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Foreign Influence on Malaysian Cinema

Write about the History of Malaysian Cinema.

Malaysia does not have a prominent ranking in the world cinema; however, Malaysian films stand out due to their cultural and historical significance. The Malaysian film industry comprises of people of diverse nationalities; therefore, from the beginning it has multicultural and international involvement. The earlier Malay movies comprises of melodrama, horror, comedy and romance. In the 1950s, the realist tendencies in the cinema began to emerge and the movies began to adopt more positive themes. It was due to the entrance of Filipino and innovative film directors and producers in the cinema. The first film producers were from India and consequently, film producers from China and Singapore also contributed to the Malay film industry. The earlier films in the Malaysian cinema were made in different languages, for example, Chinese, Tamil and Malay. The activeness of the foreign nationals can be observed in the earlier movies like ‘Laila Majnun’ and ‘Penarik Beca’ (influence of Tamil Cinema) and other countries such as Hong Kong and Japan.  During that period, the movies were made at Studio Merdeka, Kuala Lumpur. The likes of S.M. Chistry, Runme Shaw, David Teoh were prominent film producers during this time. After 1962, most of the Malay films were made in the Malay language, dialogue delivery and characters were based on the bangsawan style or Malaysian musical orchestra. In these movies, the dialogues were created like ‘syair’ or poetry, wherein the dialogue delivery and tempo were very similar to bangsawan. In this period, most of the movies were created in the Malay language and movies in other languages were almost nonexistent (Thoughtsonfilms, 2009).

In case of Malaysian cinema, attention has to be paid on the Chinese, Indian and Tamil movies as they have been critical in developing the present stature of Malaysian cinema. Due to the multi-ethnicity and participation of the foreign nationals, the history of the Malaysian cinema is quite distinct. In the context of Malaysia, the foreign film culture has been intricately linked to the local culture and the characters of the popular foreign movies have been reciprocated in the movies (Heide, 2002).

Till the year 1981, a film production company could function in all the three sectors of the film industry, namely, production, distribution and exhibition. During this time, Shaw Brothers and Cathay-Keris were the most prominent production studios and virtually controlled the entire Malaysian film industry.  Subsequently, several small scale film producers complained to the Malaysian government that due to the monopoly of few production studios, they are unable to gain access to film exhibition outlets. As a result, the government banned the film production companies to operate in all the three segments. However, the distribution/exhibition sector in the Malaysia remained autocratic as these production houses were strong and had knowledge of cinema chains of the entire country. (Heide, 2002)

Malaysian Cinema's Studio Era

The history of the production sector of the era can be divided into two major segments, namely the studio era from 1947 to 1977 and the independent phase from 1974 onwards. The film production in Malaysia began in 1930s but it was fragmented and unsuccessful. As discussed above, the studio era was dominated by Shaw Brothers and Cathay-Keris, both of which were Chinese business organizations; at that time, residing in Singapore. In the context of the directors, most of the movies were directed by the Indians; although the number of Malay citizens participating in film direction steadily increased from 1960s.  During this time, a third studio, namely, Merdeka studio came into existence. Conclusively, it can be stated that the Malay movies have distinctive feature that most of the actors and roles were played by the Malay people; however, all the backstage work and responsibilities were handled by Chinese or Indian filmmakers.

Subsequently, in the independent phase of the Malay cinema, it shifted in Kuala Lumpur and the production companies were headed by Malay Malaysians. During this period, most of the movie directors and writers were Malay and the number of Chinese and Indian movie directors steadily declined. However, a few Hong Kong filmmakers came over to Malaysia and made movies which were later dubbed in Cantonese or Mandarin and later released in Malaysia. The bumiputera movies were more associated with Malay tradition and culture. Gemilang (Yusof Haslam 1997), Hanya Kawan (Harith Iskander 1997), Panas (Nurhali Ismail 1998) are common examples of bumiputera movies (Gray, 2015).

