The renaissance of Malaysian cinema

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International awards spotlight domestic struggles against censorship and interventions needed to develop the film industry.

In recent years, Malaysian films have finally gained international attention and recognition. In May, "Tiger Stripes" (2023), a coming-of-age horror film directed by Amanda Nell Eu, won the Critics' Week Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival, becoming the first Southeast Asian film to win the prestigious award. On Oct. 5, the government selected the film as the Malaysian nominee in the Best International Feature Film category for the upcoming 96th Academy Awards. Several other Malaysian-made films have also won global accolades, including Woo Ming Jin's "Stone Turtle" (2023), Yasmin Ahmad's "Slit Eyes" ("Sepet," 2004) and Lay Jin Ong's "Brothers" ("Abang Adik" 2023), which won the best film award at the Far East Film Festival in April.

Notable among the stars of this renewed success is certainly Michelle Yeoh, who won the Oscar for best actress for "Everything Everywhere All at Once" (2022) at the Academy Awards. Malaysia's King Al-Sultan Abdullah Ri'ayatuddin and Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim were among the first to congratulate the Malaysian actress. Film buffs, however, argue that Malaysian government policy has contributed nothing to her success abroad. Yeoh's is one of many cases of Asian actresses and actors who have ventured out of the country for better opportunities: veteran South Korean actress Youn Yuh-jung, who won the Oscar for 'Best Supporting Actress' for her role in "Minari" (2020); Malaysian-born Henry Golding and Ronny Chieng both starred in "Crazy Rich Asians" (2018); and Yeo Yann Yann, also of Malaysian descent, starred in the Disney+ series "American Born Chinese." Malaysian screenwriter Adele Lim has also made a name for herself in the United States, working on "Crazy Rich Asians" and the Disney animated film "Raya and the Last Dragon" (2021). In 2023, Lim made her Hollywood directorial debut with "Joy Ride" with Oscar nominee Stephanie Hsu.

Despite all these success stories, the country's film industry remains very static. Strict censorship laws and limited access to funding are proving to be major obstacles for many local filmmakers and actors hoping to develop their careers. Some industry figures have expressed the main criticisms. According to Badrul Hisham Ismail, director of "Maryam" (2023), "Malaysia has everything, but it is everywhere and everywhere, which means getting nothing, being nobody and nowhere." Badrul noted that Yeoh had not appeared in any Malaysian-produced films, making her success at the Oscars irrelevant to the Malaysian government's film policy. Local writer and stand-up comedian Shamaine Othman agrees with Badrul that the film industry in multi-ethnic Malaysia is highly polarized. In local productions, most high-budget roles are for actors from the majority ethnic Malay community, while actors of Chinese descent often choose to leave to work on American or Chinese productions. "For many non-Malays, it seems like the right way to go," Shamaine said, "being here just means constantly being cast as token characters."

Another critical issue hindering local film development is surely cultural conservatism in predominantly Muslim Malaysia, which has led to the banning of many films with LGBTQ references, including recent releases such as "Lightyear" (2022), "Thor: Love and Thunder" (2022) and "Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody" (2022). Sexual and gender issues are not the only dangerous terrain on which filmmakers must navigate. Ethnic and religious issues are also sensitive areas where filmmakers must tread carefully to avoid regulatory repercussions. The film "Mentega Terbang" (2021), directed by Khairi Anwar, caused much controversy when it was removed by Viu, a Hong Kong-based streaming platform, apparently for referring to apostasy from Islam, a crime in Malaysia. The film was eventually banned from all screening platforms in September. At the center of a national uproar, the director and cast were investigated by Malaysian authorities for their role in the film. No charges were filed, but according to Malaysiakini, an independent news outlet, the director received death threats.

Lutfi Hakim Arif, executive producer of "Maryam," told the Nikkei that "creeping conservatism" in the Malaysian film industry is nothing new, especially in relation to Malaysians and Muslims. Both Badrul and Lutfi said the Malaysian censorship board operates under a double standard, giving the green light to films that reference sex, scandals and celebrities and blocking films such as "Mentega Terbang" that challenge the nation's status quo. According to Badrul, the main goal of the censorship board is to "control thoughts," while showing no interest in Malaysian films, which are, on the other hand, technically very good, as evidenced by the success of the following Malaysian-made animations, "Ejen Ali: The Movie" (2019), "Upin & Ipin: The Lone Gibbon Kris" (2019), and "Mechamato Movie" (2022), which were screened in Southeast Asia. "Mechamoto" was the first non-Japanese cartoon to be screened on Japanese TV channels, winning the prestigious Anime Fan Award at the Tokyo Anime Award Festival 2023. Locally, it ranks among the top five highest-grossing films to date (as of January 35.8 million ringgit, or $7.51 million).

Malaysia was a film powerhouse in the 1950s and 1960s, when actor and director P. Ramlee made several successful films for Shaw Brothers in Singapore and Kuala Lumpur. However, as contemporary actor and screenwriter Redza Minhat says, the industry landscape has failed to evolve, hampered by a small market polarized between productions aimed at Malay, Chinese and Indian audiences, the country's three main ethnic groups. "For such a small market, you need to have a long-term strategy; to overcome the obstacles in the industry, you need to bring the right people together, and the first thing is to have the political will," said Redza, whose latest the film "Imaginur" (2022) has garnered box office takings of 6 million ringgit in the first month since its release in Malaysia in late February. Redza said that ending censorship would be the best way to address the problems of the Malaysian film industry and proposed that FINAS - National Film Development Corporation Malaysia - use slate financing as a development tool. Slate is a type of film financing in which an investor provides financing for a portfolio of films, rather than for a single film, to reduce risk and diversify investment.

Meanwhile, there is already an air of change with new business entities entering the Malaysian market. In the past two years, leading Malaysian film studios Golden Screen Cinemas and Astro Shaw have ventured into the production of blockbuster action films such as "Polis Evo 3" (2023), "Malbatt: Misi Bakara" (2023) and "Air Force the Film: Selagi Bernyawa" (2022). In May, streaming platform Amazon Prime Video said it would include more local movies and dramas, including "Imaginur." On the other hand, so-called over-the-top (OTT) streaming services, which viewers access via the Internet, are growing steadily, although still lagging behind cable and satellite competitors such as Netflix, Apple TV, Disney's Hotstar and HBO. According to Statista, OTT user penetration will reach 63.7 percent of the Malaysian market this year, with revenues exceeding 1 billion ringgit.

Kamil Othman, President of FINAS, said the government is working on updating and amending the National Film Act to meet the needs of the industry, as films have great potential to contribute to GDP growth. Kamil said the film support system needs to be amended to fill gaps and encourage film production. "There is no single point of reference and FINAS intends to be one, at least within the scope of law enforcement. We are trying to see right now how this public-private partnership can work best," he said. "The answer could be a new tax system, new incentives."

On Oct. 13, the government announced a number of initiatives intended to help filmmakers, including reductions and exemptions of 25 percent, from the entertainment tax-applied on cinema tickets and art performances, tax incentives for film production, and further support for digital content and film production in Malaysia. However, broader changes in policy may be needed for the future of the industry. Former Malaysian Minister of Youth and Sports Syed Saddiq Abdul Rahman said the government and the film industry should reform the censorship regime by appointing a diverse group of professionals to the censorship board.

Malaysia is therefore looking for a middle ground. The way forward should be a policy that gives confidence to the film industry, whose enormous potential is before everyone's eyes, by aiming for independence, with no more restrictions on artistic freedom.

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