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FilmsAsia: Asian film reviews
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Reviewed by 1. Joshua Pang, Oriental Daily, translated by Drakula, 2. Alfian Sa’at

Director: Yasmin Ahmad
Writing Credits: Yasmin Ahmad
Cast: Ng Choo Seong, Sharifah Amani, Linus Choon, Tan Mei Ling, Ida Nerina, Harith Iskander, Adibah Noor, Thor Kar Hoong
Genre: Romantic comedy
Country: Malaysia
Languages: Malay, Mandarin, Cantonese
Year released: 2004
Runtime: 104 min

1. Review by Joshua Pang, Oriental Daily, Malaysia
4 March 2005, translated by Drakula

Characterization of lead and supporting actors are of paramount importance in a film. If characterization is weak, no matter how large the budget or star-studded the cast, the film would merely be a superficial tickling of the senses, and would not be deeply moving or memorable. Fortunately Yasmin Ahmad’s film Sepet does not have this flaw, and succeeds brilliantly.

Natural and Refreshing Leads

The two young leads are refreshing, unpretentious, and their acting a real triumph. Huang Zi Xiang brings to life the uncouth videocassette pirate who spouts poetry, but who remains innocent and kind at heart. An untrained newcomer, he was actually Yasmin's tenth choice. She said jokingly that she only cast him because the other nine turned the role down. But looking at his performance in the movie, if Yasmin is to be believed, he is a serendipitous find, born out of loss. As for the female lead Sharifah Amani, this too is her first leading role, although she has acted in numerous earlier movies. Not only does she look sweet, she puts on a winning performance, from her gentle loving smile when she's in love, to a lively brashness when she is reprimanding her friends.

The supporting actors in the movie are also deserving of recognition. Ida Nerina and Harikh Iskandar, the two veteran actors who play Orked's parents chew the scenery every time they appear on screen. The maid Kak Yam and Ah Loong's father are also perfectly cast, making lasting impressions in spite of their short screen times.

Cinematic master Andrei Tarkovsky once talked about actors in his book Sculpting in Time: "A director must bring forth the right psychological moods from deep within the actors and maintain it. It is necessary for actors to express the specific mood when he is put in a specific situation naturally and without pretensions, keeping true to his own sentiments and rationale, from an absolutely personal perspective."

Sepet is so sincere, and the actors are all so natural, real, and engaging that watching it, I often find myself believing the illusion that the actors are really the characters they played, one entity inseparable from the other, and each of them coming to life through the images onscreen.

A Truly Malaysian Film

Based on an interracial romance, Sepet has received glowing reviews from critics within the circle, some even calling it "the first truly Malaysian movie to be made". As for whether it can attract a multiracial audience (especially the more conservative Chinese viewers) is uncertain. After all, the taste of Malaysian audiences has been dominated by Hollywood for a very long time. Although the movie touches on sensitive topics like interracial romance, racial discrimination, the decline of Malaysian movies and traditional values, it is evident that the screenwriter/director is trying to use this movie to break people’s preformed assumptions. But as Yasmin says, what Sepet truly explores, is love. Discarding any preconceived baggage, Sepet is actually a simple, honest, and moving love story.

Actors as Messengers

I must admit that I'm picky. Or maybe because I have already seen Sepet several times already (the movie was shown in Singapore before arriving in Malaysia). From repeated viewing, I have begun to notice many more details, and perhaps as a result, I have become more nitpicking. The movie seems to say everything too unsubtly, and some of the lines seem to be coming right from the director's mouth herself, through the actors, leaving little room to the audience's imagination. If the director had let the movie unravel itself through its own cinematic language like camera angles, framing, and pauses, and had not simply relied on its narrative, it might have created a transcendence that is deeper and more resonant.

However, I cannot help but notice that these minor irritations might have been Yasmin's intention in the first place. She once said that she hoped her movies could draw audiences closer, could be easily accessible, understood, and accepted. She did not want to make an impenetrable arty movie. On the contrary, she wished that her audiences would understand the film’s simple story without any difficulties. And after watching Sepet, it will no longer remain as Yasmin's personal story (she once said that her movies are semi-autobiographical), but rather a universal story that audiences like you and me can find something in it that binds us more closely together.


