Malaysian Cinema: An Intricate Tale of Pride and Prejudice

By Yong-Yu Huang

December 2021 COVER STORY
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Photo by: Penang House of Music

THE YELLOWING FLYER bears the printed characters 檳城首都戲院. In English, this reads as Penang’s Capitol Theatre. An illustration of a scene from King Solomon’s Mines accompanies the text, still stark against the paper even after many decades, with faces and weapons alike wreathed in shadow. The flyer advertises in both Chinese and English, the film’s midnight screening for July 14, 1956 – 65 years ago!

This document, preserved in the archives of the Penang House of Music, is a remnant of the film-going days of mid-20th century Malaysia, when cinema houses swelled with crowds and the contemporary digitised experience was but a vision for the future.

A Throwback Reel

Photo by: Penang House of Music

It is impossible to examine the history of Malaysian cinema without also discussing Singapore, where film on the peninsula was birthed; from the first Malay feature, Leila Majnun, produced in 1933,1 to the first rendition of the pontianak on screen in 1957’s Pontianak.

It was also where the Shaw Brothers, originally from Hong Kong, established their Southeast Asian media empire, Malay Film Productions. The studio boasted large-scale sets that replicated familiar settings such as kampungs, filming stories that reflected characters and narratives centred in the region, rather than solely relying on Western media.2 Another major player on the scene was Cathay-Keris, established in 1953 by the Cathay Organisation.

An advertisement of King Solomon's Mines in the Capitol Theatre's Souvenir Programme Book of 1956. Photo by: Penang House of Music

But long before the film studios and vibrant movie posters, the roots of Malaysian cinema had already been planted in the forms of Malay performing arts, including the bangsawan, an opera with a tradition of multilingualism; the theatre sandiwara; and the wayang kulit, a traditional shadow play that also utilises a white screen for viewing moving images.3 Indeed, film in Malaysia was not a monolith – it drew from transnational experiences, spurred by Malaysia’s vibrant multi-ethnic culture.

When the Japanese occupied the region, big pictures from the West and home-grown productions were forbidden at local cinemas. Instead, Japanese films were shown as part of their Nipponisation efforts to assimilate occupied populations into the empire. This initiative was spearheaded by Eiga Haikyu Sha, the Japan Film Distribution Company, which had by then established its headquarters in Singapore.4 Many of them emphasised values of everyday Japanese life.

Penang Audiences

Penang was not short of screening locations back then. There was the Majestic Theatre, built in 1929. It was the first in Penang to screen Chinese talkies or movies with soundtracks. New World Park was also a hub for popular entertainment that ranged from exotic dances to movie screenings at the Globe and Lido cinemas on its grounds.5 In those days, prices went from 65 cents for the cheapest seats, to a dollar and 40 cents for upstairs seats. Some cinemas even had seats selling for 40 cents.

But Penang was not so much a producer of films as it was a “repository of talent,” according to Dr. Adil Johan, an ethnomusicologist who studies the intersection of film and music in Malaysia. Perhaps the best example of this is P. Ramlee, a Penang native and national icon whose career spanned over two decades in film and music. He was one of the mainstays of Shaw Brothers’ productions, playing both actor and director and producing hits that to this day are still etched into Malaysia’s cultural memory.

Dr. Adil Johan is an ethnomusicologist who studies the intersection of film and music in Malaysia. Photo by: Prakash Daniel

Movie-showing was not just limited to the grand cinema houses of the time either; there were caravan cinemas too. Loke Wan Tho of Cathay Organisation used to send mobile cinemas to rubber plantations and rural villages, giving communities there the opportunity to enjoy moving pictures. With innovative methods such as these, film permeated the Malaysian imagination, casting great social influence on movie-goers.

In the 1960s and 1970s, Shaw Brothers and Cathay-Keris both closed down their studios in Singapore. The former attempted to revitalise their prowess through Merdeka Studios in KL, but never again reached their former peak.6 The golden age of Malayan cinema had come to an end.

Evolutionary Features

“There have been a lot of attempts to nationalise the Malaysian film industry, from the 1950s and 1960s onward,” says senior lecturer Dr. Adrian Lee of Sunway University, whose focus areas include cinema, media and cultural studies. “Understanding the context of that particular time when Malaysia was gaining independence and keeping in mind its formation as a post-colonial country, is critical in examining cultural and media trends,” Lee explains. P. Ramlee’s Sergeant Hassan is a prime example of this, depicting the struggle against the Japanese in a way that united the public during that traumatising period in Malaysian history. But Lee notes the stories presented often focused on Malay culture, language and issues, though interestingly, these films were shot almost exclusively by Indian cameramen until the late 1950s,7 while their producers remained largely ethnically Chinese.

P. Ramlee movie posters. Photo by:

In the 1980s, Malaysia continued to expand its film scene through the inception of the National Development Film Corporation, or FINAS. But this came with restrictions; for example, films for international exhibitions and festivals must be in the Malay language and be made by Malaysian filmmakers.

