of the whole of Muallaf.

Tan Hong Ming in Love (2007)

Client: Petronas

Director: Yasmin Ahmad

Duration: 90 seconds

Air date: Independence Day

The popularity of commercials in the "Yasmin Ahmad style" (feel-good fables with sometimes pointed social critique) ensured that many others would follow. Sometimes the commercials, even the ones by the Leo Burnett agency, became over-elaborate and seemed to go on forever. They were like mini features, not even like genuine short films. They made me pine for the time when commercials just told me to buy soap and cigarettes instead of expecting me to reflect on the state of my life and nation. But Tan Hong Ming, a buck-toothed kid, came along and things became utterly simple again. This is an ad that didn't require elaborate storyboards, crane shots, or color-grading. Yasmin's "pitch" to the client for this one: she just wanted to interview kids whose best friends were from a different race. It was a whole series but this became the most popular.

It's also one of the commercials where you hear the most of Yasmin's actual voice, when she asks Hong Ming and Ummi Qazrina questions. It managed to go viral worldwide; in fact, Hong Ming's name pops up more frequently on search engines than Yasmin's! Perhaps a Malaysian would, first of all, notice the racial difference. And then—this is the ingenious part—most Malaysians would then forget the racial difference, maybe because the kids are just so young and transparent. Even some of the people who fulminated at the "pollution" of the interracial romance in Sepet thought that this was really cute.

There were quite a few attempts to get Hong Ming to act in movies and ads after this, but he's apparently very unpredictable on camera. So he might just remain in our memory as this kid who is at this particular gawky-bashful phase of his life, with his expressive head always seeming to almost disappear into his shoulders! Saying this commercial was a lucky accident for Yasmin (since it wasn't scripted) would ignore her creative impulse to go look for such an accident in the first place. And she actually instructed Hong Ming to take Ummi's hand and take her back to their classroom, after the girl surprisingly revealed the name of her "boyfriend"—so there was a subtle but crucial element of direction after all. But for the most part, this ad corresponds to another of Yasmin's favorite quotes, from Andre Gide: "Art is a collaboration between God and the artist, and the less the artist does the better."

Funeral (2009)

Client: Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports, Singapore

Director: Yasmin Ahmad

Duration: 3 minutes

Air date: Early 2009

This public-service film was commissioned by the Singapore government to promote marriage and family values. (And Yasmin liked getting married so much that she did it twice—ba doom dush!) Some people pointed out that the dialogue is similar to the scene in Good Will Hunting where Robin Williams tells Matt Damon how much he misses his late wife's "little idiosyncrasies." Yasmin didn't deny that she'd found that scene memorable, but her first thought was that the farting-in-sleep line reminded her of a cousin to whom she used to be close.

Just as was the case with Cukudok Monster, it's the local flavor that made this story especially poignant. Singaporeans are supposed to be a disciplined lot, and so the idea of a Singaporean Christian funeral would surely be the epitome of disciplined, God-fearing solemnity: no laughter allowed! But Jo Kukathas as the widow brilliantly punctures the imposed seriousness. This scene, unlike the one in Good Will Hunting, takes place in public. We hear and see the dearly departed's name (David Lee) in the beginning, but it's only when the sari-clad Jo mimics her husband's voice saying, "What was that?" in a Chinese accent that you fully appreciate this was a mixed marriage. Their friends and family who are gathered to hear the memorial: Did any of them initially disapprove, however mildly, of the marriage on those grounds? Her happy, unconventional family might just be considered bonkers by others.

Although Lee is about as common a Chinese name as you can get, I wonder if it's a reference to Singapore founder Lee Kwan Yew, who molded the nation in his own image. He wants graduates to marry only graduates, for people to speak proper Mandarin (rather than casual dialect), and so on. The government of Singapore, while being more efficient and less corrupt than the Malaysian one, still has that impulse to try to create perfect citizens—by any means necessary, you suspect. And yet, here, we have an ad that celebrates unions and people that are "beautifully imperfect." It might just be a gently subversive moment. 


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Amir Muhammad is a Malaysian writer, publisher and occasional filmmaker. He is the author of Yasmin Ahmad's Films and the upcoming 120 Malay Movies.

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