A documentary by Amir Muhammad
Directed by Amir Muhammad World Film Festival of Bangkok, Oct 25 to Nov 4. Go to www.worldfilmbkk.com for more information - on the screening
The village is Chulabhorn 12 in Narathiwat. The people are Muslim-Malay communists cast here by the political tide of the 1950s. The radio show is a droll, Southeast Asian-curried reimagining of Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale. Put together in a rather detached manner, Village People Radio Show (Apa Khabar Orang Kampung) is a visual essay on exiles and a snapshot of post-British Malayan history by Amir Muhammad, a leading figure in Malaysia's current crop of independent digital filmmakers.
Amir made Village People as a companion piece to his more spirited The Last Communist, a trans-Malaya travelogue and loose biography of former communist leader Chin Peng, who helped fight for his country's independence in the 1950s before fleeing the crackdown to the south of Thailand. Village People has been picked for the upcoming World Film Festival of Bangkok, which begins next Thursday at Esplanade Cineplex, but I doubt if the movie could paint a complete picture of the subject without being paired with its predecessor, The Last Communist (which was banned in Malaysia).
On its own, Village People presents a bookending chapter in the history of the communist movement in Malaya by interviewing Muslim-Malays who once fought with Chin Peng and later settled in southern Thailand. Since the pre-war communist activities in Malaya were concentrated among Chinese-Malaysians _ who identified more with China _ the doc's strongest point is in showing how political ideology can sometimes transcend religious and racial divides. In retrospect, this seems to lend more gravity to the struggle of multi-ethnic Malaya in freeing itself from colonial rule.
Yet because Village People is intended as an epilogue to The Last Communist, the narrative isn't packed with meat, the dots are left unconnected, and the buoyant inquisitiveness that fetches us on the heady ride of The Last Communist is absent here. This new film simply reminisces, whereas the previous one made an effort to remember. Suggestive images of an ex-Malay communist's house flying the yellow flag to salute the Thai king promises an investigation into the life of these Malays who've adopted ours as their new home, but Amir doesn't push further; I only wish he had asked tougher questions of his subjects.
Village People also confirms Amir's singular style that superimposes a fanciful use of unlikely metaphors upon a realistic political documentary. When it works, his movies become an unusual essay rich with textual dissonance and a slight feeling of disorientation. In The Last Communist for example, Amir intercuts his probe into Malaysia's political historiography with cheeky musical sequences scored to mock-propaganda numbers. Such humour gives a peculiar undercurrent to the "serious" narrative on the surface.
In Village People, Amir punctuates the interviews with the fictitious radio drama based on a Shakespeare comedy. You could draw a link, an ironic one, between the two layers of narratives, but it would also be a stretch, and in the end it feels rather flat. No one would doubt Amir's status as Malaysia's most politically-conscious director and an experimentally-minded artist in search of new structural frameworks, but this new documentary is certainly not Amir at his prime.
The Worldfilm Festival of Bangkok 5th : October 25 - November 4, 2007
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