Mercy and Love

The populist optimism and humanistic Islam of Yasmin Ahmad's films
by Michael Sicinski  posted May 5, 2010
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1. The Windup and the Pitch

Despite their relative popularity in their native Malaysia, and the New Malaysian Cinema's recent traction among the cinema intelligentsia, the films of the late Yasmin Ahmad (1958-2009) have yet to attain widespread acclaim within global film culture. The Museum of Modern Art's showcase of Yasmin's final film, Talentime (2009), and the three films that comprise her "Orked trilogy"—Sepet (2004), Gubra (2006), and Mukhsin (2006)—should go some way toward rectifying this situation. But above all, the publication of the book Yasmin Ahmad's Films, by fellow Malaysian filmmaker Amir Muhammad, represents a superb explication of Yasmin's unique artistic legacy. Amir's approach to Yasmin's1 work is unconventional to say the least, adopting a conversational tone, interrupting itself with brief, blog-entry-style excurses that examine some specific element of the formal, social, cultural, or religious context of the given film. Part of Amir's "thesis" (although Yasmin Ahmad's Films is very deliberately not that kind of book) is that Yasmin made open, imperfect films, teeming with the untidiness of life. His very approach to organizing his insights—at times the literary equivalent of a cluttered professorial desk—mirrors his subject perfectly. But even more than this, the book reads like an open discourse, as though Amir is able to have an interrogative relationship with his old friend once more through the films she left behind.

The book is characterized by sidenotes, reversals, and self-interruptions. To some readers, anticipating a tight scholarly monograph, it might pose some frustrations. But as Amir points out in his discussion of Talentime (a film he initially rather disliked but to which he eventually came around), "It's never about perfect pitching." This is a line spoken by Adibah (Adibah Noor) in response to another talent judge's dismissive comment about a singer. And it seems to me an apposite epigraph for Yasmin's cinema in general, her equivalent to Renoir's "everyone has his reasons" or Bresson's "all is grace." The line is fitting not just because it exemplifies Yasmin's ethic of imperfection both within the diegetic worlds she created and with respect to the rhythm and texture of her own films, but also because the phrase itself contains an awkward but completely comprehensible Malaysian world-English "mistake."

"Pitch," with respect to music, is a noun and not a verb, and so it really cannot take the "-ing" ending. But (if I may borrow some of Yasmin's own bawdiness for the cause) who gives a rat's ass? Adibah's statement is perfectly comprehensible, despite itself lacking "perfect pitch[ing]," and all that it requires is a sympathetic listener, who focuses on the filling in of potential gaps in comprehension. One of the reasons Yasmin's films have been so compelling to me is that they go forth in undisguised imperfection.

2. The Stars and the Mud

Yasmin Ahmad joined the Leo Burnett ad agency in Kuala Lumpur in 1993, working first as joint creative director and eventually assuming the role of executive creative director.2 The dual life of a film auteur as a maker of commercials is a deeply fraught one within film-critical discourse. Lots of major film artists have worked in advertising at one time, but our general Romantic-leftist attitude regarding the incompatibility of art and commerce leads us to expect that they should have somehow bristled under that yoke. The move to feature filmmaking, we tend to think, should set true artists free.

Yasmin's feature work may have taken a long time to gain respect as serious Malaysian film art in part owing to the director's gangbusters success in the ad game, and because in many respects the move to feature filmmaking left her work unchanged. Beginning in the mid-1990s, Yasmin's TV spots, particularly for the state-owned Petronas oil company, were national sensations. This is well documented, and Amir's essay on the commercials appeared on this site earlier this year. But I want to speak more broadly about Yasmin's "commercial" sensibility, not in the typical popular-audience sense of the word, but in terms of timing, pacing, and cinematic construction—the "spot" as a formal principle that functions throughout her features as an aesthetic dominant.