Similarly, the National Culture Policy of 1971 required that for a film to be considered Malaysian, the movie had to have at least 70% of its dialogue in the Malay language. This policy prompted questions about other issues involved in deciding what exactly constitutes a Malaysian film. For example, can films created by other racial groups in their respective languages be considered part of Malaysian cinema?

The use of digital cameras coincided with a rise in independent Malaysian filmmakers. A similar change was observed with viewing locations, where slowly, cinema houses gave way to cineplexes in malls. Gradually, the moviegoing experience became more of a commercial event.

Dreamers on stage with Gerry Clyde on vocals promoting The Sound of Music in 1965. From left to right - Tony Perkins, Joseph Kee, Jimmy Tan, Gerry Clyde and Peter Leong. Photo by: Penang House of Music

As Malaysia and her socio-political landscapes evolved over the years, so did the lives reflected on screen. Urbanisation and the experiences that came along with it were a popular theme in the early 2000s, says Lee. He explains that the onscreen prevalence “of individuals feeling lonely in big cities” was not a phenomenon exclusive to Malaysia. Rather, it was evidence of the integration of Malaysian cinema into a globalising landscape, where such issues were also being approached by films elsewhere.

The digitalisation of film also catalysed a new wave of thematic influences, from around the late 1990s to the early 2000s, when filmmaking became increasingly accessible to the masses. Buoyed by the addition of mass communications, the Malaysian New Wave movement began to take form, with women directors like Yasmin Ahmad and Tan Chui Mui forging ahead with stories inspired by social issues.

Still, there are tenets of Malaysian culture that have remained despite these changes; the pontianak and the Malaysian horror genre are inextricable from each other.8 The tradition of this supernatural being onscreen has carried on throughout the decades, since Cathay’s 1957 Pontianak.9

Music and the Masses

Music and film in Malaysian cinema have a long-standing relationship, from the musical backgrounds of P. Ramlee and his third wife Saloma, to the easy inclusion of songs onscreen. In Estella’s Anak Pontianak (1958), a song is sung by kampung children and the satay man. It added no particular value to the narrative, but instead demonstrated a smooth link between the two art forms.10 Similarly, several decades ago, musical groups would perform in movie theatres as opening acts for an eager audience before the reel started rolling.

Senior lecturer Dr. Adrian Lee’s areas of focus include cinema, media and cultural studies. Photo by: Micro Film Academy

Paul Augustin from the Penang House of Music highlights the connection between music and the film culture in Malaysia, especially the buzz around classic films such as The Sound of Music directed by Robert Wise in 1965, and Saturday Night Fever, both of which were cultural influences that spawned internationally successful soundtracks.

Dr. Adil Johan also underscores the link between music and movie trends in his book, Cosmopolitan Intimacies, writing that “Pop yeh yeh and youth culture, while treated dismissively by the state, permeated Malay films in the mid-1960s, even though they tended to include this music as frivolous, parodic or secondary items in relation to the films’ main narrative (p. 210). Pop yeh yeh was a genre fuelled by Beatle-mania and was often featured in Malay films as part of an effort to draw younger crowds back to the cinemas and away from the pop concerts of the era (p. 225). So powerful was the youth culture of the era – the free expression that triumphed over whatever societal norms promoted by the authorities – that it influenced media in this way, through appearances in films like Anak Bapak (1968) and Muda Mudi (1965) (p.213-214).”

Censorship and Archival

Previously, it was media companies like Media Prima and Astro that kept the industry afloat, says director Saw Teong Hin of Puteri Gunung Ledang (2004) and You Mean the World to Me (2017), of which the latter was filmed entirely in Penang Hokkien.

But recently, there has been increased government funding “to cover more aspects of filmmaking, including short films, documentaries, and experimental, marginal things. To avoid the red tape that lingers beyond the camera in Malaysia, many filmmakers have had to go abroad or participate in film festivals and other community events to seek funding,” says Saw.

“Cultivating film is more than just cultivating filmmakers. A country also has to cultivate its audience,” adds Al-Jafree Md Yusop, also a director. He highlights the importance of incorporating arts appreciation into national education, lamenting the lack of film literacy in Malaysia. His recent movie, Mencari Rahmat, is an adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s classic The Importance of Being Earnest, set in contemporary Malaysia. It took him over 10 years to write and translate this British classic into modern times, as he navigated the linguistic and cultural differences.

Malaysia’s Film Censorship Board allowed its release with no cuts, despite controversial content featuring drugs and sex. He was only asked to bleep out unsuitable language. “Maybe, just maybe, on that part, the censorship board is more lenient nowadays, except for issues about religion or politics. I believe we’ll still have a tough time if I were to portray corrupted cops or politicians in my movies,” muses Al-Jafree.

Throughout the years, the censorship board has banned the screening of various foreign films, from Babe11 to Schindler’s List,12 for religious and political reasons. “But censorship has never prevented one from making great films,” says Al-Jafree, in reference to Iran and the considerable body of work that its filmmakers have produced despite stringent government restrictions. “But if the censorship is more lenient, there will be better work.”