2. Review by Alfian Sa'at

[Sepet: to possess single eyelids, or used pejoratively, slit-eyed.]

The condition of being slit-eyed sometimes goes beyond its physical designations to enforce racial stereotypes. The sepet person is associated with certain personality traits: either a shifty inscrutability (you can’t read the person’s eyes), or handicapped by narrow-mindedness (surely someone with eyes like that is bound to have a limited field of vision).

There is much to be said about how sepet-ness is employed to categorize the racial Other. In Malaysia, for example, where the Malays form the dominant race, the otherness of the Chinese is expressed not via skin color (having fair skin is still considered a virtue; compare the damning hitam legam, neutral sawo matang and the almost-euphemistic hitam manis with the praiseworthy putih bersih, putih melepak and putih berseri) but by other physiognomic features, like the aforementioned sepet.

Sepet is also the name of a film by director Yasmin Ahmad. It concerns the romance between an 18-year-old Chinese illegal Video Compact Disc seller, Jason (Ng Choo Seong) and Orked (Sharifah Amani), a 16-year-old Malay schoolgirl.

The film opens with a scene of Jason reading poetry, in Chinese, to his Peranakan mother. This scene sets the tone for the rest of the film: it turns out that the poem was written by an Indian poet (one assumes it to be Tagore), and Jason’s mother makes a remark on how odd it is that one can find empathy with someone of a completely different race. There’s a certain tinge of clumsy speechifying going on here, and one senses that the director is eager to establish her humanist credentials at this point.

But of course there’s more to the scene than that. Asian mothers always possess strange prophetic gifts, and in true mulut masin fashion, Jason is to discover that not only is empathy possible between people of different races, but also ta-da: love! One busy day among the bustle of Kuala Lumpur’s street markets, Orked visits his makeshift stall and makes some enquiries about Wong Kar Wai movies. Their exchange is brief, but long enough for them to be caught in the cross hairs of Cupid’s crossbow.

It is to the director’s credit that she refuses to rationalize the instant attraction between her two leads: it is not the product of some deep-rooted scar (nobody was molested by a babysitter of another race, for example) or a superficial taste for the exotic. Of course one can do some lazy pop-psychology and state that Orked’s attraction toward Jason is an extension of her idol-worship of Jap-Chinese cutie, Takeshi Kaneshiro. But infatuation rarely blossoms into the kind of romance the two find themselves in, filled with the flush of endearments like ‘sayang’ and desolate pillow-burying sobs.

Much of the criticism of interracial relationships is that they are built on the fantasy of stereotypes. The White Knight. The Oriental Kitten. The Hypermasculine Indian Man. The Sopan-santun Malay Woman. There is always a lingering suspicion among its detractors that the glorification of the Other is accompanied by some level of ethnic self-loathing: The Redneck. The Personality-Deficient Wife. The Serve-Thy-Lord-and-Master Husband. Or quite simply, ‘He/she who reminds me too much of my father/mother’. This is when love is perceived as pathological, as a kind of fetish, because it involves objectification.

The point that Sepet makes is that quite often, interracial relationships happen precisely because of an inverse scenario: what the two leads are interested in is each other’s subjectivity. If the skin is a garment, then like all genuine and frantic lovers, they are more interested in what lies beneath. They do not, in other words, obsess about the texture of silk stockings or the smell of briefs.

The director makes a few other points too: racial categories are descriptive, not prescriptive, and even when they describe they are woefully inadequate. When you have a Peranakan in the cast, you know that’s always a big Up Yours to strict Chinese/Malay classifications. Orked’s maid (played to earthy perfection by Adibah Noor) listens to Thai pop songs. She duets to a Chinese song with Orked’s mother (Ida Nerina), a Cantonese serial addict. Who often converses with her husband (Harith Iskandar) in a mixture of English and Malay.

Sometimes, though, the film loses control of its own political subtext and the dreaded message starts to rear its ungainly head. And thus we have a long explication on the genesis of the Peranakans, and speculation on the racial identities of the legendary Malaccan heroes. We also have Orked explaining Franz Fanon to her friend, which does make her character come across as precociously intelligent, but also makes her sound like she’s spelling out the movie’s manifesto.

