THE TRASHIEST OF CINEMATIC TRASH
by Norman Yusoff
Malaysian critic Ali Atan’s review of the latest comedy Adnan Sempit 2 (Mingguan Malaysia, March 11), which oozed with emotional commentary and ethno-chauvinistic sentiment, certainly provided ground for contentious debate for the following two reasons: his mode of criticism, which regrettably demonstrates insensible, unsound judgment is one; the fact that Adnan Sempit 2 is one of the most witless, ill-conceived films that one could encounter in contemporary Malaysian cinema is the other. Take, for example, Sabree Fadzil’s insipid, libidinous-sounding romantic comedy Datin Ghairah (2011) which I happened to view recently. The central theme of this film, which revolved around a wealthy and sultry widow surrounded by a cohort of lascivious men, offered some lame humour which, I suspect, would have infuriated a critic like Ali had he reviewed it. Furthermore, if one views Datin Ghairah, one may easily discern its filmmaker’s tactics to shoehorn the lead actress (Maria Farida) into sexy tight outfits at every opportunity, thereby introducing a tacky and desperate air to this mess.
Of course, there is a place for films such as Adnan Sempit 2 and Datin Ghairah in the world of ‘trash cinema,’ a term loaded with negative connotations often used to imply a value judgement in a derogatory manner. Generally the term ‘trash cinema’ is used to refer to a film or a body of films of poor and cheap quality, films that lack value in terms of substance, aesthetic, and/or morality. It is also better understood in relation to other names/labels such as ‘B-movies,’ ‘bad cinema,’ ‘exploitation/sexploitation cinema,’ ‘psychotronic movie,’ ‘cult film,’ ‘marginal movies’ and ‘junkfood cinema.’ Equally, I recall the term ‘filem sampah’(‘rubbishy film’) coined by another Malaysian critic/columnist, Ku Seman Ku Hussein, in the 1990s to the understandable consternation of several local filmmakers. All of these terms, while tending to overlap in terms of characteristics and scope, also vary slightly with each other.
Within the academic realm, the term ‘trash cinema’ has now taken on new significance in tandem with the rise of particular fields such as critical theory, cultural studies and film studies, which have begun to popularise the discourse and theorisation of ‘trash cinema,’ resulting in it often being regarded as a genre or taxonomical category on its own. The topic of trash cinema has been explored under the purview of critical notions such as ‘postmodernism’ and ‘culture industry,’ which have soaked into some porous humanistic fields, the scope of which has extended to dealing with the tension of demarcating and/or blurring everything between different genres, high/low cultures, and traditional/modern styles. It should thus come as no surprise if one encounters some universities in the West offering courses in, for example, Trash Cinema: A Critical/ Cultural Introduction or The Politics and Paradoxes of B-Movies.
I grew up viewing a wide variety of trashy films – made either locally, or in Indonesia, Hong Kong or Hollywood. From the abysmal sword-and-sorcery Hollywood actioner Red Sonja (1985), featuring Brigitte Nielsen, to the excruciatingly unfunny Indonesian comedies Atas Boleh Bawah Boleh (Can Be Top, Can Be Bottom), Depan Bisa Belakang Bisa (Possible from the Front, Possible from the Back) and Maju Kena Mundur Kena (Go Ahead Struck, Go Stunt Struck). Call it guilty pleasure or low-brow taste, but I must admit that I still love some of those badly made old films (both local and global) for the simple reason that they are fun. However, this does not mean that I condone the bad filmmaking practised by some Malaysian filmmakers. Another reason is that having been an avid moviegoer since my childhood days, some of the films may evoke a certain tinge of nostalgia. I do not deny the possibility of bad films having a detrimental effect upon one’s mind and soul. However, if one really wants to explore cinema seriously, bad films may invite the viewer to see – and engage with – cinema from a different critical standpoint. At the very least, the worse the film, the more there is to critique and lampoon.
It would definitely be pointless to talk about trash cinema in terms of ‘soul of the film’ or ‘artistic transcendence.’ But, in its defence, this type of film can be explored in terms of its cultural contexts such as reception, production, industrial practice, distribution and exhibition. For example, one may contextualise such films within the particular era or zeitgeist in which they were made. I believe that trash cinema in the Malaysian context does not necessarily share similar attributes with its other counterparts from other national cinemas. Take Indonesian cinema, for example. Some of Indonesia’s trashy films of the 1970s/’80s/’90s (such as the egregious Pembalasan Ratu Laut Selatan/ Lady Terminator – has anyone seen it?) have attracted huge numbers of international fans, courtesy of international distributors such as the UK’s Mondomacabro DVD and the USA’s Troma Entertainment. Unlike Malaysia’s bad films, many global trash cinemas have attained a degree of notoriety in terms of the sensational, exotic, vulgar, transgressive, tasteless and grotesque ‘entertainment’ they offer.
