Session 1: Nations in Transition
A Case Study of Yasmin Ahmad’s Sepet Beh Chun Chee / University Tunku Abdul Rahman, Malaysia
This paper will touch on the national films of Malaysia, with the focus on Sepet, a beautiful film directed by Yasmin Ahmad. The film won numerous awards in the Malaysian Film Festival, as well as international awards. However the film also aroused arguments among members of the censorship board and government due to the unconventional approach taken to deal with the racial interaction and multiculturalism in Malaysia. Hence, I am particularly interested in redefining the notion of national cinema in the Malaysian setting: Who shapes Malaysian national cinema? The government or the filmmakers? Asia Culture Forum 2006 – Whither the Orient Session 1: Nations in Transition
Malaysian cinemas were made known to the world during its golden era of black-and- white films from studios like Malay Film Production and Cathay-Keris Film Productions in the 50s and 60s; notably, albeit embarrassingly solely, through the film auteur – P. Ramlee and his films that examined the social conditions among working class Malays during that time. Painfully obvious, majority of Malaysian films, even until recent time, provide discourses for a monolithic Malay community ignoring Malaysia’s multiethnic nature. Peripheral ethnic groups such as Chinese, Indian and aboriginal groups are often under-represented in films or finding inadequate means of cultural enunciation. Ironically, the domination of Malay films in Malaysian national cinemas is the discursive result of the government’s effort of “Malaysianizing,” or controversially “Malay- nizing,” through the National Cultural Policy (NCP) to shape the national identity through films and to counter the cultural imperialism of imported films from Hollywood, Bollywood and Hong Kong. Malay culture was made the core culture, therefore legitimizes the marginalization of other cultures within the nation. There was a handful of films that diverged from the major trend though. Hafsham (Othman Shamsuddin) directed Mekanik (1983), the first Malaysian film to have multiethnic cast and few major parts to be acted by non-Malays. Although the theme of the film does not reflect the conflict between ethnic groups, it allows actors of different races to use their own language in dialogue. This film has became box-office hit winning a few awards in the 4th Malaysian Film Festival and was patronized by, finally, multiethnic audience. On the other hand, Rahim Razali’s Tsu-Feh Sofiah (1985) was the first to have Chinese lead actress in the film. It talks about how a Chinese woman converted to Muslim and possessed better moral than some of At the end of 1990s and early 2000s, an increasing consciousness of filmmakers to produce multiethnic narratives with theme not limited to Malay community only has emerged with the increasing involvement of non-Malay filmmakers in the film industry. This situation was made possible by the television advertisement practitioners’ interest to venture into the Asia Culture Forum 2006 – Whither the Orient Session 1: Nations in Transition
more fulfilling filmmaking industry after they have benefited enough from the advertising Teck Tan’s Spinning Gasing (2001) chose interracial relationship as its theme. Apart from using all ethnic groups in its cast who speak in their own language respectively, it also explores the issue of drug abuse, Eurasians’ identity crisis, homosexuality and religion differences. Adman Salleh’s Paloh (2003) explores interracial relationship alongside communist issue during Japanese occupation period. It has also won a few awards in the 17th Malaysian Film Festival, including the Best Picture. The latest films that joined the above regime are Sepet (2004) and its sequel, Gubra (2006) directed by Yasmin Ahmad. The similarities found in these films are not only the theme of interracial relationship, but multiethnic casts and crews, and their uses of multilingual dialogues, which are the elements much needed to formulate the Both Sepet and Gubra won the best film award in the 18th and 19th Malaysian Film Festivals respectively. As much as they are loved by a significant number of audience, film critics and media, they suffered censors and banning threat from Lembaga Penapisan Filem, Malaysia’s censorship board; and later received enormous criticism for “contaminating the On 22nd April 2006, the topic of discussion on a local television forum “Fenomena Seni” [Arts Phenomena] was “Sepet dan Gubra mencemar budaya” [Sepet and Gubra corrupt our culture]. Film critic and journalist Akmal Abdullah worried that the message and portrayal of the characters and their interracial relationship might corrupt the (Malay) culture and potentially have negative influences on the audience. Echoed to that view, film producer Raja Azmi was not convinced that the film portrays the reality of multiethnic Malaysia. At the end of the programme, 59% of the audience through SMS-polling agreed with the topic (that these films On a more positive note, another panelist of the forum, film director Hassan Muthalib commented that Yasmin’s films have successfully attracted non-Malay viewers and provoked the Asia Culture Forum 2006 – Whither the Orient Session 1: Nations in Transition
audience to think and learn something from their life. Some viewers called in affirming that the films do portray the reality. Hence, with the contradicting perspectives, let us scrutinize Sepet and analyze how the multiethnic and multicultural society of Malaysia has been portrayed. The Opening Sequence & the Heterogeneity of Characters
