Wednesday, December 30, 2009

You Can't Go Home Anymore


I stepped outside of the house, feeling somewhat bored by the warmth inside. Now there's an idea: being bored of the warmth. What an ideal it is to have right now, as the snow is falling, the temperatures are decreasing, and the bitter cold sets in. Near the end of semester, everyone wants the editing room with the heaters; people huddle around the single heater that is available in the department room.

I pulled the chair, sat down, and started lighting. The smoke billowed against the wind, disappearing altogether into the nothingness of the cold December air. December, still, is it? Sometimes I lose track of times. The Mondays quickly shifted into the Tuesdays, mornings into nights, this year into the next. Soon enough.

I looked at my watch, bearing in mind the number of hours left for them to sleep. Three of them, trawling around the streets of Seoul, now on the verge of returning home. I've decided to sacrifice myself for the greater good, staying awake until the break of dawn. That's so they won't miss the bus, so they won't miss the trip back home.

Home. Lucky bastards, the lot of them.

They get to go back to warm weather, to brilliant, varied and delicious food, to the comforts of their friends and families, to their boyfriends and girlfriends and partners and dogs and cats and...home. A lovely concept, romanticised by its locale being where the heart is. I suppose all this while, their heart is where their home really is.

A dog barked, in the distance. Somewhat menacing, it sounded, the kind that would make the hairs in the back of your neck stand. The kind you'd hear out of nowhere, as you're walking down a dark and quiet street, with only the sounds of your own footsteps as your friend, keeping you company and telling you that, yes, you're not alone. Not yet. Lonely, perhaps, but not alone. And then a dog barks from beyond the steel gate right next to you, and you jump slightly, breath out of rhythm, out of focus, out of touch, cut short by the steam arising from your own mouth. A breath, usually invisible to the naked eye, now a sight seen, shaken by the fear that suddenly instilled itself in the situation.

That kind of bark. It is the bark to scare, to intimidate, with menace. It's done it's job of protecting that home.

Home. I suppose now even that dog has more of a home than I. Its heart and mind's in the right place, but where does that leave me? After the fear subsided, after the moment has passed...where does that leave me? Back where I started, back where I was a moment ago, in a place that is not quite...home.

No, it's is beautiful. Korea is beautiful. London is beautiful. They've all played significant roles in shaping me, in changing me, in forcing me to look at myself in a way that I wouldn't want to look at. Funny, that; outside of the majority I become even more of the majority than I expected myself to be. I became more Muslim, yearn for more Malaysian news, read more about Islam, thought more about how and what I can do to bring about the changes I want.

Of what I can do for my home. But where is it? What is it? The arms of a fractured family? The house of lost memories? The circles of friends and relationships that brings with it the limits, the boundaries, the sense of expectations that no longer applies? A house, building, country, chair, bed it is not. What it is...is the one place that we can all go back to and feel the familiar air. The air smells familiar, the water doesn't taste weird, the sofas doesn't have a funny smell to them. You flinch not at the floor when stepped on with your bare feet, you know what the switches do, and you don't actually want to kill (metaphorically or otherwise) the person next to you.

It's a place where you know everything, where the holes are and where dogs, sleeping or otherwise, lie. Every single nook and cranny.

You can't go home anymore.

That was the title of a Battlestar Galactica episode. It tells of the story of a ragtag fleet, the last remnants of mankind, on their journey to find Earth. A place to call home.

The bitterness of the cold set in once again; it felt as if the temperature dropped a few degrees in just a few minutes. My chest contracted, my body shook involuntarily. Move, move, back into the warmth, the devil tempted me. Come into my embrace, and save yourself, the angel tried. I resisted, letting the claws of winter sink in, clamping me tight within its grip, refusing to let me go. I shut my eyes, letting it make its way all over me, slowly traversing its way up my feet, my arms, all the way to the center of my soul, of my heart. Come in, I said, come in, for this is my heart, this is my mind, my body, my soul, my everything.

This is my home.

Monday, December 14, 2009

The Forgotten


“You're tempting fate.”

She put down the shot glass, giggling as she did so. Lee looked at her with amusement, but one could say disdain was hiding itself somewhere within that. The smile, unconscious, was a given; Kara was well and truly drunk.

At least it would appear to be so. Her eyes weren't particularly red. Cold, perhaps. Blue, certainly. But red? The tell tale signs of a person, a woman, who had lost control, lost charge of her own will? No.

For if there is one thing that Kara could never be accused of, it is of losing control of her own will. Even in the short time that Lee has known her, the hours that they have spent previously eating and drinking, that much was obvious.

“Hmm...” came the slow reply, drawn out in a guttural manner. “If I have a fate, then it is set. I ain't thinking about it, and I ain't gonna make it happen any sooner.” Pause, then another giggle, before she reached for the bottle once again. It nearly slipped from her grasp, but Lee, ever the gentleman, helped her on her way.

“OK, fair enough,” he said as he did so, “but flying...when you're thinking about dying...it's a bad way of doing business. You're gonna get scared and you're gonna start second guessing yourself!”

“I'm not scared.”

It knocked the wind from him; this time the bottle nearly slipped from his grasp. Fortunately, by then it was already safely in Kara's grasp. Not that she didn't notice; she giggled loudly, pulled it cleanly, if groggily, from Lee's hold, and waved her forefinger in the way a mother might admonish her child.

“You said that you think about dying every time you get into a cockpit,” Lee said, pushing on and gamely ignoring her finger. He couldn't, however, miss her nodding her head, and neither did the change in her eyes go unnoticed either. “Hmm...” was the only vocal reply. How else, then, to point out the obvious to any sane person of the incredulity of the statement? “Well,” he started, gesturing his arms widely as if that would bump some sense into Kara, and pumped as much exaggeration as he could into the situation, “hello!”

“Yeah, but...it doesn't scare me,” she started. Her eyes almost closed, her eyelids flickered momentarily, “like...that's what you don't get.”

Lee cocked his head sideways, quizzically. There's something here, something missing, that...no, it's not quite missing, it's there, right in front of him. The answer is right there, and yet...

“What, so...it's, uhm...Kara Thrace, fearless warrior,” he allowed himself a smile at the thought of Kara half-dressed as Wonder Woman. “Right?”

This she smiled at, probably at the same thought, as the alcohol kicked in. Even a short giggle, a quick burst of femininity that reminded Lee that beneath the tough veneer of fighter pilot, Kara is still a girl, a woman, a human being. A complex one, like everyone else passing by on the street, like you and me.

“No, no...I know fear, and I get scared. It's just...it's not of dying.”

A brief moment of connectivity does not make for a fair understanding, but what they have here is not a brief moment. It is not but a second, an infinity that plays back and forth, in the past, the present, and the now.

Kara is human, and now, the shields are cracking. Lee gave it some thought, considered rubbing his jaw almost as if to make a point of doing so, but decided against that. Not that it meant his next words weren't carefully chosen or delivered.

“So, then...what does scare you?”

Her fingers trailed the rim of the shot glass. The bottle, grabbed earlier, were not poured of its contents, their earlier intentions all gone long ago the minute they became deeper with each other, the minute that Kara decided to say that, for once, it's OK. It's OK to open up and let go of the worries and the troubles, to all that she have held on to.

It's OK.

She looked up, into his eyes, and let go.

“Being forgotten.”

*A reimagined scene from 'Battlestar Galactica'.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Babi Club


Lovely little place, this is.

I took a sip of my tea, handling with care the beautifully adorned cup. Its gold motif was striking, yet subtle. I especially liked the thin little line running across the rim. It gave off a whiff of elegance, style, class. Much like the Armani suit the adorned my hard body, much like the haircut that screamed 'NEP golden boy', or the glasses that shouts sophistication, of weekends spent in Apgujeong rather than Sangwolgok. Me no more from that part of town. Me have climbed up.

I looked at my watch, the golden Rolex ticking along noiselessly. What kind of Rolex is it, I wondered, as I raised it closer to my face, making the act of checking for the time an elaborate one. Showing to the whole wide world, for what it's worth. Who cares what it's worth? Look, everyone, it's a fucking Rolex.

I leaned back, sufficiently convinced that no, she had not stood me up. Not this time, not again anyway. Not after the begging and the grovelling of the last time. She can't leave me, not again.

Please. She can't afford to. Who else is going to give her what she wants? Who else is just as capable?

All that ran through my mind as the cute little assistant shashays her way over to me. Is that the right way to spell it? I thought as my eyes are fixed on the outlines of her slim figure coming closer and closer. Who cares. I considered the various little things I would do on top of the sweet talk we had earlier. Who knows, perhaps by the time the clock strikes twelve, I be tapping that...

"I'm sorry, sir, you have to leave."