The reason why much of Malaysian trash cinema is generally low-key, prudent and bland could be due to factors such as stringent censorship guidelines, poor marketing, and general lack of a film culture (it may be that in Malaysia, audiences may abstain not only from viewing the very worst among films, but also from viewing the very best). Most of the Malaysian films I would consider ‘trash’ are generally ignored, rejected and disdained by local moviegoers and the critical establishment. Furthermore, if viewers opt to carefully dissect Malaysian films in the course of making value judgements, I am afraid that there may be a tendency to extend the term ‘trash cinema’ to include many other films, a disposition that seems churlish and inconsiderate. For example, 1990s films such as Aziz M. Osman’s fantasy-comedy XX-Ray – rated by our media ‘filem bertaraf antarabangsa’ (lit. ‘a film of international standard’) – may appear cheesy and resemble a ‘B-grade movie’ by today’s standards.
It makes me wonder: what are we to do with some of the old cheaply made and poor quality black-and-white films (particularly those produced by Studio Merdeka and Cathay Keris in the late 1960s and early 1970s) such as Aku Mahu Hidup (I Want to Live, 1970, M. Amin) or films like P. Ramlee’s Enam Jahanam (Six Plunderers) (which is considered his worst film)? Can the slew of low-brow comedies from the late 1970s to today, that feature comedians such as A.R. Badul, Mr. Os, Saiful Apek and Senario, meet the defining criteria for trash cinema? What about the status of many low-key, almost-unknown films which experienced both commercial and critical failure: Dendam Perawan (1978, Senir Kerapyrayon), Tempo 88 (1987, M. Ramly), Aniaya Jenayah (1987, Latif Jaafar), Gila-Gila Si Pikoy (1989, Ad Castillo/ Hussein Abu Hassan), Antara Gadis (1993, Yuzwan Wahid), Yang Disayangi (1992, Deddy M. Borhan), Thermometer 3 (1992, M. Jamil),Sepi Itu Indah (1991, Din Glamour), Naan Oru Malaysian (1991, Panshah), Panggilan Pulau (1994, Ahmad Fauzee) and many more? What about films initially planned for theatrical release but which ended up on TV such as Jaguh Air Gemuruh, Mati Hidup Semula, Sindrom: Mana Anakku and Cempaka Biru?
What values do contemporary horror-comedy films – such as Hantu Bonceng (Pillion Ghost, 2011, Ahmad Idham), Momok The Movie (2009, M. Jamil) and Hantu Dalam Botol Kicap (Ghost in a Soy Sauce Bottle,2012, Azhari Zain) – promote and reflect if they are little more than shlock? Certainly some of the filmmakers would defend their work by claiming that underneath their tongue-in-cheek films lurks a decent ‘moral message.’ In Malaysia, there is a tendency to associate this type of film with ‘immorality’ only. Surely this suggests that the Malaysian public, moviegoers, journalists and film festival judges should be educated and reminded that a ‘moral message’ or ‘the moral of the story’ alone does not make for good cinema. Misi: 1511(Mission: 1511, 2006, Young Jawahir), Jalang (Whore, 2009, Nazir Jamaluddin), Abuya (2011, Imran Ismail), Lembing Awang Pulang ke Dayang (Awang’s Spear Returns to Dayang, 2009, Majed Salleh) and Datin Ghairah all attempt to convey, to a certain extent, some cheap moralistic posturing which cannot save them from becoming the cinematic turkeys of the decade. For example, the overly-hyped Islamist-themed mystery-drama Dua Alam (Traverse, 2011, Ed Zarith/Hairie Othman) has proven that a film puffed up with pious and moral didacticism can be just as awful as any of the aforementioned forms of trash.
There are, in facts, films that attract this categorisation due to their being embedded with morally obnoxious elements such as the 1988 teen musical, Dendang Remaja (Song of Youth, Johari Ibrahim), which allegedly threatened society’s moral and cultural sensitivities. The film followed a group of unruly teenage students at a performing art school in KL, capturing their ‘hedonistic’ lifestyles. Initially titled Akademi Seni (Academy of Art), the film was banned by the Censorship Board on the grounds that it dared to depict decadent budaya kuning (‘yellow culture’): teenagers consuming alcohol, becoming intoxicated, wearing provocatively ‘steamy’ swimsuits (in a swimming pool scene) and wildly dancing ‘rock-n-roll’ in the streets. The ban was lifted after an appeal was lodged; but, the film was heavily censored. In effect, strict censorship renderedDendang Remaja ‘choppy’ and trashy, making its storyline unfathomable.
Many trashy or exploitative films have attained ‘cult film’ status, a term that refers to particular films that are viewed repeatedly by a devoted audience, often drawing huge numbers of fans (The Blues Brothers, for example). This should also say something about the dynamics and flexibility of value judgements ascribed to a particular film which may evolve over time. For example, many international horror films once considered B-movies or trashy are now regarded as cult films; for example, Sam Raimi’s low-budget horror film The Evil Dead (1983) which is today celebrated and acknowledged by horror fans all over the world as one of the best horror films ever made. Some old Malay horror films such as the Pontianak films, for example, have achieved an august status given that they have been listed and/or discussed on no less than 20 (international) websites and blogs dedicated to horror and vampire films. Though loved and celebrated by some international horror fans, the Pontianak films’ poor production values and ridiculously contrived plot have led them to become regarded as trashy films; for example, the phony-looking creatures complete with their rubber masks, sloppy make-up and jury-rigged special effects.