Sepet is a story about the love relationship between a Chinese VCD peddler, Jason, and a Malay schoolgirl, Orked. Unlike most main characters in conventional Malay(sian) films that consist of only Malay casts, Jason and Orked, the hero and heroine of Sepet are from two different ethnic and social backgrounds (Orked from middle class liberal Malay, while Jason from middle-lower class conservative Chinese). The film opens with an Arabic sentence superimposed over a black screen, which is immediately followed by a male voice reciting poetry in Mandarin. The camera slowly pans to reveal a Chinese woman dressed in baju kebaya, a type of Malay costume, listening to the poem. Sitting next to her is Jason, with dyed hair resembling a samseng (Malay term with connotation of Chinese bad boy). There are few contradictions presented in this scene, namely the discordance of the Malay costume wore by the Chinese lady, and the gentle recital of poetry by a rebellious looking kid whom visibly lack the depth to appreciate great poem by Tagore. It gets weirder when the mother-son duo converse with each other in two totally different languages, where the mother speaks in Malay, and the son in Cantonese. The disharmonies are too obvious The next scene shows a Malay girl dressed up in telekung (Muslim ladies’ prayer cloth or veil) reciting Koran in Arabic. When done, she opens the closet to reveal posters of Takeshi Kaneshiro, a Taiwanese-Japanese star, sticking all over the doors. This revelation, again, clashes with our typical perception of a religious girl. Then we hear an off-screen sound of the mother speaking in Malay calling the girl for meal. The girl answers in English. These disharmonies of characters were shown in so many plots of the film, as if aim to challenge, or more precisely, dispute the stereotypic perceptions of certain communities in Asia Culture Forum 2006 – Whither the Orient Session 1: Nations in Transition
Malaysia, and the stability of common classifications or boundaries to define ethnic groups. With as little as three characters in the prologue, the heterogeneity of the multiethnic population is articulated where all groups (at least in this prologue) in some ways assimilate and adapt other Liminal Space of Cross Cultural Interaction
[There] exists only political and economic cohesion among the three races, not social or cultural. In practice, an Indian, Malay or Chinese can live in his own social and cultural milieu in complete isolation from the other communities. (Muthalib, 2002:329) Considering the above statement, it holds some truth about some Malaysians, at some time, at some place. In fact, if we observe the film closely, there is no real social interaction among the characters of different races. Both Jason and Orked have their own group of friends of the same race and socio-cultural locales that do not intersect. It may seem the two will never However, the director has created a third space, a liminal space, for the characters to interact. For example, the school is where the much younger Jason and Orked met each other; the marketplace is where the two met and fall in love at first sight; the fast food restaurant and roadside stalls become the place where the couple started to understand each other and love each other. Takeshi Kaneshiro, Wong Kar Wai, and John Woo have been utilized as icons for cultural Mother Tongues & the “Untransferability” of Language
The usage of multilingual dialogues is not alien to Malaysian national cinema anymore, as observed in films such as Mekanik, Spinning Gasing, Paloh, Sepet and many other recent independent films. The multiethnic casts are allowed to converse on screen in their mother tongues and hence added verisimilitude to the portrayal of the true multicultural nation psyche. The Chinese characters in Sepet were shown converse in many languages and dialects – Asia Culture Forum 2006 – Whither the Orient Session 1: Nations in Transition
Mandarin, Hokkien, Cantonese, English, Malay and even Baba Malay (a mixture of Malay and Hokkien, spoken in the film by the Peranakan mother). The switching back-and-forth of multiple codes is a normal practice in accordance to the roles played by different languages at different time. English is widely spoken as the result of the colonial past, and is often used in conversations among different ethnics. Malay, the national language, is used in formal occasions or in communicating with other ethnic groups. Usage of dialects like Hokkien and Cantonese is often regional or ethnical. Therefore, switching back and forth between these different languages The scene which best exemplifies the above phenomenon has to be the dinner scene of Jason’s family. Jason’s father speaks only in Cantonese, most probably because he is from Cantonese-Chinese ethno-background, or also could be due to the fact that Cantonese is the main dialect among inhabitants of Ipoh (the diegesis world of the film). Jason’s mother on the other hand takes pride of her Peranakan root; therefore she speaks only in Baba Malay. Jason’s brother and his Singaporean wife converse in Mandarin, the typical Singaporean way. It is like a melting pot of diverse languages, where everyone speaks in different languages but still able to understand each other. But once the brother picks up the phone and reckons that the caller is Malay, he instantly switches to speak in Malay. Another portrayal of the heterogeneous use of languages is the often condemned “rojak” language. The term describes the common practice of mixing