If I was still holding the cup of tea, I would have dropped it on myself. As it stood, I reacted as if I were, as if the hot Jasmine had spread all over my crotch.

I stood up with rage, erect with volcanic and furious anger.

"OK," I said calmly. I grabbed my coat and went out the door, swinging it over myself with style as I did so.

As I stepped out into the streets, I turned to take one last look at the club. Inside, the revellers droned on with their worthless lives, living the life filled with symbols saying, "Look at me, I'm rich, bitch!" The day will somehow come when they will realise the disparate difference between what they think, and what is the truth. Between image and reality, desires and capability, between ladder rungs and glass ceilings. They think they're important, they think they matter? They have no idea.

At least I wasn't dreaming anymore. I unclipped the Rolex from my wrist, flicked it into the drain, and started walking down the street, down the direction whence I came from.

It was fake anyway.

Light


"Sufficient time is rarely taken to study light. It is as important as the lines the actors speak or the direction given to them. Light is a treasure chest: once properly understood, it can bring another dimension to the medium."

Sven Nykvist, cinematographer.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

MNC


I recently attended a conference that looked at the multicultural aspects of certain societies and films from that society. The day before that, a couple of films, namely Amir Muhammad's 'The Last Communist' and 'Gubra' by Yasmin Ahmad, were screened for the general public. I didn't quite manage to make it for the screenings, however. "Have you seen it before, though?" asked Amir after the conference. "I managed half of it, I think," I replied, recalling some years back in an NGO office when I helped out on an orang asli documentary/propaganda video.

The conference itself was rather interesting, because we managed to take a quick look (and I do mean quick) at the multicultural aspects of Malaysia, as well as how multicultural Korea actually is. There are, of course, some really simple answers that comes out of this. Korea is about as monoculture as monoculture can get within the modern world, while Malaysia practically lives on the messy, fucked-up, multi-level mixing of various cultures that grew out of half a century's worth of (inter)national evolution.

Of course, the truth must be said: when it comes to issues such as this, there is no such simple answers.

"I would like to know your opinions on how important you think the media, and in particular films, are when it comes to validating how multicultural a society or a nation is," I directed the first of my question to the panel of filmmakers and activists. They had all finished doing their respective speeches (the Korean feminist got on my nerves, though, with her simple branding of South-East Asian women in Korea, but more on this later); now the very short time has come for the grilling. "People look at films from Malaysia, and say, 'Wow, it's multicultural,' so I'd like to know the panel's viewpoints on this issue. Secondly, can we truly use such films or songs or media as a barometer of truth? After all, for the most part, they remain largely fictional endeavours."

I thought it was a fair enough question, one that allowed enough leeway for them to interpret it without being particularly messy. Instead, half of them got mixed up and thought I was talking about multicultural films ("Yes, it's important to have such films."). Amir got close enough, and gave a suitable reply: "I think that ultimately, on some level, the films we make will always reflect a part of us. Any film that has an audience cannot exist in a vacuum." In other words, Malaysian films tend to be multicultural because Malaysia itself is multicultural.

Or is it? I feel that in describing what is multicultural, its somehow important to further define the term first. To me, at least, I go for the basic and simplest answer of all: of having influences of more than one culture. The question, then, becomes how multicultural a nation or a society is, rather than whether it is merely a multicultural one to begin with. We are, after all, living in times where such barriers are easier to cross, and so even a society like Korea's is somewhat multicultural to a certain extent.

That's not to say that Malaysians are multicultural by default. There must be a distinguishing mark that is made between a society and its people. The Malaysian society, as I have experienced it, is multicultural. For sure. I mean, there are not that many places around where you can have your racial and religious appetites whetted no matter where you come from. You like films? Take your pick from the Malaysian, Hollywood, Indian, Chinese, Hong Kong, and other regional offers on regular offer at the cineplexes. Same goes for your songs and what not; Rain probably sells more records than half of the locally-bred artistes. We have more cultural-related and religion-related holidays in Malaysia compared to Korea; after all, nobody gave a shit about the passing Eid-Mubarak here in Seoul. And they tell you Islam's the second biggest religion in the world, and make up a couple of percentiles of the total Korean population.

But the people? Malaysia has a multicultural society, but it does not directly mean that people are automatically open to other cultures and religions. I suppose it merely gives us a nice little context, an opportunity to grasped, to actually be truly multicultural. It gives us a chance to be fluent in several different languages, to truly respect the customs of others, without having to leave our own borders. We have the chance to interact with people who are not the same as us, people who have had different experiences and understandings when it comes to life. I find it to be an interesting notion; if America is a melting pot of cultures, then we're...well, just as melting a pot as America is, in that sense. It is, however, merely a chance. There's always room for improvement, room to be more understanding and tolerant of others, room that is not always filled with the proper action and/or intentions.

"Got no pork meh," said a friend's girlfriend as we searched for a restaurant early Saturday morning in downtown Ipoh. We settled on a Chinese restaurant, and I was deciding which of the food I'm actually allowed to eat. She had suggested something chicken-ish, I told her that it's probably not halal. That was when she said about the pork: "Can't eat the chicken? Why?" Some of us looked on in slight shock, as my friend quickly tried to explain to her. It was a small moment, but it was a moment that stayed with me even until now. A Malaysian who had lived in Malaysia for practically her whole life...and she doesn't know why I'm not supposed to eat non-halal meat. Given such a situation, it makes me wonder about others who may not know.

Hell, it makes me wonder whether I myself am missing something.

Thus, multiculturalism (or otherwise) is not something that should be assumed lightly. Korea, by the same notion, is heading in the right direction, in the sense that people also have chances to be multicultural in their own way. They do learn English in schools. Some even learn Hanja in their younger days. But how far do they take it? How many of such chances do they grasp? Perhaps, in a purely statistical context, Korea has less 'cultures' compared to Malaysia, but I don't feel that the cultures that they are exposed to have less currency. Nestled in between Japan and China, with a huge amount of American presence both militarily and otherwise, it cannot be said that Korea (and Koreans) does not have a chance to be multicultural. People laugh when I say this ("So, what...having McDonald's is a form of being multicultural?"), but that is still a cultural influence from without, however lowly that culture is thought of. In my opinion, on some level, it still counts.

I have often said that people here generally don't speak English well because they don't actually use or need it on a day-to-day basis. At the same time, I have met people (mostly of the younger generation) who speak English very well without ever having left the Korean peninsula. They practice it, carry it on from their high school days, learn it, bang it into their head. One of my actors in a previous film can speak basic Japanese; acting in Irwan's film, there was a scene when he needed to write Hanja. We all oohed and aahhed as he magically created the Hanja words that needed to be written down.

So how multicultural is Malaysia? How open is Korea to cultures different from its own? The general, simple answers are always dependent on the kind of images that people actually want to portray, which can always be positive or negative, depending on their agenda. It shouldn't be dependent on the kinds of films the society makes (because if you really want to be picky, I'd say there's a strong European influence in many of the top-line Korean films). It should be dependent on the people, on the definitions, on the opportunities and chances that people exploit and create for themselves.

Even if it is merely trying to properly read the McDonald's menu in English.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Hotseat


“Is this something that can push things forward?”

I put the script down, being careful not to get it smudged by the dew marks from the ice blended Mocha. It didn't seem like a big challenge, but somehow, surrounded as it were by boxes of cigarettes, a couple of lighters, and a near-overflowing ashtray, it became more challenging that I thought. I made it through, somehow.

“Can you use this to get a chance to make a feature film?”

That was Tony, my cinematographer. We were couched, as it were, together, at the 2nd floor at the Itaewon branch of Coffee Bean. Discussing our film together, he had come up with some criticisms of the storyline. It's not a new thing, this; I am rather used to people telling me the opposite of what I actually want to hear, which is actually what I want to hear.

Confused? I love criticism. At times, I thrive on it. It may not seem that way before, but over time, I find myself dealing with negative feedback far better than I do with praise and plaudits. Beyond a simple thanks, I don't really know how else to react when someone say, “Wow, Fikri, 'My Father's Son' really touched me. It was so great!” They'd then go on to further illustrate how good it was, bringing into play a parallel from their own life. Which, of course, made it even more difficult for me to be comfortable in that situation.

With criticism, however, it's not such a bad thing. With criticism, I feel that there's always a part of me that's ready to swat things away. The script, 'Fly Me To The Moon', has been in 'circulation for a long time. I had thought of the story and its basic outline years ago; I had practically finalised it for shooting last year, before deciding to eventually push it back. Dragging it back out for my graduation project, me and Tony had sat down to discuss how to actually visualise the whole thing.

Hence, the criticisms.

