International successes set to boost creativity of Malaysia’s film industry

Generally, the local film industry does not have the international acclaim of the movies of its Asian neighbours such as Thailand and South Korea.

Hazlin Hassan

Hazlin Hassan

The Straits Times


In March the country had its first Oscar winner in the form of Malaysian star Michelle Yeoh, who won the Best Actress award. PHOTO: AFP

June 19, 2023

KUALA LUMPUR – Malaysia’s recent successes on the international film stage are set to give its movie industry a boost, as local talent find ways to express their creativity and overcome censorship without needing to venture abroad.

In March, the country had its first Oscar winner in Malaysian star Michelle Yeoh, who won the Best Actress award for her performance in the indie sci-fi flick Everything Everywhere All At Once (2022), which also marked the first time an Asian snagged the award.

In May, film-maker Amanda Nell Eu became the first Malaysian to win an award – the Grand Jury Prize – at the Cannes International Critics Week with her debut feature film, Tiger Stripes. It was also shown at the Sydney Film Festival, being held from June 7 to 18.

Another Malaysian, Adele Lim, was one of the co-writers of Disney’s animated feature Raya And The Last Dragon, which was nominated for an Oscar in 2022 for best animated film.

Yet the local film industry generally does not have the international acclaim of the movies of its Asian neighbours such as Thailand and South Korea.

Yeoh’s success could be attributed to her having started her career in the movie industry in Hong Kong in the 1980s before moving to Hollywood.

But other talent, such as Eu, are now being recognised without their having to step outside the country.

The 37-year-old film-maker’s debut offering, which was made in Malaysia, is a unique “body horror” film, about a girl who enters puberty and starts experiencing horrifying physical changes, morphing into a tiger-like creature.

Eu told The Straits Times that she drew inspiration from her own body and experiences.

“I like to use my body as a tool of storytelling.

“One of the most violent changes going through your body is puberty. It’s a drastic change for everyone.

“So I wanted to explore that sensation and, of course, you know, puberty is sometimes like a body horror because, especially if you don’t know what’s happening to you, it can be incredibly terrifying,” she said.

The movie’s release in Malaysia is being discussed.

When asked if she felt that Malaysians in the local film industry can succeed only if they venture overseas, Eu said: “At the end of the day, Tiger Stripes is a Malaysian film, I live in Malaysia.”

What helped her was working with international partners, having been awarded public grants from eight countries and territories – Malaysia, Taiwan, Singapore, Indonesia, the Netherlands, Germany, France and Qatar – she said. She has also submitted the film for many other international competitions.

This year in May, film-maker Amanda Nell Eu was the first Malaysian to win an award, the Grand Jury Prize, at the Cannes International Critics Week. PHOTO: AFP

Local sensitivities may also be a factor in deciding whether or not a movie gets a release in Malaysia and finds commercial success.

Malaysian movies need to be vetted by the Film Censorship Board of Malaysia in order to be released, and while the country is multiracial and multi-religious, the country’s majority Malays are Muslim.

One of the many movies banned here include Hollywood director Steven Spielberg’s 1993 holocaust movie, Schindler’s List, after he refused to allow a heavily censored version of the movie to be shown.

Reports then said that Malaysia wanted to cut chunks of the movie due to claims of Jewish propaganda.

Another Hollywood movie, Brokeback Mountain (2005), was barred as it depicted homosexuality.

Despite the censorship and other challenges, such as funding and a smaller market, insiders say the Malaysian film industry is changing as film-makers and producers seek new avenues for their artistic vision and freedom.

Last year, local company Kuman Pictures raised RM335,981 (S$97,400) via crowdfunding platform Indiegogo to produce Pendatang (Immigrant), a dystopian thriller set in a racially segregated country, expected to be released later in 2023.

Its founder, Amir Muhammad, whose films The Last Communist (2006) and its sequel, Apa Khabar Orang Kampung (2007), were banned in Malaysia, said that with the world becoming increasingly borderless, people do not need to venture abroad in order to make a name for themselves.

“The main restrictions come from our own individual lack of talent, drive and chutzpah,” Amir, director of the films, told ST.

“If a film runs afoul of the censors, you can opt to sell (it) to streaming platforms. We plan to release Pendatang for free online because it was totally crowdfunded. We want to bypass all official as well as commercial considerations.”

Tiger Stripes is set in Malaysia and is a horror story about a girl coming to grips with a terrifying secret about her physical self. PHOTO: AKANGA FILM ASIA

Referring to Eu’s success, he said: “The fact that a first-time Malaysian female film-maker could win the top award in its category in Cannes without needing to move overseas is a sign that there are opportunities for those with talent and dedication.”

He said that the success of local film Mat Kilau: The Rise Of A Warrior, which was inspired by historical events involving Malay patriots who fought British colonialists, proves that there is a robust domestic market for local work.

It earned RM97 million at the box office in 2022, becoming the highest-grossing Malaysian film of all time, after screening in cinemas across Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei for 50 days.

The local movie industry grossed RM187.7 million at the box office in 2022.

Mr Michael Simon is managing director of Homegrown Productions and has produced some of Malaysia’s highest-rated entertainment programmes, including reality show Raja Lawak, which searches for comedic talent.

He said: “Although we have very strict rules and regulations by the censorship board which seem to hamper the creative freedom of directors, which could seem to be restrictive… if anything, it should make you more creative. It’s how to tell your story and work around these restrictions.”

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