few languages in one sentence. Due to the multiethnic setting and the inevitable cross-cultural activities, Malaysians often employ single term from other languages which has specific usage and meaning, which cannot be translated into another language or will often lose the metalanguage. “Party” was used in Orked’s parents’ conversation without translating it to Malay, simply because there is no equivalent term to substitute, and there is no “party” in Malay culture. Investigating the “untransferability” of language often enables us to understand the cross-cultural interactions in Malaysia. Certain terms and lingoes of which the meaning and usage are vivid would be borrowed, from other languages other than their own mother tongues, by Malaysians in their daily conversations. “Cun,” a Malay colloquial expression for beautiful Asia Culture Forum 2006 – Whither the Orient Session 1: Nations in Transition
woman with a little sexual innuendo, was used by Jason and Ah Keong in their conversation. Lin, Orked’s Malay friend, teased Jason as “Takeshi Kanena” to mock his little resemblance to Orked’s favorite Takeshi Kaneshiro. The word “kanena” is a vulgar Hokkien swear-word. Lin must have picked up the word through her interaction with Chinese friends unaware of the vulgarism culturally attached with the word, in view of her joking gesture and soft tone. Certain lingoes convey intimacy and hence should be preserved in its original state. For an example Orked calls Jason “sayang.” If it was to be translated to English, which literally means “darling,” it will lose the sense of sincerity, subtle indigenous hint of acceptance of the other race. Besides, it is also awkward for a Malay girl like Orked to convey intimacy in a foreign language like English, which will often sound “forced.” The director’s portrayals of such perplex diversities and, at the same time, transfusions of language further reinforced the heterogeneity and multilayeredness of our nation makeup. Through deliberate design of complex characters and their association or detachment with each other, the director shrewdly extends the idea of the absence of “pure culture” or “pure ethnic group” in a multicultural nation, and that culture is indeed constructed. Through constant interactions among ethnic groups, cultural hybridization is unremitting. Peranakan and Marginal Communities
Apart from the main characters, Jason’s Peranakan mother appears prominent albeit her appearance only in limited screen time. Peranakan refers to the descendants of the very early Chinese immigrants who have partially adopted Malay customs in an effort to be assimilated into the local communities (Wikipedia, n.d.). Portrayal of Peranakan character in this film is Portrayal of this unique ethnic group on one hand addresses the success of intercultural integration, and on the other complicates and weakens the rigidity of strict racial classification, i.e. is Peranakan Chinese or Malay? Their physical traits are Chinese, but they behave like Malays and practice Malay customs. In the film, Jason explained to Ah Keong that Peranakans Asia Culture Forum 2006 – Whither the Orient Session 1: Nations in Transition
came about because of the interracial marriage of early Chinese migrants with local Malay women. This is of course folktale that lacks expert endorsement. The director redeems herself by explaining, through Jason, that that information was sourced from a menu of Nyonya restaurant and not from a formal history book. However, she exploited this (mis)perception to project her skepticism and cynicism to the many restrictions of modern time interracial marriage, as grunted by Ah Keong, “but today, when we’re supposed to be civilized, it’s so hard.” The director spent a great deal of time explaining the origin of the Peranakan through Jason, which has no importance in pushing the narrative forward. When asked by Jason whether he know what Peranakan means, Ah Keong inattentively answered, “not really lah.” One may suspect that this is the director’s indictment of the ignorance and indifference of Malaysian in general towards the many cultures inherited by the nation. Other cultures, subcultures and minorities are reduced to mere labels, their rich ethnocultural history and development are never (fully) comprehended. Hence, by employing a Peranakan character, the film serves as a medium to preserve certain disappearing unique culture, or at the least, call for attention to the same. The official construct of Malaysia as consisting of the “ethnic trinity,” i.e. Malay, Chinese and Indian, is a gross misrepresentation of the ethnic reality in Malaysia. There are over 80 ethnic communities in Malaysia, including hybrid ones. (Nadarajah, 2004: 4) For long, Chinese and Indian ethnicities have suffered from under-exposure or total wipe-out from national cinema, let alone other minorities and marginal ethnics. While some of the films did employ Chinese and Indian casts, they were often been objectified into certain stereotypic characters. For example, Chinese are always businessmen who will do nothing more than investing money, or speaking in such Hokkien-accented Malay that degraded them into slapstick comedians. Such portrayals not only misrepresent but accentuate the “foreignness” of the Chinese communities, and further marginalize them. In respect of this, Sepet serves as an antithesis to break the normalization of stereotypic Chinese images by Malay films. While Teck Tan’s Spinning Gasing briefly delved into the identity crisis issue of Eurasian, other minorities and marginal groups such as aboriginals, Mamak (Indian Muslim) and Asia Culture Forum 2006 – Whither the Orient Session 1: Nations in Transition