In a way, though, they are not criticisms per se. Not of the kind that I am keen to have, anyway. I can deal with a lot when it comes to the bad words of others; it's a thick skin I developed from the harsh bullying of my secondary school years. It doesn't mean that I don't get angry, it just means there are less ways to hurt me by way of words. It depends on the person, rather than the words themselves. In this case, they don't hurt. I trust Tony with a lot of things, and especially with my film life. Perhaps I shouldn't, really, but that's the fact.

The fact of the matter is Tony also has an inquisitive mind at the best of times. We had discussed the majority of the shots for the film, and he visibly squeezed the mental juice out of his brain as he tried to understand my ideas, my shots for the film. Now, at that moment in time, with less than two months away from the shoot, there are still plenty that has to be clear. I don't do storyboards, which is why it's imperative that Tony understands what I'm trying to say.

“I don't think this would have much of a problem getting into film festivals,” he explained. “But I do want this to be something that you can use to make feature films with.” He then explained how he felt the emotional journey of the character could be further improved, highlighting this by balling both his fists and placing them on an imaginary graph somewhere in front of him. This is the beginning, this is he end, this is when the brother did this, this is at the beach. It was good information, it was good feedback, even if it wasn't something that's truly new.

It was, however, relentless. Tony's own ideas comes in after the mingle of ideas that had been the two professors I have had since I decided upon this script. Many who I discussed it with also had different ideas. The constant flow of other people's vision flooded my mind, and made it even more difficult to hold on to what I originally had intended. I suppose this is not necessarily a battle that is fought by filmmakers, or by artists across the spectrum. The battle of wits, of words, of ideologies, of the strength of one's personality to hold on to one's vision can be long and weary. The final say is mine, but the constant railing against my walls by others can be exhausting.

It doesn't hurt, it just tires.

He took off his glasses. His eyes were red, somewhat glazed. I surmised that he didn't have enough rest the night before. I was one step ahead of him; my glasses were off a long time ago. They tend to come off when I get deep in thought, as though the lack of focus concentrates my mind on making a decision.

That, ultimately, is what directing is. It's decision making. Snap, snap, snap. In the heat of the moment, it's these kinds of questions that comes at you, sharp and fast, left and right, affording you no time to truly catch a breath. What kind of angles should we go for? What size? How should the actor be feeling at this moment? What should his body language be like? The clothes, should they be of a certain colour? Speaking of colour, must the environment reflect that of the actor's or the scene's mood? What kind of props and items should be in the background? Shall we go with the master shot first, or do the close ups? What about this shot, instead of that? What if we do the actor's hair like this? His make-up? Glasses? Why don't we do a dolly shot for this? What if he says this line instead in this way?

How, what, why, when, who, where, why, why, why. Even in pre-production, the questions all come straight at you, and it is from you that the decisions are made. It's a form of pressure management; my father would say that filmmaking is problem-solving. That's not untrue, but the problems (or not) arises from the decisions you make. Sometimes, when you're at the head of the table, the pressure can be a little more intense. Imagine, then, the pressure of filmmakers dealing with the studios and other such power-brokers, people who could make or break your career within a single moment. What kind of pressure must Michael Bay be under when he made 'Transformers'? How did Bryan Singer control the madhouse that must have been the 'X-Men' and 'Superman' films? Others have wilted under this pressure; by making short films, then, I am practising dealing with this, dealing with the decision-making process to ensure that the final product will be dramatically viable.

I suppose within that process, you'd have to be a little bit of an egomaniac.

“Probably not,” I finally answered. It was a long silence from the question, but it was what it was. For all of the ideas that people give me, of which some is good, some is bad, it doesn't beat the honesty that comes from within. “I don't think this film will necessarily or directly lead me to a feature film. But I still want to make it the way I want.” It is a reason that I cannot quite use to effectively swat away some of the questions. It is a weak sword, less strong that the word it carries.

But it is a reason that is the most important, the most difficult to hold on to, the most challenging for people to find acceptable, and yet the simplest of all the answers.

That's the way I want it. It lies thinly between conviction and arrogance, but there is no other reason that ultimately drives me the way this one does.

Sometimes, holding on to your vision is really as simple as that.

Sometimes.

Friday, November 20, 2009

First Snow


“Chot nun!”

It was light, it was soft. You could barely make it out against the dark exterior of the night. I had to strain my eyes to even make out the rough outline of each of the fallen. I stepped out further, reaching out with my hands. Sometimes, that which cannot be seen, can be felt. I extended my fingers, and tried to feel for it.

Late night/early morning, depending on your interpretation. It should have been the end of a long day, when the clock ticks 1AM in the morning. For me, however, it's the start. I am the lead actor in a short film, and we were just about to begin our penultimate day of shoot. It had lasted a week up until now, and there's just a little more distance to cover before we can call it a day/night.

It had been an interesting experience, but a challenging one. Enticed by the advantages, as usual I discarded the disadvantages. One of that would be the timing and the schedule. But then again, what is life without the sacrifices required to live it?

Dispirited, down, washed away, almost, by recent events. Emotionally, physically...difficult. The brighter days are ahead, but sometimes...sometimes, you need just a sign.

“Chot nun!”

Then I felt it. It drops, ever so slightly, like little flakes from heaven, and it is still hard to make out from the darkness. Nevertheless, I felt it. I felt it on the tips of my fingers, and then I began to see.

I see now the first snow for what it was. The coming months will be difficult, for the winter will be harsh. The cold will be bitter, the loneliness...the loneliness will be what it always will be. Times will be challenging. They have been up until now, and they will continue to be in the future.

Nevertheless, the beginning, the calm before the storm, the first snow, is always a time of hope. It is a sign that no matter what happens, things will somehow, someway turn out to be OK. The first snow, then, washes your worries away for a moment, and now you feel it not just with your heart, but also feel the burden lift from it.

Everything is going to be fine.

“OK, guys,” I said, turning to go back in. “I'm freezing my butts off. Let's finish this.”

Friday, October 30, 2009

Lament


alone she sleeps in the shirt of man
with my three wishes clutched in her hand
the first that she be spared of pain
that come from a dark and laughing rain
when she find love
may it always stay true
yes i beg for a second wish i made too
but wish no more
my life you can take
to have her please one day wake
to have please
to have her please just one day awake
to have please just one day awake

*Lyrics to 'Gaeta's Lament' by Bear McCreary.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Fallacy of F1Malaysia


Many words have been written of the entry by the Malaysian government of a supposed national Formula 1 team beginning from next year. My initial instinct, though I have a tendency to support such attempts, is one of fear and apprehension. Fear at the lack of knowledge by people high up in the food chain, and apprehension at the team's potential success. I will not, therefore, attempt to regurgitate the same points over and over again. Rather, I'd like to take this opportunity to address a couple of points that I feel both the team owners (and indirectly, the government) and the commentators have failed to properly address.

From the majority of what I have read, it appears that one of the main objectives of us getting into Formula 1 as team owners appears to be one of of promotion. Malaysia can never be accused of lacking ambition and propensity in this area, so I am not surprised that this is one of the stated goals. However, it should be noted, first of all, for those who's not in the know...that Formula 1 is not really about promoting, marketing and publicity. Sure, such aspects are incredibly important, as they bring in the money, but what is that money used for? It is used for racing.

At its very core, Formula 1 is about men (and the odd women) who step into the cockpit and do battle on circuits all over the world in a bid to claim the title of being the world's best. The modern-day version of these battles appears to be somewhat diluted and less reliant on the abilities of the actual driver, but make no mistake about it: to enter Formula 1 with the sole purpose of promoting yourself just because it actually has a big audience is a big mistake. I will not claim to have followed F1 since its inception (how could I, I wasn't born in the 50s), but I do have a deep-seated interest in the sport. Recently, I have not made a bigger effort in following the races, but I did not stop following the developments within it. While my knowledge may be somewhat lacking compared to others, I do know that there are many, many teams who have messed up big time because they appeared to have their priorities elsewhere.

Historically speaking, the use of Formula 1 as a marketing tool is nothing new. People pay for advertising space on the cars, and the cars go about promoting these badges. Nevertheless, the amount of money they pay is used to seriously and consistently develop the car. The serious sponsors come in to expand their market presence, but they know that it is a primarily the team that wins races. They give the money to the racing team, and the racing team get down to the ground to...well, race.

For example, companies like Marlboro, Panasonic and Johnny Walker wants to promote themselves, but they do so by supporting the teams financially. They do not run the team by way of interfering directly with driver selections, team tactics, or other such technical decisions. In fact, such interferences in the past have often proved to be somewhat politically disastrous. The Ligier policy of selecting French drivers worked well until there were no French drivers who was good enough to drive for them left. Other drivers were selected based on the money they brought to the team, but time and tide showed them to be unworthy of a spot in F1 (Gaston Mazzacane, anyone?). Hence, if you want to promote yourself, there is a place for you as a sponsor, but going the whole hog as a team owner in order to promote your wares will only show you up. Did they not study the first season of Lucky Strike Reynard British American Racing BAR Honda?