This advert-like construction can be seen throughout the "Orked trilogy," and it reaches its breaking point (or, if you prefer, its greatest sophistication) in Yasmin's final film, Talentime. Revolving around a high school talent show, Talentime has an episodic structure built into its premise—multiple takes of rehearsals of individual performances, along with the usual fumblings and disconnects when young people in a Yasmin film must negotiate between their peer group desires on the one hand and family and ethnic pressures on the other. Here, Yasmin moves events along in fits and starts, the same three characters performing the same musical numbers at least twice over the course of the film, once at audition, once in rehearsal and a final time at the concluding Talentime show. The film is composed of semi-autonomous chunks, through which a linear narrative wends its way. Inside an essentially modular narrative structure, Yasmin articulates both a Romeo and Juliet teen romance—another ethnic clash, this time between a Malay Muslim girl, Malur (Pamela Chong), and a Tamil boy, Mahesh (Mahesh Jugal Kishor)—and a disrupted friendship between two boys, a Malay and a Chinese.

But here's where the advert structure really starts to reveal itself. Amid these large-scale performance-based modules and the rather basic narrative information that insinuates itself within those units, Yasmin continually drops small dollops of disconnected, virtually self-contained information, either one-liners or perfectly detachable bits of character-based coloratura. Whether it's two parents dancing in their living room in the dark, apropos of nothing, or Malur and Mahesh sitting in the park and suddenly surrounded by magic-realist babies, toddling around blowing bubbles and swatting at dandelion fuzz, Yasmin shows very little respect for a closed diegesis, using the classic "let's put on a show" revue format to open up her film text to an unruly drift.

These moments directly reflect the style of Yasmin's commercials, in which the director orchestrates emotionally pregnant moments, taken just to the verge of pat sentimentality, but holds them back by leaving concrete details and backstory open to imaginative conjecture. Nevertheless, Yasmin's commercials (and her films) are not completely open texts with totally unfixed meanings. Her work operates within a set of comprehensible cultural codes, typically relating to the need for basic decency and tolerance as touchstones of Malaysian national identity. At times, to the non-Malaysian audience, and no doubt to some members of the Malaysian target audience, this ever-present feature of Yasmin's cinema may seem clumsy, like an endless series of PSAs shoehorned into an otherwise naturalistic storytelling context. Seen from the opposite angle, from a Malaysian scene steeped not only in the daily jostling between the races but in Yasmin's frank nationalistic-advert mode of addressing the issue, the feature films may instead scan like abstract riffs on a national theme.

But the question is not merely formal. We must ask, what are commercials for? They sell things, of course, but, as with the Petronas ads, they aren't selling gasoline as much as a set of positive associations. The Leo Burnett agency differentiated itself from its competitors, in the 1950s and '60s especially, by pioneering a branding ethic over the straight-ahead salesmanship of more traditional firms like J. Walter Thompson. The agency maintains a number of Burnett's personal quirks, including offices with bowls of apples placed on every reception desk and the firm-wide use of a specific type of pencil, the Alpha-245. But the firm's logo, a hand reaching for the stars, is the most enduring, based as it is on Burnett's quote "When you reach for the stars you may not quite get one, but you won't come up with a handful of mud either."

There is a similar optimism at work in Yasmin's cinema, a faith that Malaysians can live together, can overcome prejudice and hurt, and that the guiding love of Allah will assist in this healing. In the brief bio on her blog, Yasmin the Storyteller, " the filmmaker wrote, "I am optimistic and sentimental to the point of being annoying, especially to people who think that being cynical and cold is cool." Perhaps some viewers still have trouble accepting that Yasmin's optimism could actually emerge from the world of advertising, to many the very definition of cynicism and calculation.

3. Inside and Outside the Lines of Lives

It seems indubitable that Yasmin will be best remembered for her Orked trilogy, and this is appropriate. Mukhsin (2006) is her finest achievement by far, the film in which she strikes the best balance between the awkwardness and incompletion that characterizes her commercially derived open form, and a more classical art-cinema construction. The third film in the trilogy, it also details the earliest events in the Orked chronicles, going back to Orked's adolescence after the depiction of her teenage years in Sepet (2004) and Gubra (2006), which shows Orked as a married adult. It is only natural that Yasmin would become a more accomplished director as she went along. What is surprising is that, in constructing the autobiographical Orked trilogy that would come to define her career, she would choose to go back in time.