In my opinion, the scenes that really embody the complexities of living in a multiracial society like Malaysia are the ones that are wordless. A particular scene comes to mind: Jason selects a song on his karaoke player—that classic whose lyrics go along the lines of, ‘Dia datang, dengan lenggang-lengguknya’. The intro sounds like something on Middle Eastern strings, and he’s miming air guitar to it. He freestyles to the music, his arms spread wide, hands flapping, making ducking movements. You might ask, how does this Chinese boy dance to this Malay music? Or rather, how does anyone dance to this music at all?

But it’s happening, before your very eyes. Jason’s friends ignore him, as if this is a routine they’re used to, or they’re deliberately ignoring his impish appeal for attention. The fascinating thing about the dance is that it’s impossible to tell if it’s parody or tribute; the expression on Jason’s face is a curious mixture of self-absorption and mock-seriousness. If it’s mockery, then is the gesture racist, the way people make fun of Indian dance by trying to move their heads in a horizontal plane or refer to lion dance as dung-dung-cheng? If it’s not, then isn’t this one strange boy? But you watch him dance again and you think, who cares, it’s a body that’s moving to music, and it’s communicating such joy, and perhaps that’s what matters.

Ng Choo Seong delivers a natural, charming performance as Jason, although one might quibble a little with his sophisticated English diction. He is ably matched by Sharifah Amani, who manages to segue into headstrong and wistful modes with equal ease. The director’s choice of locations reveal an indisputable affection for the city of Kuala Lumpur, with its street vendors, generic fast-food chains, old-world photo studios and frenzied traffic.

I feel lucky, and I’m not gloating here, that I was able to attend a private screening of the uncut version of Sepet. I had been told me that one of the censors’ consternation involved the fact that Orked had not broached the subject of Jason converting to Islam, and thus proceeded along their dogmatic agenda by circumcising the film eight times. There will be those who will consider Sepet a film that stretches plausibility, avoiding the ‘realities’ of interracial relationships. Where are the parental oppositions? How convenient to have authority figures who are liberal-minded. What happened to the inevitable, crashing realization of cultural incompatibilities? Who will sembahyangkan whom?

Yasmin Ahmad will, of course, be accused of a rose-tinted utopianism. One function of art is of course to reflect reality as we know it. But another much-neglected function is to propose other realities, to portray the exceptions, because these lead us to imagining possibilities. I think there are parts of Sepet where the sentimentality or grandstanding could have been restrained. But I still believe it represents a landmark attempt at articulating the subject of a multiracial Malaysia.

In one scene of Sepet, Jason asks Orked about the decline of Malay cinema from its gilang-gemilang heydays. I recall a scene from P. Ramlee’s ‘Ali Baba Bujang Lapuk’, where Leng Husain basically performed a yellowface act (much like Paul Muni and Louise Rainier in ‘The Good Earth’) as a cobbler credited as ‘Apek Tukang Kasut’. The famous scene involves Sarimah leading the blindfolded Apek through the streets of Baghdad. They sing a duet, and much of its humor lies in the Apek’s exaggerated Chinese accent (one of his lines go: ‘semua hitam lagi banyak gulap, macham olang Habsyi negeli Alab’).

Contrast this with one indelible scene from Sepet, during the moment right after Jason’s first encounter with Orked. The historical blindfold is off. A medium shot of Jason, with his undeniably sepet eyes, the very symbols of inscrutability, even hostility. But the expression conveyed on his face, via those eyes, is unmistakable. Curiosity, enchantment, yearning—the boy is lovestruck. At this moment, I would like to think that Malaysian cinema (or at least the films made by Malay directors) has come of age, because we are looking through his eyes.

[WARNING: Spoiler]

Some would say that the ending is a bit of a cop-out, because when Jason dies, we don't have to actually see their relationship played out to the point of meeting 'realistic' cultural incompatibilities.

But I see this kind of open ending as allowing a Malaysian audience to decide the possibilities of after-life existence according to their own belief systems. What can explain the phone call? A narrative trick--that it preceded the accident, but that it was edited to appear after? A ghost, spirit, soul? Voice of some divine being? I mean, I'm one of those who like these kinds of open endings not because I want to weed out the implausible explanations from the plausible ones, but simply because I do appreciate just touching the mystery of it--the mystery is an end, a pleasure in itself.