That point in itself leads me to the name of the team, or rather, the slight confusion surrounding it. Reading the news and its reactions online, it seems to me that people think that the team itself will be called the 1Malaysia F1 team (or something of that variation). Perhaps misguided journalists themselves were to blame here, rather than the team owners themselves, but the official statement from the FIA clearly states that the name of the team is Lotus F1. The name of the company that owns the racing team is 1Malaysia F1 Team Sdn. Bhd., but the name that will flash up on screens all over the world during races is Lotus F1. What's the difference? Put it this way: the name of the company is Ferrari S.p.A, but the name of the team is Scuderia Ferrari. It doesn't really matter, in terms of brand recognition, if there is little difference between the two, but that is not the case here. They can probably try to amend the name of the team before the start of next season, but I don't believe that's how things are usually done unless extra money is being paid to effect that change. Maybe it will be 1Malaysia Lotus F1, or some variation of that, but make no mistake about it: unless there is no change on this front, the name of the team is Lotus F1, and not 1Malaysia.

Which brings us to 1Malaysia itself. Ever since the concept was mooted by our prime minister, I have to admit that it is not an idea or vision that adds value to previous concepts mooted. Even the idea of 1Malaysia itself is somewhat vague, but the answers given up until now, such as being a concept of unity, suggests that it is more of a political exercise than a practical reality that people can actually use to further their lives positively. That's me being extremely kind in this particular post; on a more crueler day, I may well feel inclined to describe it as utter bullshit. "It will be a national team under the 1 Malaysia banner which stands as unifying foundation for all Malaysians to come together in celebrating the cooperation between our multi-ethnic, multi-cultural and multi-religious society through sports." Whatever it is, it is not one that even Malaysians are that familiar enough to have a clear definition of the top of their heads. And yet, it appears that it is this concept, this idea, that is being promoted in Formula 1. What is it? What is being promoted? And how will this promotion be considered a success? Is it a success if the team is a success, or is it merely an exercise in expanding market awareness of the brand of 1Malaysia? If it is Malaysia that is being promoted on a global scale, instead of the 1Malaysia concept, then it is more understandable, but the same questions remain. How would we measure its success? If there is indeed an increase in tourism, how can we properly discern that it is directly due to our F1 exploits? And what is it do you actually want to promote? People interested in finding out more about Malaysia may not actually like what they may find. For example, let's take a very quick and unscientific look at what's going on in Malaysia now through the website of The Star. Under the section of 'Most Viewed', there's a story about a boy hit and dragged by a car to his death, Malaysia apparently attempting to patent its own food, political problems in the opposition, and khalwat in Terengganu. Under the 'Nation' segment, we have the Penang Hill train having problems, the police intending to round up people because of leaks of documents that could shed light on Malaysia's biggest scandal, and an international report recommending that separations between the public, private and political sectors (a common concept of fairness practised in many other countries) might be a good idea to fight corruption in Malaysia. Would we want them to dig deeper and find out about cow head protests? Even more so, would we want to them find out about our esteemed ministers defending the said protesters, and the government trying to censor the media about it? If we're going to put ourselves out on a stage like Formula 1, we better make sure that the things we put out there won't embarrass us.

And who are we promoting to? According to the numbers released by official studies, F1 regularly attract viewers of around 600 million every season. These are official numbers, and the word “official” is important. This means that the numbers are tallied by the same people who run the sport and own the commercial rights to F1. Thus, the words 'interest' and 'conflict' can be neatly arranged by your good self. Furthermore, such numbers are not exactly representative of the people who actually follow F1 enough to be influenced by its advertising. Previously, the numbers have always been bumped up by what I would call padding figures. It's like this: a highlight of the day's F1's race would be shown on the nightly news programme. It may only take up a small portion of the sports section (which, in itself, is not particularly long, compared to national and international news), but the powers that be would actually count the viewing numbers for the whole news programme, and add it to the total. You can apply this to a number of other programmes such as racing magazine TV shows, and the end number will always look far more impressive than it actually is. I do not know how the current numbers are tallied, but I do think that we should not take figures like 600 million at face value.

What kind of image do these figurative 600 million feast their eyes upon? In terms of racing, it has not been particularly bad, but the image of the sport itself has been particularly toxic as of late. The whole sport is still reeling from charges that last year's Singaporean GP was fixed. This is a particular blow to me, as one of the people I respect, Pat Symonds, turns out to be one of the main actors here as well. This disappointment is absolutely huge, but it is merely the latest in a long line of scandals that have rocked the sport. Prior to this, don't forget about Liegate (Lewis Hamilton being cheeky in Australia), Spygate (McLaren engineers being cheeky), and...er, Mosley-gate (the president of the governing body of F1 being more than just a little cheeky). Yes, blue chip companies are still pumping the cash in, and I believe it is this image that Malaysia wants to get in on, but I do not believe that Formula 1 is currently the place to be in if you want to promote things. "What I do know is that there is something fundamentally rotten and wrong at the heart of Formula One," said multiple world champion Sir Jackie Stewart. “Never in my experience has F1 been in such a mood of self-destruction.”

And this is only if you're winning! In terms of getting started on that, I think getting Mike Gascoyne in is not a bad choice. He is an experienced and proven leader, but only if you give him a free reign to do what he wants, when he wants it. A look at his resume made him look glamourous: apprenticeship under Harvey Postlewaithe at Tyrrell, with successful stints at Jordan, Renault and Toyota. However, at the first sign of trouble, the first sign of lack of support, Gascoyne would probably be the first to jump ship, and to hell with the consequences. I don't know if this is the environment that he will be given, and even more so when the stated aim is for the cars to be “made in Malaysia by Malaysians.” Quite apart from further illustrating the almost singular aim of merely promoting the nation, the idea of F1 cars produced in Malaysia is not a particularly good one. Generally speaking, teams who have based themselves outside of England find the footing to be unequal. Toyota, based in Germany, is hampered by local labour laws that restricts the amount of hours its people can work. Its solution: just to match the same level of productivity of the teams based in England, they had to double the amount of staff on their books. Furthermore, the team doesn't build a racing car all by itself. The teams, for example, don't make their own brakes, but Brembo does. It's practical and convenient to get the brakes quickly if they're based down the road from you, but not if they're on the other side of the continent. The engines, coming from Cosworth, would have to be flown over from England as well. This would take time and money that could definitely be better spent elsewhere. This is a big part of the reason why, despite claiming to represent India (and Russia in its previous incarnation as Midland F1), Force India never moved from its base in England. USF1 also appears to be doing the same thing as us, but at least they'll be based in the established motorsport country that is North Carolina (most of the NASCAR teams are also based there). As it stands, the team will first be based in England, which is probably one of the few wise things to have been decided thus far, but when we consider the cost of having our own national team, we should also think of the costs of trying to get a motorsport industry up and running back home in Malaysia.

Thus, the running of the team should be a job that is done willy-nilly. Yet that is exactly what is going on right now. The current team principal, Tony Fernandes, has already announced that he will quit once he managed to get things going. That runs smack in the face of even F1 logic. Quitting after getting things settled? What do you think this is, a bloody sweet shop? If there is one thing that is needed for success, it is to get good people in, and then to keep them there. McLaren has a reputation for doing this, where they hire a lot of good people seemingly with the intent of doing nothing more than to prevent them working for other teams. There are the odd success stories, like Brawn GP, but even that in itself is not a new team by any means. People need to be in there, to stay there, and to work over long periods of time. Things like this takes, at the very least, a year, to develop both the business and the technical side of things. You don't wake up in the middle of the night and say, “Yes, I'll run a team tomorrow.” No, it takes time to build up to even the slightest chance of having any success whatsoever. You need time to design the car, to build the car, to test the car. Neither do you decide to run and say, “Yeah, I'll start this up, then stop in a few months.” Stability is key, and stability is not what this team appears to have. Teams don't jump in and do well from the get go. This year's Brawn was essentially developed by Honda, while it is only now that Force India, after having raced for almost two years under the current management, is even beginning to register some points. And this is even with the team having a special 'relationship' with McLaren, using their gearboxes, hydraulic systems, and the same Mercedes engines. I have no doubt that Tony Fernandes knows his way around business, but perhaps his appointment is one that is only meant to fill the gap.

There are plenty more than I want to say on this matter, a whole lot more. However, I fear that if I do so, I may well end up at the front of my monitor all day long, because Formula 1 is not an easy thing to analyse. It's not easy to get in, not easy to be fast, not easy to win. It's even less so when the reasons for getting into the sport are not really sporting in nature, if at all. It's also going through a tough time, while the current economic climate has seen even multinational superpowers like BMW and Honda pull out.