Sepet found Yasmin struggling to find a language for articulating her story of first love with the ethnic differences she also wanted to discuss, resulting in a bifurcated structure between the loving home of Orked (Sharifah Amani, who reprised the role in Gubra) and the rather darker world of Jason, aka Ah Loong (Ng Choo Seong), split between a gruff home life and a cohort of low-level hoodlums. Yasmin essentially fashions Sepet (the word is slang for "slant-eye," a derogatory reference to Orked's new Chinese beau) as a toggling between family comedy and a street-youth picture with gangster overtones, the sort of "hanging out" film we often get from Hong Kong or Taiwan. In the end, Yasmin resolves the dialectic with a concluding shift into outright melodrama. Neither organic enough to go down smoothly nor atonal enough to register as textual freedom, the organization of Sepet feels schematic in a way no other Yasmin film really does.

However, one key moment, the film's pivotal scene, does achieve a kind of Hegelian liftoff, developing into a new form of meaning. When Orked and Jason go for their date in the mall food court near the middle of the film, the conjunction of their worlds results in something altogether different than simply "garrulous Malay" vs. "taciturn Chinese." The entire scene, an awkward yet elegant negotiation of attraction and cultural difference, projects itself toward the viewer in a near-static medium long shot, the boxy "master shot" approach of pan-Asian art cinema. In this extended sequence, the frame becomes a container, struggling to contain Orked's nervous energy, as well as Jason's trepidatious response to it.

The extension and elaboration of this fixed-frame approach, often in shots devoid of characters, is one of the hallmarks of Yasmin's later work, and an element that adds a productive ambiguity to these otherwise highly accessible films. In the context of a work such as Gubra, which delves even further into genre codes, Yasmin's dips into formalist rectitude are both strange and beguiling. The diabetic collapse of Orked's father and his hospital stay set the stage for outright family slapstick, followed by a cheating-husband subplot, all played straight but paced in a fashion that calls to mind the telenovela form, and I'm certain Yasmin is adopting the tone of the homegrown popular entertainment she knows so well.

Orked meets Alan (Alan Yun), the brother of the now-dead Jason, whose own father is elsewhere in the hospital, having a bit of a conflict  with his Muslim roommate. In an entirely unrelated secondary plot, two sex workers3 live next door to a devout Muslim couple and, while others in the community shun them, the couple befriend the women, eventually agreeing to teach one of them the Koran after she is diagnosed with AIDS. Gubra is jam-packed with highly politicized sociological incident, much more so than any of Yasmin's other films. This in itself led to some mixed reviews, a general feeling that Gubra bit off more than it could chew.

But all this incident is mitigated in its potential outrageousness by Yasmin's closely controlled formalism. Sequences such as zaftig sex worker Temah (Rozie Rashid) calling neighbor Maz (Noor Khiriah) out of her home in the night to ask about Koran study, or Temah's former lover Ki (Khir Rahman) being confronted by his son, are shot in extended takes, with minimal camera movement. Yasmin also shows a fondness in Gubra for taking camera positions outside a room, peering in doorways, exploiting the differential light and color (particularly if some nefarious business is going on)—a classic Fassbinder composition. Point being, Yasmin does more than "make genre strange" in these films. Instead she continually moves between popular modes of address, united by religious and moral themes familiar to her countrymen, but undercuts their preachiness or familiarity precisely by rendering them as near-abstract forms, visible as "enframed" artistic discourses but no less sentimentally persuasive for that visibility.

If Mukhsin is indeed Yasmin's best film, it could be because in certain respects it is her least risky. The formalism evident in her corpus—the empty hallway shots of Talentime or the hospital corridors of Gubra—reaches new heights in Mukhsin, as she displays subtle, exquisite handling of cinematography and mise en scène. Interiors often bear an off-kilter Ozuian rectilinear depth; slight camera movements and graceful readjustments within close quarters echo Mizoguchi without ostentatiousness; her outdoor shots effortlessly embed her figures in radiant magic-hour landscapes, demonstrating a tactile yet quasi-spiritual treatment of light that would hold its own alongside Apichatpong.

But equally of note is Yasmin's decision to make the third Orked film the chronological "first" film, a sort of emotional origin story for the young girl. The return to Orked's more distant past could, I suppose, have represented some form of Nachträglichkeit, the Freudian "deferred action" whereby new pressure on the unconscious scrambles the chronological understanding of our personal past. What sent Yasmin back to adolescence? As magnificent as Mukhsin is, it isn't a film that answers this question. Instead, it is a poem to lost potential, Orked and Mukhsin (Mohd Syafie Naswip) having a flirtation that goes bad based on the boy acting cool in front of his friends. Mukhsin is the most formalist of the films, possibly because it represents the autobiographical material from which Yasmin had achieved the most analytical distance.