Recently, the Malaysin film industry is undergoing several transformational changes. The Malaysian government has envisioned a major transformational plan to uplift the status of the Malaysian film industry in the global cinema community. However, since Malaysia is a very small country, it represents inadequate or very small market even for the local film industry. Regardless of the small size of the country, it represents an ethnically diverse community. The influx of the international cinema and Hollywood movies has made the survival of the Malaysian movies difficult. Therefore, it is important to identify international markets for the film industry as the current market share of the company is very limited. Presently, the industry is also struggling with other regional cinemas and south-eastern film industries for example, Indonesian and Singapore film industry. A method of ensuring the thriving of Malaysian cinema is to enhance the creativity and innovation in the cinema. The National Film Development Corporation Malaysia (FINAS) is collaborating with the Malaysian Development Corporation (MDeC) in helping to inculcate creativity in the cinema. It has been identified that script writing is the challenging problem in the Malaysian cinema. The quality of the script is associated with the originality of ideas and the appeal of the script to the general public. It also includes the manner through which the entire script is narrated. The government is trying to overcome these challenges by promoting these movies in the international film festivals, enhancing the creativity level in script writing and editing, marketing and budgeting (Aziz, Hashim and Ibrahim, 2014).

Independent Phase of Malay Cinema

Structuralism is a popular film theory to examine the narrative and film content. A film theory assures a complete analysis of the film content. In the theoretical analysis of the films, the instrumental and the poetic modes of reception and the response to the film are examined. The film examination also comprises the possible storyline and idea generated by the film; however, it tends to have influence of the political and the aesthetic position of the film writer and the director.  Film writing is a niche category and different from other forms of writing; therefore, it is required that it have different examination theories. Despite its difference from other forms of writing, film writing shares few similarities with other writing modes such as film criticism and film philosophy. As film making is highly subjective and creative in nature, there is no theoretically identified position for the correct film. The commonality found in the films such as language spoken, written text, moving sound image or other things are used to develop film theories (Colman, 2014).

The primary aim of the film theories is to explain the films. Some of the major film theories are Marxist film theory, Auteur film theory, genre theory, apparatus theory, formalist theory and structuralist theory. The structuralist theory is a recently develop theory and uses codes and conventions to describe things. According to this theory, different shots are put together to convey meaning to the audience without saying a word. For example, a movie comprises of a scene, wherein the audience see a shot of a man’s face followed by a shot of a money bag. There is nothing said in the scene; however, the audiences interpret some meaning (Andrews, 2008).


Structuralism film theory is an approach that examines the films on the basis of symbols and codes to convey meaning to the audience. It is a similar to linguistic theory wherein different languages are used to construct meaning in the communication. However, as films are moving constantly with time, this theory uses a temporary framework to analyze the films. The structuralist film theory is based on the assumption that most significant aspect in films is the underlying structures. Structuralist theory analyzes the factors that shape the consciousness of film goers or more broadly human beings. This theory is in contrast to existentialism and phenomenology, wherein emphasis is given to the individual consciousness in order to examine some specific behavior. Broadly, it can be stated that structuralism is an approach to examine the human activity in terms of relationships and the position of the human beings in these relationships. In this approach, all the entities are examined in the same framework and the entities are reduced to be equal. As discussed previously, the ideas collected under structuralism are similar to linguistic theory. It visualizes the conceptual framework of semiology or the science of signs. Although, there is evidence regarding its presence since 1920s, it emerged only in the late 1960s in the western countries. In the recent years, the structuralism has become popular due to its method of pursuing the universal. With this paradigm, the researchers began to examine the underlying in all sorts of systems (Aaron, 2007).