However, that being said, I maintain a modicum of hope that the Lotus F1 team will be successful. It is always exciting to see new teams and new drivers line up on the grid come the start of the season. The Lotus name has a long and storied lineage, one that does not deserve to be sullied. The potential benefits to Malaysia, if the cards are played right, could be incredible. Owning its own F1 team is not something that our immediate neighbours can lay claim to. This is ground breaking, and I don't mind having an egg on my face for it. I truly hope that this endeavour will be a serious one and that it will be successful.

Unfortunately, that is hope merely for the sake of hope.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Dendang Perantau


“Fikri! FIKRI!”

I look up from my camera. The wide, open, green/yellow spaces of the valley will have to wait for now. My producer, Won Jang, has found a house that may well suit the film I'm about to make. He beckons me over; in the not-so-far distance, my cinematographer, Tony, plays with his Leica. I curse silently, and walked with a slightly heavy heart. The house was great, but that wasn't the problem.

It's Raya, dammit.

****

Early in the morning, 4, 5AM, perhaps. Some time in 2006. The sun has not yet reached its reach around the mountains in Jeonju. Korea is a very hilly/mountainous country. Even the most metropolitan of cities can't quite escape this face.

I huddle in, closely, looking once again at the script at hand. The headphones are pressed closely to my ears, Stan Bush's 'The Touch' blaring itself in loud in my ears, over and over again. It is somewhat inspirational. A friend has since noted that if I am obsessed with one thing, I will take it all the way to the other end of the world in terms of extremity. If I like a movie, I'd watch it again and again, finding out every single thing I could about the production, its cost, and download the script, analyse it, think of other potential actors/plots that could have been...

It's a song this time. 'The Touch'. A nice blast from the past, from my childhood. Once we are further away from it, we hold on to it, stronger, even as the invisible ropes becomes even more difficult to discern from the strains of reality. Childhood. Friendship. Family.

Raya.

It's Raya, dammit.

****

Damansara Jaya, 2007. I lay awake at night. Not that it was unusual, but it certainly was something not quite for the usual reason. I am quite the bat, if not the Batman himself. Dark, but not dark enough of a knight to take it all of the way.

My mind curses the split. It wasn't new, and no amount of cursing will reverse the hands of time, but it certainly made even the simplest of decisions slightly more difficult. Alternating is an alternative, but a decision, whichever way, has to be made. “You can't stay in KL,” was the firm answer from the both of them. “You have to be with family.”

Nevertheless, the decision, any decision that tips the balance one way or the other feels like some sort of trap, a trap that could inflame situations within further. North or south? Penang or Muar? Whichever it is, I have to make that decision soon.

It's Raya, dammit.

****

Today, 2009. The wind bristles softly in itself, making itself known amongst the din of the Koreans enjoying the day out at the sea. Family day, it may well have been. I wonder whether they would all still be there at the beach come two weeks later; I want the character, Ji-sung, to be almost by himself, in a wide open space, filled with nothing but sand and sea and the clear sky at sunset.

In my mind, I had imagined the beach I stayed at in Terengganu. Lovely, sandy beaches by the dozen. At least, it seemed like it. Well-spread out, people barely seen, so take your bloody pick. I certainly did that time, but such choices are not open to me now.

Yet, somehow, it is to Terengganu that my mind drifts to. Well, not Terengganu specifically, but Penang and Muar. My mother should have been done with the prayers and the hosting by now. I was there a few years ago. The pesky kids from the neighbourhood, innocent and cheeky, would double back in a few hours time to try to make more duit raya from my mother. “I was preparing the water, then I turned around, and I thought, 'Hang on, I've seen your face before...'” my sister analogised the day's events on the phone later that day. How I miss her.

“...Way',” Tony finishes. He was explaining something about a particular scene in 'Carlito's Way' by Brian DePalma. I honestly couldn't recall whether I had indeed seen it, and so asked for a brief description of the said scene. As I did so, my sight and gaze wonders and wanders slightly, though I never lost attention of what he was saying. I read some time ago that Sir Alex Ferguson had the same thing, thinking about one thing and concentrating on another. So if you're reading this, don't worry, Tony. I heard you.

The phone rings. “SELAMAT HARI RAYA!” comes a somewhat familiar voice. A female voice, cute, beautiful, incredibly pleasant to the ears. I imagine a most beautiful and attractive young lady smiling at the other end of the line. However, I couldn't recall knowing a beautiful and attractive young lady fluent in Malay who has a Seoul phone number. “Err, who's this?” was the feeble reply. She tells me, then I smile.

It's Raya, dammit.

****

Jeonju, 2006. I put on my songkok, applying the finishing touch to the traditional outfit I had usually worn during Raya. I look smart, even handsome, somewhat. If I am going to go scouting for locations today, I'm going to do so wearing my baju melayu.

It is the dark blue baju melayu that had stood the test of time. My parents had somewhat insisted on buying new raya clothes every year. I never saw the real need to do so, but gave in regardless at least every two years or so. Looking back, perhaps it was some sort of responsibility, some sort of sign, that they were trying to be good parents. To show that I lacked for nothing, least not of clothes, food, shelter, and love.

Love.

Such a big word. As is Raya. Big word. Big occasion. For families. A time to be with families. “Imagine working on Christmas/Juseok,” I was tempted to throw back at times. “Imagine coming home not to your family. Imagine having to make that choice.”

This year, I am grateful for the friends that I have made. For today, for my film, I am grateful for working with people I trust with arguably the most important story of my career so far. Others are in far more sympathetic situations that me.

However, it does not, cannot, and will not replace the gaping hole in my heart every year I spend Raya away from my family. Even if I do have to make the same choice every year.

It's Raya, dammit.

****

To Ibu, Bapak, Abali, Yaya, Adik, and Mak,

As I spend another year away from all of you during Raya, overcome with the guilt of the separation that comes as a result of chasing my dreams and pursuing the opportunities I've been lucky enough to have...nothing replaces us. Nothing replaces all of you, of spending time with all of you on Hari Raya, of bowing and shaking all of your hands in reverence and asking for forgiveness every year for all the sins I have done. As I grow older, I find myself becoming more and more sad at the passing of such moments, for I know that those moments now live on only in memories of yesteryears.

Despite all of this, know that I love you, all of you, very, very much. I miss all of you dearly, and find it difficult to hold back the tears as I write this. What I would give to wake up in Setiawangsa, in Muar, in Penang, in all of your arms, and be with all of you on this day today.

I love you.

Selamat Hari Raya, and Maaf Zahir Dan Batin.

Dear Malaysia


Dear Malaysia,

In writing this letter, I find it hard and difficult to put into words what it is that has been brewing in my mind and heart. Recently, on the 16th of September, we celebrated the 46th year of your existence, Malaysia. It is certainly a fine and long period of existence. Older than me without question, you are in many ways the embodiment of my emotions, of my hopes, my fears and my dreams all rolled into one.

After all, you are the land where my blood drops, where the citizens live one and prosper in peace, united in their progress. I take that from the lines of the songs that people sing up and down the country. Did you know...I once heard that song in a 70s Dutch film? I wanted to research about the filmmaker, Paul Verhoeven, and swotted up on all of his major film works. No mention of Verhoeven in his filmmaking days in Holland can be made without even a breath of 'Soldier of Orange' getting in the way. There was a scene of a university orientation, where a young Rutger Hauer was made to stand in front of other students and sing a song. He sang 'Terang Bulan', but of course, me being a Malaysian, and the tune being what it is, I literally leaned forward and jacked up the volume, squeezing the headphones closer to my ears. “Is that guy singing my national anthem?” was the first thought that came to mind. As it turns out, it wasn't, but in that one moment, then, an fair example of the globalised cultural permeations of the world: an Indonesian song, one that inspired/was inspired by your national anthem (delete according to how often you throw rotten eggs at foreign embassies), appearing in a film made by a Dutch filmmaker, whose country had previously conquered both Indonesia and Malaysia.

Culture. That's what you are rich with, Malaysia. Culture, race, religions, language, traditions. Whether it is actually one that is spawned from within the borders defined in the middle of the 20th century, or whether it is one that made its journeys across greats seas and lands, you decide. Or rather, others decide for you. But it doesn't change the one fact that is as true as the sky is blue: Malaysia, you are one rich, lucky bitch.