Lee, however, points out a critical problem the Malaysian film industry has. “There’s no proper archiving system. We have lost many valuable films between the 1950s to 1970s, all because there was no proper archiving.” In recent years, both film enthusiasts and overseas industries have started to restore films, encouraging the same to be done in Malaysia. Filmmakers must now send a copy of their work to FINAS for preservation in the national archives.

The Contemporary Eye

On the set of You Mean the World to Me. Photo by: Saw Teong Hin

Still, there are states in Malaysia that have not fully joined the film experience; namely, Perlis and Kelantan, whose authorities have remained wary of the social ills that movie theatres will bring within their borders. In fact, the latter has not had a cinema in 30 years, ever since the closure of its Lido Cinema branch.13

In the rest of Malaysia, as cinemas start re-opening, albeit with strict SOP guidelines, audience numbers are still far from pre-pandemic levels. “This reticence to go to the cinema is going to last for a while, perhaps until there’s no risk of another wave of infections,” Saw observes. At least for now, Malaysia is not out of the woods yet, and neither is her film industry.

“Today, there are questions, discussions and contestations about what Malaysia should look like on screen,” Lee says, “and how Malaysians should look like, what Malaysian issues are to be discussed on film.” It’s clear that in times like these, escapism is no longer the sole focus of films. Rather, films are testaments to the questions and issues that have long plagued Malaysian society.


Kuman: An Indie Effort to Watch… and Watch

By Kalash Nanda Kumar

AMIR MUHAMMAD IS no stranger to the Malaysian independent art scene, having built a career spanning two decades in the film industry. He is also founder of the indie publishing company, Fixi.

In 2000, Amir made his directorial debut with Lips to Lips; it was the first independent digital film to be produced in Malaysia, sparking the New Wave movement. His following film, The Big Durian, became the first local film to be screened at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival, cementing its status as a cult classic. Amir has since gone on to produce and direct over 20 films and continues to play an active role in paving the way forward in the local film industry.

His latest endeavour is the indie production house, Kuman Pictures, which he set up in 2018 with up-and-coming producer, Elise Schick. It has produced five feature-length films so far, of which two are set for release next year. This is no small feat considering Kuman is entirely self-funded.

Amir Muhammad at the launch of Kuman Pictures. Photo by: Kuman Pictures

Its first production, Two Sisters, is directed by James Lee, a fellow filmmaker of the New Wave movement, and one with extensive experience working under a small budget. Two Sisters travelled the international festival circuits, screened at the Far East Film Festival (Italy) and opened in cinemas to moderate fan-fare.

Kuman’s second production is the horror folktale, Roh, directed by Emir Ezwan, which became Malaysia’s official submission for the Academy Awards. The movie is also Kuman’s highest grossing film to date, collecting over RM500,000. It has even been listed as a Top 5 Malaysian box office hit of the year.

Its latest release, Irul: Ghost Hotel by Prem Nath (of Rise: Ini Kalilah fame), is the first Malaysian Tamil “found-footage” horror movie. Due to pandemic-related restrictions, however, it was not given a theatrical release. Its producers opted to stream the film on Astro First instead. The two upcoming movies, Ceroboh, currently in post-production, and Kerek, which is still in development, are expected to be released in 2022.

Elise Shick. Photo by: Kuman Pictures

Part of the success of this small, two-person led production house is credited to the great Roger Corman, who for most of his career, directed and produced films on small-scale budgets. Kuman’s low-budget business model capitalises on the Malaysian audience’s strong appetite for horror and thriller movie genres. Lee’s Two Sisters was made for RM300,000; Emir Ezwan’s Roh for RM360,000; and Irul: Ghost Hotel for RM200,000.

It has also effected positive change in the treatment of production crews in Malaysia; Kuman gives annual royalties to every actor and crew member involved in its film projects.

The local film industry has experienced many changes since the 2010s, with streaming platforms such as Netflix, Astro First and MUBI as the biggest disrupters. Covid-19 sped up the adoption of these platforms as home-viewing experiences. “The rise of streaming platforms is rescuing producers who can’t afford to do theatrical releases,” says Elise. She believes that giving audiences options to a much richer variety only stimulates the film industry. “It is healthy too; it deconstructs the monopoly of big cinemas.”

Behind-the-scenes of Emir Ezwan's Roh. Photo by: Kuman Pictures

Besides producing movies, Kuman also holds short film competitions, and prior to Covid, even ticket sponsorships for selected local films. While still a relatively newcomer, its meteoric rise has made it hard to ignore.


Kalash Nanda Kumar is currently pursuing his postgraduate degree in English Literature. He volunteers with non-profits, enjoys arthouse cinema and jazz music.

Yong-Yu Huang

is a Taiwanese student based in Penang. She doesn’t know where she’s headed, but she hopes there’ll be tea.