Transformations in Malaysian Cinema

In the views of Tzvetan Todorov, the films or narratives can be studied in three levels, namely, semantic (the content), the syntactic (structure) and rhetoric (point of view). Among all these approaches, the structuralist method’s deductive approach identifies the culture that drives the story and recognizes the hidden codes below the text surfaces. The advantage of structuralism lies in its ability to apply systematic and scientific rigor; therefore, it was applied in several domains later. Levi-Strauss and Todorov were pioneer in identifying the applications of structuralism in films. The structural analysis can be used to analyze the network of repetitions and differences for the scientific interpretation of the films. It can support the journalism style film critic without any bias. The film critic and studies with the help of structuralism would comprise of film genre, auteurist criticism and narrative investigation (Aaron, 2007). 

Structure can also be defined as the process, or a combination of processes that develops a society and give different people different responsibilities in it. It supports the notion that the society structures have much more contribution in the development of the consciousness in comparison to the will and motivation of the person (Schaefer, 2015).


In the context of the cinema, there are several movies which have utilized structuralist principles to avoid dominant modes of cinema. The dominant modes of cinema are used by the mainstream productions wherein preference is given to the individuals in comparison to structure. Several filmmakers such as Costa-Gavras, Gillo Pontecorvo and Francesco Rosi utilize structure method of filmmaking. A common example of structuralism film theory is Salvatore Giuliano, in which the film director investigates the reasons why Sicilians turned Giuliano into a hero. The film does not focus on the heroic deeds of the central character but on the social deeds that turned him into hero.  The structuralism has also been commonly used in the Greek films, for example, Z and State of Siege. The film ‘Z’ has extensively used the structuralist approach as the central character of the movie investigates the truth. The hero does not have a goal but conduct an enquiry with no end. The films that fall under the category of structuralism are commonly based on political issues rather than the personal. In this essence, the films emphasizes that the self is less important than the structure wherein the person resides. The theory furthers the argument that it is the individual that exists for the society not the society that exists for individuals (McKibbin, n.d.).

In experimental cinema, structuralism is defined by form or structure. In other words, in structuralism, emphasis is given on structure rather than narrative. In the views of Adam Sitney, three primary characteristics of the structural films are fixed camera, flicker light and repetition without changes.  It appeared in the experimental films in late 1960s and adopted quickly due to its wide appeal to the audience. In structuralist films, the film form is much more important than the narrative. Famous structuralist filmmakers during this time were Andy Warhol, Peter Kubelka, and Joyce Wieland. Moreover, the major characteristics of structuralist films are simplicity and formalism (Dixon & Foster, 2002).

References

Aaron, M. 2007. Spectatorship: The Power of Looking on. London: Wallflower Press.

Andrews, D. 2008. Communications & Multimedia Technology. Digital Overdrive.

Aziz, J., Hashim, H., & Ibrahim, F. 2014. Malaysian Film Industry In Transformation Challenges and Potential. Jurnal Komunikasi Malaysian Journal of Communication Jilid 30(1), 37-51.

Colman, F. 2014. Film Theory: Creating a Cinematic Grammar. Columbia University Press.

Dixon, W.W., & Foster, G.A. 2002. Experimental Cinema: The Film Reader. Hove, UK: Psychology Press.

Gray, G.T. 2015. Being Modern, Malay, and Muslim in the Movies. ASIANetwork Exchange 22(2), pp. 49-59.

Heide, W.V.D. 2002. Malaysian Cinema, Asian Film: Border Crossings and National Cultures. Amsterdam University Press.

McKibbin, T. n.d. Structuralist Theory. Retrieved 1 December 2016 from https://tonymckibbin.com/course-notes/structuralism-theory

Schaefer, J. 2015. An Edgy Realism: Film Theoretical Encounters with Dogma 95, New French Extremity, and the Shaky-Cam Horror Film. Cambridge: Cambridge Scholars Publishing

Thoughtsonfilms. 2009. The Malay and Malaysian Films – Where Are We? (part 1). Retrieved from 30 November 2016 from https://thoughtsonfilms.com/2009/03/23/the-malay-and-malaysian-films-where-are-we-part-1/

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