But wealth does not define a person or a nation, does it? For wealth itself does not truly equate to the quality of the subject matter at hand. I suppose wealth is merely the quantity, the amount of whatever it is that we have. Money, oil, land...material variables by which people measure a someone or some thing's greatness. After all, one cannot be rich without being a quality sort of person, right? At least, that is the ideal that is rooted within not just our society, Malaysia, but the society of others. Reach, and you shall receive. Aim for the sky, look for the stars, work your socks off, and all the dreams and ambitions within you shall come true.

In a lot of ways, that is very true. Nobody who has become successful did so without actually working hard. You may well find the odd case or so, the apple amongst the bunch who climbed to the top of the mountain by climbing up the easier path nobody saw, but ultimately, the essence of working hard and receiving the rewards for it stands. However, it is somewhat funny that while the journey may well be more important than the destination, what is adulated is not the trials and tribulations that most of us, Malaysians or otherwise, go through. I mean, you certainly have gone through a lot, Malaysia. What is put on the pedestal is the actual perception of the end rewards: one is successful and looked up at because of the car he drives, of the house he lives in, the university he went to, the languages he converses in.

Even more so than this, Malaysia, the people permeating your very land have a very defined and specific system that is also as strong as steel when it comes to judging success, to judging people. I find that in a lot of situations, a man's credibility is no longer limited to the physical things that can be attained through sweat and blood. No longer is a woman's ability merely defined by the career that she may well have carved out by herself. Unfortunately, when it comes to Malaysians, the issue of race and of religion doesn't extricate itself from the debate, any debate. It becomes the debate. There are also, of course, other factors that come into play. It isn't, of course, a new thing. There is always a certain tendency by people throughout history to define and distinguish ourselves more clearly from others by way of our skin colour and the direction of our prayers. There is always 'the other', and while it is a tool that is used to define those who are not from the same ilk as us, this very definition is also used as a way to define ourselves as who we are.

Who we are.

It's a pertinent question to think about, isn't it, Malaysia? Who we are? What are we doing here? Why are we all here? In 'Battlestar Galactica', the commander of the ship went one step further and stated that while we fought to survive, we never really answered the question of why we deserve to survive, given that we're such a flawed race. I won't, of course, pose that question here and now, because we'll be here all day (and as I am writing this particular post on Word, we're already at the 1012-word mark). The questions previous to that, however, are definitely pertinent, because quite frankly, I have never been able to figure you out, Malaysia Putting it lightly, you are one of the most fucked up countries I've ever had the pleasure of knowing. Of course, being my homeland and all, it can't be escaped (not that I actually want to). But I say that in the most literal and metaphorical of ways possible. Literal, because of the colonial influences that have bestowed themselves upon your green earth. The Portuguese, the Dutch, the British, the Japanese, and the British again. Your 46 years of existence may have come after the last Union Jack was lowered, but it does not hide five different conquerors, five different masters, five different powers who have seen fit to plunder your lands, to make us bow to them in reverence, to have raped you. They took with them back to their homelands our livelihoods, while we please ourselves with the fact that the word 'amok' in the English language came from us.

Metaphorical as well, because even to this very day, you remain fucked long after the British flag is lowered from flag masts all over the country. I'm am not talking here about political methods of fucking (that is most certainly another debate for another day). Rather, I always have had a difficult time to properly define you. What are you, Malaysia? A country, a nation certainly. An imagined community, most definitely. But what kind of country? What kind of imaginations? What kind of communities? Oh, for the beautiful mix of cultures, religions, languages, traditions and spirits. We are all Malaysians, we are Truly Asians, we are all united under the one banner that is inescapably Malaysian. We all have the same identity cards with the requisite pictures of ourselves that we wouldn't want to show to others, and we all have the same passports that all say we can't go to Israel (but some of us go anyway).

Yet, we somehow do not hold as strong to the same principles as, say, a Korean might. Most would settle for saying that yours is a rojak existence; I wouldn't disagree much, but it still leaves a lot of room for definition, I think. I believe that we are one of the luckiest nations on the earth. Our cultural mix is far more interesting and diverse compared to the London that I lived in over a decade ago (it may well have changed now, though); we are luckier than the Koreans for being exposed to such diversity. Yet what kind of luck is it that has been bestowed upon us? What kind of luck sees protests against temples with the heads of cows dragged through the streets, without immediate action taken against the perpetrators? What kind of luck sees the blatant gaps and differences between races and religions without doing much to accord each with the appropriate respect across the board? What kind of luck sees us getting some great things accomplished, yet fail as the simplest of things such as deciding what language we should learn Science in?

In this regard, and by extension of the previous point, I have never been able to figure out what a Malaysian is. Yes, of course, one who is a citizen of the country that is Malaysia, but beyond that...? I ask you this, Malaysia, because I find myself being sickened by the things that have been undertaken in your name. I find myself hurt by what have been done under the banner of Islam, a religion I was born into but believe in nonetheless. I cry as I hear of girls being raped, of people being forcibly removed from their homes. I cry at the lack of humanity that is rampant within you, the sense of discord and distrust that has been sowed into your earth time and time again. I whoop with delight at the fight that the brave and the few put up, and I plot my own path to charge and change things in due time. Nevertheless, the far and few in between may stand out in the crowd, but the crowd still sit down inactively. Blind, divided, segregated.

It is incredibly timely that I had just had an interesting conversation with my roommate. He lamented at the difficulty of language, of how it posed a barrier towards understand rather than promoting it. I replied that language could well be a barrier, but it is also a way of forming our own identity. Not only that, overcoming the barriers posed by language can also help to define us further as human beings. To overcome the challenges, the difficulties, the obstacles in our path. To become better people, a better nation.

Which most certainly cannot be answered without truly looking in the mirror, and asking, once again: what are we? What kind of people have we, Malaysians, become? It is a question that we can only answer when we are down and almost out in the dumps, because that is probably the only time when we aren't blinded by our own perceived success. We can't go further without knowing where it is we come from. What kind of country, nation, home have you become, Malaysia?

Quite frankly, I don't know. Or rather, I know what the answer is, but find it a difficult one to articulate nonetheless. I know that progress, true advancement in any field, cannot be achieved without teamwork. This is definitely one thing I have learned from my filmmaking endeavours. Even if one person is missing from the set, it causes an extra load on someone else; someone, just anyone, helping to do the slate can be a great, great relief. No film is done by the director alone, even if he does get the lion's share of the credits. The people outside of the spotlight are just as, if not more important that the people inside of it.

So we definitely can't go further without truly understanding the respect that is required for such endeavours. We cannot go ahead without trusting not only ourselves, but also other people. And yet, while I was there, I see it on an almost daily basis. The Chinese are out to get us, I'm told. We must buy this food at this restaurant because we must support the Malays. We must do this because of Islam, we must do that because of other people. Rarely do I see people stepping back and actually saying, “Wait, hang on...what's going on here? Is there something not quite right here, when we decry others based on their race/religion?” At least, I see this not from the people who truly matter, who truly have a power in changing the nation and its destiny.

Perhaps what it is that people need is to take a break, Malaysia. Maybe once in a while, what we all need is to just take a step back from you, from politicking, and just thinking how this would all pan out if the train continue to steam down the same track without pause. Because I can't see what the big deal is. I can't see why race and religion matter as much in the new world we are standing in right now. I can't for the life of me think why persisting with overreactions and underreactions in equal measure for political benefits will benefit us, Malaysia. Neither do I believe measuring one's greatness by the material variables can bring us forward. Honestly, I can't. Maybe it is just me, but it doesn't make much of a difference. Turfs wars, certainly ones based on the ideals that seem to be so important to many Malaysians, are no longer the way to go forward. People believe in fighting for themselves, for their race, for their religions, for their culture and language and traditions, but they do the most inexplicable things to get that point across. People claim that they are not racist or religionist (if ever there is such a term), but they still wouldn't consider marrying someone outside of their own race very much.

I hope that one day people will be able to see that ultimately, in the bigger picture, race and religion matters not a single jot. It is from my experience that I have been cheated to, lied to, broken hearted by, disappointed of...and not one of them has been because their skin has been paler, their faith stronger, their clothes better, their cars more expensive. Those things were done because people are stupid. People can be cruel. People can be heartless. People can lie, cheat, steal to their heart's content, but people will not do that because they are inherrently Malay. They won't do that because they are inherrently Chinese. They do that because they just do. They're human beings. They are desperate to do that...because they are human beings. We all feel the same things, over and over again, because we are all human beings. We all lie, we all cheat, we all steal, and it all has absolutely nothing to do with race or religion. Dammit, I know damn well I have done some things, Malaysia, that my parents wouldn't be proud of. Race, and religion, and culture, and all of these things, in this regard, does not matter, it just doesn't matter. They are strong, sturdy, and self-sufficient to a certain extent; cultures and languages will prevail, no matter the language we teach our kids Maths and Science in. Race and religion will also endure, even if people will inter-marriage or attend the same public universities. We, as human beings, will endure, somehow, because...that's what we are. At least, we have the capacity to. Perhaps that would have been a sufficient enough answer to the question I mentioned earlier: of whether we deserve to live.