Too often this is considered a flaw in "personal" artworks, especially by women. Sexism demands Sylvia Plath–style blood and guts, as a matter of course. But for the Orked trilogy to end with greater precision, and at the earliest point documented in Yasmin's own girlhood, is significant, and arguably feminist. Mukhsin is, above all, a patient description of the awkward but spirited process by which a girl becomes a woman. As per Yasmin's method, "the girl" retains certain universal traits but remains culturally and geographically specific: a part-English Malay, reared in the Muslim faith. What the retroactive construction of Mukhsin achieves, however, and what Yasmin can provide for Orked that she, in the film, cannot herself possess, is a feminist perspective on the parallel construction of Mukhsin's Muslim manhood. The film proper ends with Yasmin's voiceover narration: "I never saw him again after that day. But he never really left me somehow....Love is kind. He gives us second chances. I found mine. I hope Mukhsin found his too." And so perhaps this is the reason why, despite Mukhsin being the least "messy" of the Orked films, it is also the most moving and it must necessarily be the last. It is not Yasmin's revision of her sense of self, or of who Orked is or was. But in reconsidering Mukhsin, and in considering Orked as an intersubjective being, the final film of the cycle is a revision of the concept of "autobiography" itself.

4. A Final Note: In the Image of the Prophet

One of the great pleasures of the cinema of Yasmin Ahmad is her representation of the Islamic faith, a depiction that strikes me as idiosyncratic, although I am certainly no expert on the topic. For me as a Westerner, a man of the turbulent early 21st century, and a phenomenologically inclined atheist nevertheless intrigued on an intellectual level by questions of religious belief, the manner in which Yasmin displayed her unwavering faith in Allah as a loving presence interwoven into the very fabric of things strikes me as quite moving, and quite specifically cinematic. Much like, for instance, Nathaniel Dorsky's Buddhism, Yasmin's Islam can be read as a treatment of light and texture, an illumination of the mundane world that allows it to shine forth before the patient, spiritually attuned observer.

Beyond this, Yasmin's depiction of her characters planning their days around the daily prayers (as she organized her film shoots), or perceiving their loved ones as gifts from God, demonstrates how religious people can, at their best, arrange their lives as states of gratitude and wonder. But even more than this, and more controversially, Yasmin's liberalism consistently understood the practice of the true Islamic faith to be antithetical to all intolerance. Racial and class prejudices, as well as religious ones, all fail in Yasmin's cinema, in Allah's name. Her legacy is a humanistic Islam.

Not long ago two social satirists with whom I am only occasionally in political sympathy, South Park's Trey Parker and Matt Stone, were singled out for potential attack by the American jihadist group Revolution Muslim. This was because of an episode in which Muhammad was allegedly depicted, flouting the Islamic ban on creating representations of the Prophet. In response to the death threat, which prompted Comedy Central to cancel the airing of the episode, some bloggers declared May 20 "Everybody Draw Mohammad Day." Of course, this is a call that will undoubtedly unleash more offensiveness for offensiveness's sake, much as we saw with the 2005 Danish cartoon scandal. And the anti-Western rage felt by such groups is a reaction, at least in part, against imperialist politics that have impoverished and brutalized the Muslim world for decades. But it has to be said. The hateful perversion of the Islamic faith promulgated by the likes of Revolution Muslim, no different from the Christian extremism so prevalent in American social and political discourse, is a dead end for humanity. I humbly submit that in Yasmin Ahmad, and the films she left behind, we have a complex, multifaceted portrait of Muhammad, painted with every shade of mercy and love.
 


1. Malays are formally addressed by their given names, in accordance with the patronymic naming system. Hence, I will be referring to "Yasmin" throughout.

2. Amir Muhammad, Yasmin Ahmad's Films, p. 182.

3. I use the term advisedly, since Amir Muhammad makes a joke about it being the rather highfalutin lingo of NGOs rather than everyday Malaysians, but I suppose I can't help allowing my Western political correctness to shine through. See Yasmin Ahmad's Films, p. 92. 

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THE AUTHOR

Michael Sicinski is a film writer and teacher based in Houston, Texas. He is a frequent contributor to Cinema Scope, Cineaste, and GreenCine Daily.

More articles by Michael Sicinski