In Tash Aw’s column, Freeze Frame, he explores his favorite masterpieces of Asian cinema. In this installment, Yasmin Ahmad’s Orked trilogy.
Still from Yasmin Ahmad’s Mukhsin (2007)
In the heart of the old town in Ipoh, Malaysia’s third largest city, a cluster of colonial-era shophouses has been saved from destruction and, over the last decade or so, reincarnated as a hipster enclave. Boutique hotels with concrete and plywood interiors and cafés serving single origin coffee sit next to kopitiam, the traditional eating houses of Malaysia. It’s a beguiling cocktail of history, modernity, and multiculturalism that seems to perfectly embody the youthful energy of the country. Nestled in a back lane in one of the most touristy parts of town is a small crowdfunded museum dedicated to the work of the filmmaker Yasmin Ahmad, who, at the peak of her powers in 2009, died from complications arising from a stroke. In the first decade of the new millennium, she had made six feature-length films in the space of six years. She was only fifty-one when she died.
A picturesque city with a heavily ethnic-Chinese, largely Cantonese-speaking population, Ipoh is the setting for two of Ahmad’s most loved films, Sepet (2004) and its sequel, Gubra (2006). (A prequel, 2007’s Mukhsin, is set in a rural town a hundred miles south). Away from the frenetic and sometimes overwhelming rhythms of life in Kuala Lumpur, Ipoh is the perfect place to understand why Ahmad’s films left such an indelible mark on the emotional consciousness of many Malaysians. Its leafy middle-class suburbs blend happily into a compact city center whose architecture—less a victim of rampant real estate development than in other major cities—reflects the country’s rich mixture of ethnicities with their distinct languages and cultures. Here, the effects of Malaysia’s racial politics still feel secondary to the easy harmony of everyday life.
The three films that make up the loose trilogy revolve around a young woman called Orked and her quest for love, identity, and independence. Ethnically Malay, religiously Muslim, Orked has—according to her Malay friends—an unhealthy interest in Chinese people and culture, by which they mean Chinese Malaysians, who account for the country’s largest minority, rather than anyone from the mainland. Orked idolizes Takeshi Kaneshiro, the Japanese Taiwanese screen idol, and has watched Fallen Angels several times over. With her wisecracking friend Lin, she goes to the street market one day to buy more of his films, and at the counterfeit DVD stall, she meets a young Chinese vendor, Jason. It is love at first sight.
Wrapped in the framework of a comic teen melodrama is a constantly unsettling examination of race and class distinctions in Malaysia. Watching these films again, in a country made increasingly anxious by the politicization of racial differences, I’m reminded of the confrontational quality of Ahmad’s films, of the uncomfortable nature of hearing the same things delivered on screen that people say in real life. The casual racism that Malaysians live with on a daily basis takes on a distinctly threatening tone when captured on film, even if the film purports to be a teen romance.
Sepet is the Malay word for “slit-eyed,” a term that Orked’s ethnic-Malay friends use to describe Jason and other Chinese characters, so we know from the outset that the two young lovers have a tough time ahead of them. But this is more than just a formulaic story of Montagues and Capulets: in a country like Malaysia, Ahmad’s portrayal of innocent interracial love represents a challenge to the official narrative of nationality and belonging. I was six years old when I first heard the expression Cina babi (Chinese pig); balik Tongsan (go back to China) followed soon after. At first I thought that these things were being said to a random passerby from Beijing; I had no idea they related to me. By the time I understood fully what they meant, the idea of being Chinese, and somehow distanced from the idea of Malaysian-ness, had become so much a part of myself that I thought about it as little as I did the birthmark on face. And yet, at the same time, I felt fully embedded in Malaysian life—in its cultures, languages, and history. What was I to do with this split personality? Listen to the official narrative that had me down as a migrant, or guest, or carry on living life as any ordinary Malaysian? Watching Ahmad’s films for the first time, I felt as though the dichotomy that was me, and so many other Malaysians, was finally being articulated on screen.