Why do we deserve to live? Because we, as human beings, have the capacity to improve, to become better, and to learn from our mistakes. What kind of lives we would live? What kinds of people we will become?

I suppose that's up to us, and to you, Malaysia. I sincerely believe that we will endure...without having to kill each other. If overcoming the challenges of life are the measure of a person's character, I just hope I live long enough to see you, Malaysia, and the people within become the best that they can possible be as a member of the human race.

Happy birthday, Malaysia.

Love, Fikri.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Judge, Jury, Executioner

“It's not for me anymore.”

We were sat at the Baskin-Robbins in Hongdae, enjoying the sights and sounds of the city on a Friday night. It wasn't a bad view to be enjoying: the speaker system was playing some of the latest pop songs, while the ladies of the night were certainly a sight for sore eyes.

“I just don't feel like reviewing films anymore.”

I turn to him, digging another spoonful into the cup of Cookies and Cream as I do so. I know not why I am not particularly adventurous when it comes to my ice-cream. It's got to have some sort of chocolate in it; beyond that, I never felt the mood nor the need to try out different flavours (with the singular exception of a kimchi ice-cream some years ago). He is Edmund, a Malaysian filmmaker who is not without his renown. We were talking about our respective blogs, in my case my film blog.

“Now that I am making films more regularly, I just feel like I am not really in a position where I can write about films in that way again.”

I nodded silently. Ming Jin, another filmmaker, sat back quietly in the chair. I don't know how closely he is following this particular conversation.

“Fair enough,” I thought out loud, and soon enough our thoughts turned back to the lady in blue sitting a couple of tables down from us.

In truth, the above was the gist of what the actual conversation. A part of the reason is because I no longer retain the ability to recall word-for-word conversations that have floated around for days, weeks and months. Furthermore, recent events have reveled themselves time and again to prove me an unreliable witness, even as I lay claim to such iron-clad remembrances.

Nevertheless, it was not without thought that the above comments were passed. I understood truly what Edmund meant when he said that. When I started writing on my film blog over a year ago, I did so with hopes, as ever, of change. For my part, I had wanted to explore a little more my own abilities and talents, whatever they may be, in writing about films. I have always had a deep love for the movies, and writing about them seemed like a natural step. Previously, I had sporadically written for another online magazine, focusing almost exclusively on films. Almost, because I ventured into other areas like corporate social responsibility and the love for the other once in a while. Writing, it seems, will forever be linked to whatever future it is that I have; if not filmmaking, my pen would still scrawl above these pages.

Or fingers tap the keyboard.

In writing, however, I find that it is the uncharted territories explored that continues to surprise me. I find that in writing, I find the pleasure of discovering not only new things, but also the expression of it. I try, I try hard to express myself, but I still find room for improvement. My mastery of language is one of the keys to my vocation: one can never be a successful filmmaker without the ability to communicate. So with the film reviews, I was discovering a new path, perhaps new paths for myself.

I look back on such writings, and I realise and see how far I have come. In doing, we do not see for ourselves the changes that the doing brings about within and without us. Hell, even if such sustained efforts are made to see such changes, it does not obviously bring itself out. It hides in the shadows, poking its head intermittently, before diving right back into anonymity. In writing, I find that I write not only to judge films by its cover and its insides. I write to promote and bring to light films that may well not know the oxygen of the outside world. I translate articles and borrow blog posts from others to somehow help give an extra push of promotion and publicity, armed with the pompous belief that I can somewhat have a hand in helping to expose more of such films and filmmaking through the world. Many in Malaysia would not have heard of 'The Nines', 'Man From Earth', or 'JCVD'; likewise, those outside of the country might, just might enjoy a little flick through 'Budak Kelantan' or reading about the academia making its own films. Fazil, my fellow blogger, writes more about the stuff from Hollywood that blows our minds away. Together, there is a certain fit, a certain synergy. My father had always encouraged me similarly: "Keep on reading, keep on writing." I suppose in some ways there is a certain amount of filial piety that drives me too.

But while the above may be true, it is not necessarily the whole truth. I find myself writing not only to expose others, but also to expose myself. I had hoped that in watching the movies, in dissecting and further trying to articulate about them what it is that I myself feel inside, I may well become not only a better reviewer, but in many ways, a better filmmaker as well.

I hope in some ways to also become a better human being. In communicating, in writing, in expressing, I find myself doing and refining one of the most basic aspects of the human condition: to reach out.

I know not that I would write that sentence when I started this article. Discovering and reaching out for something new, something that has not been done before, and quite possibly something that won't be done again in the same way.

Beautiful, isn't it? :)

*Film for the day: '20th Century Boys' by Yukihiko Tsutsumi.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Metronomic Precision


"If the temple can be relocated by 300 metres, why not five kilometres?"

Azman Abdul Majid, SS23 Shah Alam resident, on the proposed temple being built in his area. I guess they'll have to settle for 800 meters instead.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

The Air I Breathe


Sometimes, it is the simplest things that escapes us. The truly trivial aspects of life that we pay not attention to; rather, we only come to realise it once the obstacles were laid upon by the powers that be, or once it has been cruelly taken or snatched away from our grasp.

Easily, it can be taken, for our grasp is the reflection of the perceived importance we ourselves laid upon it. It is a measure of how we see it, of how we see the world. How tightly would we have held on to that one thing, to that one person, to that one object that would make the difference between the darkness of despair or the birds singing the morning after, had we known that it may well be the last time for a long time we would have had such an opportunity?

How much more would we have given?

****

I woke up in the morning, feeling worse for wear. The air, stuffy, seemed like an enemy, rather than a friend. I couldn't breathe; any attempts as such would have only permitted a smidgen of oxygen into my lungs through my nose.

I had the flu recently. No, not the swine flu, nor any strains of the H1N1 virus that had been making its around all over the world. It appeared to be deadly enemy, yet it could yet turn out to be our friend.

Of course, though time proved that not to be the case, I thought that I had it nonetheless. Or at least, in the beginnings of attaining such symptoms. Slightly panicking, instead of slipping back into my customary sleep after checking the clock (8 o'clock on a Sunday morning), I rushed out of bed, as noiselessly as possible, so as not to stir my roommates with unconfirmed panic themselves. I went walkabout, looking for open pharmacies on a Sunday morning. Korea's been rather notorious for having unfriendly business hours, especially when it comes to the things that you truly need at the time when you need it the most.

Then again, I suppose that could have applied to a number of other countries.

After trawling the streets for an hour, I finally found an open pharmacy. I bought the meds, had some rudimentary breakfast (thus breaking my fast at the same time), popped the pills down, went back home, and slept. Later I went for a check up, and it was confirmed to be a minor case of the sniffles, the flu, a slight fever...but thankfully nothing more.

Nevertheless, for the past week or so, even doing the most rudimentary of activities proved to be a bigger task than it usually would have been. Getting down to the point, my nose was blocked, and I couldn't breathe well at the best of times.

The air, breathing it through the nose, inhaling and exhaling, the very link between the internal and external that keeps us going, the one thing that perhaps a lot of us (including me) take for granted on a daily basis...just wouldn't fucking go in.

Over time, with heavy doses of ginseng, honey water, medicines, mouthwashes (as prescribed by the school nurse), throat sweets...things improved. Slowly but surely. The nasal passages feels less shy, less inclined to block the air, and in the brief moments when I could breathe through my nose, it felt like heaven. A brief moment of respite, of thankfulness, of relief, which grew more and more until I am now completely healed.

A few days ago, I woke up, and the birds sang just that bit louder. There weren't any birds actually around, but that's OK. The air I breathe, I breathe in slowly, just glad that I was able to do so, that it was back.

Ah, for the pleasures of being alive.

In truth, there is little else that you and I could really, truly ask for.

Just to be alive.