The Evil Dead and the Pontianak films remind me of a handful of 1980s incompetently-made Malay horror films including Anita: Dunia Ajaib (Anita in Wonderland, 1981, Omar H.M. Said), Mangsa (Victim, 1985, Zalina Mat Som) and Ilmu Saka (Ancestral Black Art, 1984, M. Osman). But, personally, the one that truly deserves a classic late-night cult title is Anita: Dunia Ajaib, the sheer badness of which left an un-erasable, indelible impression on me. Made in the wake of Ridley Scott’s much-hyped Alien (1979), Anita is basically an ‘alien invasion’ story. But, the bulk of the narrative revolves around a man struggling to apply for a bank loan to kick-start a movie business; and around the ups and downs of his married life after he becomes nouveau riche. The film’s trashy quality can be further grasped via the various forms of ‘transgression’ it portrays, either technically, thematically, literally or metaphorically; for example, its narrative’s logical and causal paucity and ramblings. The absolutely absurd soap opera-ish elements and clumsily horrendous acting – particularly by the pesky female lead (Asmah Hamid) – provide Anita with some laugh-out-aloud moments, much funnier than all of the Senario films put together. The film’s ending alerts viewers to the arrival of its sequel as stated in a caption: ‘Tunggu Ketibaan Anita 2’; but, perhaps not unexpectedly, the director has since disappeared. Mangsa and Ilmu Saka are as atrociously made as Anita, but minus the fun. Mangsa’s director Zalina Mat Som went on to direct her second film titled Igau-Igau, a crime-romance. But, up until today it, too, has never seen the light of day.
Anita: Dunia Ajaib and Mangsa have proven that directors who make bad films invariably fail to sustain their filmmaking careers. Admittedly, a few Malaysian directors, well-known for their low quality work, have enjoyed filmmaking careers spanning several decades; but, none has been as infamous as Z. Lokman, who is well-known for his cincai (shoddy) trademark of filmmaking and for his propensity for violating many filmmaking conventions. However, do not get me wrong: this arbitrary form of rule-breaking does not make him a genius in the Kantian sense. Some of Lokman’s 1980s comedy films such as Cikgu Sayang (Teacher, Dearest, 1983), Minah Manja (1984), Bujang Selamat (1986) and Bas Konduktor (Bus Conductors, 1986) were considerably at par, if not better, with films made by other directors, e.g., A. R. Badul, Aziz Satar and Raja Ismail, who also specialised in comedy. Although their films (including Lokman’s) featured scatological humour, ridiculous stereotypes and uninventive elements of slapstick, all of the comedies seemed to champion the rural and working classes over the urban and affluent. From the 1990s to today, Z. Lokman has continued to make films ranging from Janda Meletup (Devastatingly Attractive Widow, 1990) to Toyol Nakal(The Cheeky Toyol, 2011), all of which, in my opinion, cannot match his earlier films of the 1980s.
I am of the opinion that every film – no matter how bad it may be – may contain moments of sheer genius or extraordinaire, albeit briefly. Take, for example, Z. Lokman’s road comedy Bas Konduktor, which focuses on working class bus drivers and conductors. Emulating Robert Altman’s style, Lokman gathers together an ensemble of characters comprising both conductors and passengers evincing a multitude of attitudes and idiosyncrasies: an impudent smoker, a yuppie-looking lottery enthusiast, a transgender, a courting couple and a narcissistic entertainment celebrity. Lokman crafts his melange of characters and plots into a series of short vignettes that work like a fascinatingly ‘loose’ sociological experiment. His (inconsistent) camera merely observes them and their quotidian existence, giving rise to occasional immediacy (perhaps attributed to its lack of [re]writes and production tinkering). In this respect, Bas Konduktor’s seemingly plot-less narrative, which features – in typical Lokman style – a number of extraneous scenes, may be justifiable albeit to some degree it upsets the film’s causal relations and narrative coherence.
Bas Konduktor is reduced to a certain trashiness by Lokman’s prurient interest, peppered as it is with smutty humour and saucy dialogue. There is a scene in which a lecherous male character is peeping through a small hole (pierced through a newspaper he is holding) ‘purving’ on a girl’s curvaceous derriere which is encased in tight jeans – a scene unabashedly captured in several extremely close-up shots. Such a crude, insensitive ‘ho-hum’ moment – which I think may not appear amusing to the average rational, sensible and mature viewer – would even have Laura Mulvey (a hardened feminist film critic) castigating its director. As for me, when it comes to some films of this type, I am more interested in their risibility and farcicality rather than in gratuitous sensationalism: a director’s unique ineptitude; the implausibility and meanderings of a film’s premise; the appalling acting by its superficial cardboard character; and, the startlingly shoddy techniques and aesthetics – all of which may contribute to the abjectly endearing fun of savouring this trash cinema.
NORMAN YUSOFF is currently researching and writing about Malaysian cinema. In his spare time, he enjoys watching silent movies and listening to Indian ghazals.