MOMA is having daily screenings of MUKHSIN until June 2nd. This film, directed by Malaysian female director Yasmin Ahmad, has been a huge favorite on the film festival circuit garnering numerous awards. MUKHSIN is the final part of a trilogy sometimes referred to as the “Orked Trilogy” as it depicts the life of a young girl/woman in Malaysia over a period of years. Don’t let the fact that you haven’t seen the first two films in the trilogy put you off though because MUKHSIN is a prequel to the first two films as it goes back to Orked’s life as a child growing up in the countryside and her first crush on a neighborhood boy named Mukhsin.
The Malaysian film industry is slowly reviving after decades in the doldrums, but it is very much fractured along the same lines as its distinctive multi-cultural society in which there is always tension simmering between the majority Malays and the two largest minority groups, the Chinese and the Indians. Malaysian films reflect this division. The Chinese Malays tend to make very minimalist static films using almost all Chinese actors with the dialogue in Cantonese and Hokkien, while the native Malays go overboard with low brow populist comedies and action films utilizing the Malay language. The Indians simply import their films from the homeland. Audiences in Malaysia generally fall out in the same way – Malays go to their own films while the Chinese go to Chinese films (though generally ones from Hong Kong or China since their local Chinese productions rarely get a theatrical release and instead survive on the film festival circuit, international sales and VCDs.)
Yasmin Ahmad is the first director to truly break through these cultural walls with films that appeal to all sections of Malaysian society. Her films are touching dramas interspersed with comedy and romance that try to gently examine what it means today to be Malaysian. The underlying message in her films is an optimistic call to embrace differences, to thrive in a society that offers so much diversity. In the first film in the trilogy, SEPET, a young Chinese man is reading a poem to his mother from an Indian author, Rabindranath Tagore, and she responds “Strange. A different culture, a different language. And yet we can feel what was in his heart”. In the second film, GUBRA, Yasmin’s multi-cultural message is even more pointed when two characters exchange this back and forth “Can you imagine if there was only one language here. Or only one kind of food. Or maybe one race. It would be total crap.” In a country very much separated by its ethnic and religious differences, Yasmin puts forth a vision of collective embrace. Her multi-cultural vision isn’t only a local one, but global as well as the three films are full of references from Jean Genet to Annie Hall and the soundtrack contains music from Sam Hui to Beethoven to Nina Simone to Bollywood’s classic Kabhie Kabhie. The languages in her films often jump in mid-sentence from Malay to Cantonese to English and Yasmin (who speaks all three languages) clearly relishes doing so.
In SEPET (2005) Orked (played by the effervescent Sharifah Amani in the first two films and who is the niece of director Bade Haji Azmi, whose film, GANGSTER, the NYAFF showed in 2006) is a middle class girl on the verge of university and adulthood. Her teenage crush on Hong Kong actor Takeshi Kaneshiro leads her to cross paths with Jason, a Chinese teenager who sells VCDs and who gives her a copy of Kaneshiro’s CHUNGKING EXPRESS as a gift. It is very much love at first sight, but as in all love stories things do not go according to plan. But in truth it is not so much the romance that makes this such a memorable, joyous film but instead the world that Yasmin invites the viewer into – one of smart dialogue, cultural distinctions, religious observance, realistic locales and Orked’s home life with her loving funny parents and their boisterous maid. GUBRA (2006) begins a few years after SEPET and Orked is now married to a somewhat older Malay man who has a wandering eye. Though still having moments of humor, there is a melancholic mood that overlays the film – one of innocence lost and sad memories stored. Contrasted against Orked’s crumbling marriage is the blissful one of her parents, the caustic one of Jason’s (from SEPET) parents and the pious loving one of an Islamic cleric. The film is a bit too unfocused at times as it brings in characters more to make cultural and moralistic points than to further the story, but it is all part of a humanistic canvass that Yasmin is painting of her country.
MUKHSIN (2007) goes back in time to 1993 when Orked (now Sharifah Aryana) was 10 years old and living in a small village with her parents trying to fend off the debt collectors. This is the story of her first crush. Orked is a no nonsense little tom boy who prefers playing rough and tumble with the boys to being with the girls. Her mom (Sharifah Aleya – real life sister of Aryana) and dad (Irwan Iskandar) are extremely indulgent of their little girl and the family along with their maid (Adibah Noor) are as close knit and lovable as a nest of chirpy chipmunks. During a school holiday, the 12-year old Mukhsin (Mohd Syafie Naswip) comes to the village to stay with his old housekeeper after his parents have split up. After Orked passes his test of toughness, Mukhsin allows her to join the boy’s games and the two become fast friends over the lazy warm days and cicada filled nights that follow. Scenes slowly melt into one another with poetic flashes of home life, friendship and faith – dancing, riding a bike, reciting the Koran and flying a kite are lovely moments of harmony and beauty. Very little of any dramatic purpose takes place in the film – it is just a nostalgic look back at innocence when somehow the world seemed so much simpler and kinder.
Interwoven into all three films, but most evident in MUKHSIN is a very positive humane portrayal of Islam and its values. At a time when conservative Muslims in Malaysia are advocating a return to Sharia law, Yasmin appears to be quietly crying out for a return to their liberal tradition of tolerance in which a girl and her mother can dance together in the rain, women can attend a soccer game (something which a recent Iranian film pointed out can not happen there) and a boy and girl can fly a kite together. In a world gone crazy over the past seven years, this film is a welcome respite from all the anger and hatemongering that too many indulge in. It will actually give you some hope for the future.
Unfortunately, none of these three films have been picked up a U.S. distributor and so you can only buy the DVDs on the Internet – but be warned – they are Region 3 coded and will not play on a typical U.S. manufactured DVD player. You need to have an All-Region one. The only other film that Yasmin had directed before the trilogy was a TV production called RABUN in 2003 and that is not available.
Comments (1) May 30 2008