migrants are still being left out from local mainstream films. Bluntly speaking, even the Malays are being misrepresented in the form of homogenizing, due to the fact that “Malay” is actually an imagined community made up by communities. There are indeed differences among Kelantanese, Minangs, and Acehnese, although they are all classified as Malays. Mamaks, who are racially Indians but Muslim, officially belong to Malay classification. Simply put, it is impossible to locate a homogeneous Malay ethnic group. In response to “the direct and indirect urge to stop messing about with the culture and to start preserving it,” the director wrote four elaborated articles on her weblog to contest the view of the existence of “pure” Malay language and culturerding to Yasmin, most languages originated from or crossbreed with others, so do cultures and people; especially when she reckons a vast number of Malaysians are from multiple ethnocultural backgrounds. Stated herself as half Javanese, a quarter Bugis and a quarter Japanese, and a long list of casts and crews on her set who are also “racially impure” (in the director’s own words), I guess she has Theme of Love Overcomes All Obstacles
The theme of Sepet has been spelled out in the prologue when the Peranakan mother casually told Jason, “I really like this poem… Strange, a different culture, a different language, and yet we can feel what was in his heart.” By writing about romance of a couple from different ethnic groups, it is obvious that the director uses it as a metaphor to reflect the multiethnic Malaysia. Typical melodramas often dramatize interracial relationship as forbidden or impossible quest. Take Spinning Gasing as an example, the main crisis and failure of the interracial relationship is deeply rooted in the religion differences and cultural incompatibilities. According to Yasmin, viewers have always been fed stories that advance interracial relationship as problematic until such notion has become a commonly accepted point-of-view, 1 The four articles are “Pure Malay?,” “If ‘Bahasa’ Came from the Urdu ‘Bhasha,’ Shouldn’t our National Language be Hindi?,” “My Recent Article, Uncut Version,” and “In Praise of Mongrels” from <>. Asia Culture Forum 2006 – Whither the Orient Session 1: Nations in Transition
but such objections and problems have neither occurred to her Malay family nor her Chinese or Indian boyfriends’ families (Al-Attas, 2004). Undoubtedly, the director is aware of the taboos or presumed consequences of interracial relationship. The director said, “I had to make it obvious at the beginning that these kids were of different races before I could ignore the fact with any degree of aplomb.” However, in Sepet, the conflicts unveil, and were quickly resolved A few scenes could sum up the director’s intention here. First, when Orked was confronted by Lin’s boyfriend who accused her of looking down on her own race, and that she is ironically only good for a slit-eyed Chinese. This accusation, instead of tearing her down, was quickly turned down by her own defense by putting forward the fact that for many years, Malay males have married outside of their own race, but it has never been questioned. Immediately, Lin’s boyfriend was tagged a male-chauvinist and his accusation made invalid. When Jason arranged for a meet-up for Ah Keong and Orked, Ah Keong showed his reluctance stating that “Chinese boys should not go out with Malay girls.” He then backed up his point highlighting the hard cold fact that when Chinese marry Malay, they have to surrender their names, convert to Islam, have circumcision, and are forbidden to eat pork. Incapability to carry the family name and continue the bloodstream is often seen as a mortal sin to conventional Chinese. But in the reversal of event, the moment Orked stepped into the restaurant, Ah Keong was clearly charmed by her. In later scene, Ah Keong explained that his ignorance was due to his lack of interaction with Malay community. The other characters that are directly affected are perhaps both main characters’ parents. Jason’s Peranakan mother was shown supportive, so was Orked’s liberal mother. The only possible objectors would be both fathers. Jason’s father was on wheelchair hence deemed powerless. Orked’s father has had faint objections towards Jason (although not clearly racist) but was again tactfully shown as father’s jealousy, a universal trait of fathers. All these are probably the director’s conscious efforts to normalize the acceptance and tolerance of cross-ethnic relationship. Yasmin stated, Asia Culture Forum 2006 – Whither the Orient Session 1: Nations in Transition
It is important to note here that the last thing I wanted was to make the central crisis in Sepet a racial one. I have never believed that race was ever a real issue when people hated one another. I have always found, without fail, that racism was just surface stuff. When I scratched that surface and went just a little deeper, I invariably found that that prejudice was rooted in more basic human weaknesses like Fear or Greed. (Ahmad, 2004) The director’s themes of acceptance, negotiation, and love conquers everything, could be implied into the multiethnic and multicultural setting of Malaysia, that the heterogeneity co- existence of all ethnicities in harmony can indeed be achieved if we could see beyond physical, cultural and socially constructed differences. Representation of Film Discourse: Reality or Fantasy?