*Film for the day: 'Y tu mama tambien' by Alfonso Cuaron.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Buy Sickle


*This is a true account from one of my film buddies, chi too. I am reposting it here from Facebook, warts and all, because I think it's a tale worth knowing.

dear friends and friends of friends,
as some of you were aware, me and my bicycle were denied entry into the LRT today. allow me to just tell this chronologically in point form

830AM as usual, i tried to get on the LRT in taman maluri, strangely this time, the security guard was very swift in denying me entry, when i asked why, they said policy and if the counter staff say yes, then he'll let me in. obviously the counter staff said no. i explained that i've been doing this for the past year (initially there were some resistance, but eventually it was allowed) and its been fine, they suddenly denied knowledge that they can recall seeing me with my bike ever.
I tried calling the LRT hotline but no one picked up due to it being a public holiday today. I then asked a friend who is public transport advocate who i can call about this and he gave me rapidKL's communication GM (hereon referred to as the 'comms guy')
I called the comms guy and he said he was absolutely unaware that foldable bicycles are allowed in. He offered a solution and said I should be let in but to wait until he deals with it with operations. he offered to let me in this time and then issue me a letter that would allow me to bring my bike in in the future if i flash it to security and counter staff... i thought it was absurd
10 minutes later, the counter staff told me that i can bring it in this time but not anymore. realizing that if i were to comply would mean that i would agree to not allow myself in anymore. That is unacceptable, so i refused to enter. Since my morning was wasted and will bound to be a waste, i decided that I should just sit in front of the turnstiles in protest of the situation.

930AM Realizing how pointless this is, I've decided that I should move this to Masjid Jamek. I cycled to Masjid Jamek and made a placard along the way.

1000AM As i descend into Masjid Jamek LRT, the security guard who saw me from afar strangely waved 'no' with his hands to me. At this point, it already seems like there must have been a recent memo to all LRT staff reinforcing the 'no bicycle' rule. I then proceeded to park myself and my bicycle in front of the turnstiles there and unfurled a placard that says 'ENTRY DENIED: RapidKL says no to sustainable green transport!'. A polis bantuan immediately approached me, seeing that I am not doing anything wrong, I ignored him and continued with the sit in

1030AM 3 men and a woman approached me, none bearing any identity and all in plainclothes. The woman tried to talk to me, i explained the situation and refused to budge as i have no idea who these people are (i assumed that they are plainclothes cops). The men then went on to manhandle me and my bicycle. Fearing for my safety I locked myself and my bicycle in a fetal position. After about 30 seconds of struggling, they overpowered me and pinned me down with my arms and legs spread. At this point, I admitted defeat and shouted to them saying that I will get up myself and walk myself. They then took my bicycle and my bag and escorted me up, a polis bantuan followed after. At the top of the escalator, I was anticipating arrest but nothing happened, the men returned my belongings and left. I asked the polis bantuan who followed them 'dia orang ni siapa sebenarnya' to which he replied 'saya rasa diorang ni gangster', I asked him 'kalau gangster, bukannya kerja polis ke untuk melindungi orang awam dari gangster, kenapa tengok saja', he shrugged and left.

1040AM I called the comms guy and he was apparently outraged at what happened, he says he'll send the Operations Director to come see me and I should not be carried away with the incident... ironically, i did have a few men literally carry me away. A fellow friend who also cycles, soon joins me.

1130AM The Operations Director arrived and i told him what happened. He denied the association with the thugs and expressed surprised that i wasn't let in. He claimed that foldable bicycles are always allowed in and there must have been a misunderstanding. I requested for him to escort me to see the polis bantuan that was in charge and to perhaps view the CCTV recordings of what happened. We went to see the polis bantuan and he insisted that I intended to stage a protest which I acknowledged, I then questioned him for not taking action if he thinks its a bunch of thugs... he was still very keen to accuse me of wanting to create trouble...seeing how futile this is, i committed his nametag and ID number to memory. I then went off to lunch as I was really tired, thirsty and hungry

1300PM I proceeded to make a police report of all that have happened at the Dang Wangi police station for the purpose of formalizing the documentation of the event. The report was recorded and the officer referred me to an investigating officer in Dang Wangi IPD If I want to take this further.

1330 PM I went home, ironically on the LRT.

I am now contemplating if I should take this further and report to the IO. I'm thinking not as I don't think they'll give a rat's ass and all I wanted was to have a formal documentation of all that has happened. I'm still thinking what I should do next, but I'm really tired now.

I need to tend my farmville now

Monday, September 07, 2009

310809


Recently, on the 31st of August, Malaysia celebrated its 52nd Independence Day, commonly known as Merdeka in the Malay language. The number of years attached to this is, to this day, somewhat disputed in some quarters, given that Malaysia in its current form did not exist until the year 1963. That particular year saw Singapore, Sarawak, British North Borneo and the Federation of Malaya come together on the 16th of September to form the country now known as Malaysia. Of course, things have changed from that point on, but the dates of August 31st and September 16th have become important milestones in the country's history, at any rate.

Not surprisingly, the celebrations this year are somewhat muted. Many of the celebrations back home were canceled, largely due to the outbreak of the A(H1N1) virus that is still to be effectively contained. However, my point of this particular post is to contend the issue of some Malaysians who refuse to celebrate it for reasons of dissatisfactions with the current administration. Many decided to wear black as a sign of protest; though I know not of the numbers this year, last year a fair number of people decided to promote the idea of flying the Malaysian flag upside down as a way to signal that the country is in distress.

In writing this, I am not in any way saying that the reasons for such actions are not unfounded. In fact, in large parts, I myself find that there is a lot that is incredibly questionable in how the country is being run on a day to day basis. It seems that almost every week, as I clicked on the news sites back home (a habit I find myself doing almost everyday; I may be far, but Malaysia and its matters remain somewhat close at heart), there is always something distressing going on back home. Racially-charged by-elections, political aides dying under mysterious circumstances, rallies being the flavour of the month(s), forcible evictions of people from lands, public money being dwindled down the drain...all these and a lot more makes me feel incredibly distressed, and, at times, angry.

Many a time I have pondered about the possible and practical solutions that could be done in order to bridge the gap between people and improve understanding of one another's culture. I have spent time both within and without the education institutes studying aspects of the various religions and cultures of the world. In fact, I find that it is as important a part of my job/would-be-job as a filmmaker. Filmmaking is about telling stories, and stories invariably reflect the life/lives that the film is being made in, one way or another. Whether what is portrayed on-screen is actually a part of the filmmaker's own point of view is probably another story (pun intended), but invariably we can always deduce the filmmaker's not only understanding but also respect of the environment of the story. In other words, I feel that a great storyteller must somehow be able to absorb and reflect, to a certain extent, the social context that he is in. In doing this, I find myself being more drawn towards the great number of similarities rather than differences between people. There will always be something different, I suppose, between a Malay and Chinese of any kind, but going beyond the issue of race, we would see that there is a bigger race commonly known to all as the human race. We share the same fears, the same hopes for the future, the same aspirations for the present, the same needs for the day.

Ultimately, at least.

Ultimately, then, having had a grand total of 52 years to govern ourselves, I find myself somewhat disheartened that such issues are not only existent, but also actively and subtly encouraged by others for devious means. The solutions are many, and the solutions are of various practical levels, but here is the most practical part that I somehow feel people sometimes forget.

That we are independent.

We are not free from the chains of tyranny that still rules the roost to this very day. That is very clear. In fact, it is a little to clear for comfort. We do not have as big a freedom for speech, expression, and public gathering as we would like. That is the most unfortunate of circumstances to be in, but one reason, the main reason, why I feel that we should still celebrate Merdeka the way it should be and always have been celebrated is that we are free from the control of others outside of the country. We depend, of course, on others for support, economically or otherwise. But we are free to make our own decisions. The leaders we have are the ones who are from Malaysia, who have been picked by the system that we have in Malaysia. I find that people often do not place as much importance in the fact Malaya, before its granted freedom in the late 50s, was ruled by foreign forces for the longest of times. For over half a millenia our lands were controlled at various times by the Portuguese, the Dutch, the Japanese, and the British. The rule in the land was officially changed five times, meaning that we were practically conquered five times. I always have a difficulty thinking of another country who were a big a colonial slut as we were. The resources, people, intellect, land, machinery and ingenuity, for better or worse, were always for the benefit of others who came from outside of the country.

Thus, I have always felt that it is this particular chain of tyranny and control that we should celebrate breaking. When we became independent for the first time, it was the first time we were free to make our own choices in 500 years or so.

As it stands, a lot of things do not appear to be very bright at this moment in time. It's not to say that everything is doom and gloom in the country. Far from it; in comparison to a lot of countries, we are actually pretty lucky in many respects (and I include England and Korea in this comparison). It's just that it is fair to say that we have not fulfilled our potential to the best of our abilities. Perhaps in some ways, that in itself is a gross understatement.

But we are free. Let's put it in another way, one that that the anarchists would probably delight in hearing. If we are not at all happy, the leaders who are responsible for driving us into this situation to begin with are all holed up in Putrajaya. That's practically an hour away from the heart of the Malaysian capital, give or take traffic conditions. If you want to do something about it, you don't have to go all the way to England to protest (unless you're trying to sue the British government and the Queen, that is). The freedom to do something about it is there if we want to take it.

At least on some level, I think that is a freedom worth celebrating.

*Film for the Day: 'The Diving Bell and the Butterfly' by Julian Schnabel.