People might criticize the director for being too idealistic, that her portrayal of the multiethnic society is merely an Utopianism. But it is a much awaited fantasy by the audience, as a Chinese panel of the censorship board after viewing the movie declared, “That’s a Malaysian movie.” Responses flooded the local movie chatrooms, forums, and the director’s However film is not mirroring the society without any distortion and bias (Bennett, 1998). It cannot be seen as an absolute reflection Malaysia. No matter how verisimilitude or autobiographical the films are, they conceal the director’s subjective perception and interpretation of the issue, rather than simply passively reflecting an existing reality. It is the director’s own reality through recollection of memories and observations, and reconstruction of One function of art is of course to reflect reality as we know it. But another much-neglected function is to propose other realities, to portray the exceptions, because these lead us to imagining possibilities. (Sa’at, 2005) The positive and apologetic portrayal of the tolerance and acceptance of diverse Asia Culture Forum 2006 – Whither the Orient Session 1: Nations in Transition
cultures in Sepet can then be seen and interpreted as the director’s ideal psyche of our Multicultural and multiethnic themes and stories are up to now not conditioned to flourish. Even so, with the recognition of the multilayeredness of cultural-historical formations, they leave powerful yet intricate impact, and provide endless possibilities of contents for filmmakers. Internationally-acclaimed director Tsai MingLiang reportedly claimed to return to his homeland to shoot I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone (2006) due to its multiethnic and multilingual setting. Emergence of these oppositional films, although late, as if agreeing upon the non- essentialist conception of nation-state cinema and response to the recent accounts of national cinemas which seek to resist the homogenizing fictions of nationalism and to recognize their historical variability and contingency, as well as the cultural hybridity of nation-states. (Crofts, 1998:386) Sepet demonstrates to us that a film would be able to transcend from a mere medium of cultural discourse to an active plane of discussion. National identification thus can be a proactive process, through film medium or national cinema, rather than a unidirectional myth-creating process by the dominant group. Through its theme and messages, and the portrayal of multicultural ethnicities in their indigenous settings, lifestyles, languages and interaction with each other, Sepet is able to show a possible Malaysia as a nation consists of multiethnic communities living in harmonies, not without problems but willing to understand each other, resolve the problem, and to the extend of tolerating each other. Works Cited
Al-Attas, S. (2004, June 14). “Yasmin’s Days of our Lives.” New Straits Times, Life & Times. <>. Ahmad, Y. (2004). SEPET – notes from the writer/director. Retrieved October 5, 2006, from Asia Culture Forum 2006 – Whither the Orient Session 1: Nations in Transition
<>. Anderson, B. (1991). Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origins and Spread of Nationalism. Rev. ed.. London: Verso. Bennett, T. (1998). Media, “Reality,” Signification. Culture, Society and the Media. Eds. M. Gurevitch, T. Bennett, J. Curran, & J. Woollacott. NY: Routledge. Croft, S. (1998). “Concepts of National Cinema.” The Oxford Guide to Film Studies. Eds. J. Hill, J. & P. C. Gibson. London: Oxford University Press. Hall, S. (2005). “New Ethnicities.” Stuart Hall: Critical Dialogues in Cultural Studies. Eds. D. Morley & C. Kuan-Hsing. UK: Routledge. Muthalib, H. and Wong T. C. (2002). “Gentle Winds of Change.” Being & Becoming: The Cinemas of Asia. Eds. A. Vasudev, L. Padgaonkar, & R. Doraiswamy. New Delhi: Nadarajah, M. (2004). Another Malaysia is Possible. KL: NOHD. Sa’at, A. (2005). Eyes Wide Open. Retrieved September 23, 2006, from <>. Shukri, E. (Producer), & Ahmad, Y. (Writer/Director). (2004). Sepet. Motion picture. Malaysia: Wikipedia (n.d.). “Peranakan.” Retrieved 4th October 2006, from <>. Beh Chun Chee holds a BA in Communication and an MA in
Screen Studies, both from University Science Malaysia (USM). He is currently lecturing on Broadcasting at the University Tunku Abdul Rahman (UTAR), Malaysia. He was previously involved in postproduction of TV commercials, TV programs and films. Asia Culture Forum 2006 – Whither the Orient



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