Friday, July 26, 2013

8 Reasons Why Local Movies "Suck"

An interview I tuned in to the other day reminded me of this entry, which had long been in draft form. It would have been published sooner, but at the time it seemed like such a huge statement to make, and I felt like I needed to observe and sniff around a little more. Otherwise everything I write here's gonna sound like something I pulled completely out of my ass.

Perhaps I shouldn't tell this joke...
However, that is not to say that everything I listed down here are facts. They're based on my observation, sure. But still, these are merely my opinion and therefore open for debate.

Now for the record, despite what I wrote up there as the title, I don't think local movies suck, hence the quotation marks. It’s just too general a thing to say. Not to mention it’s plain false and grossly unfair. I wrote it only in reference to the sizeable part of local movie-goers who either;

a) Have never seen a local movie (save for P.Ramlee)
b) Have sworn off local movies
c) Makes it their policy to not see local movies
d) Watch movies for the special effects

and these people tend to have the notion that local movies suck, and not worth their time and money (I used to be in the second category, by the way). Which is fine, I guess. It’s not my place to tell anyone how to spend their time and money. I will say this, though; one thing that irked me is how the same people who’d claim that local movies suck, yet enjoy equally dumb movies by the likes of Aaron Seltzer & Jason Friedberg, Adam Sandler, and so on.

It’s kinda hypocritical, but never mind. Moving on...

What I’m trying to say is, as someone who used to be in that same demographic... I feel you, man. Like you, I too wondered why is it so hard to feel any sort of attachment to local movies. Like, are we really that far behind? Forget Hollywood, Indonesian cinema is more lively and colourful than ours. Heck, fuckin’ Kollywood cinema seems to be more varied than ours.

The point is, we live in a country where a Hantu Bonceng-like movie has a bright chance of winning a prestigious movie award. The absurdity of that, to me it's like seeing Adam Sandler win an Academy Award for Jack & Jill [2011]. If you ever wondered what's the reason behind all of this, it goes without saying that it's multifactoral, and here's my attempt at an in-depth discussion about the matter;

#8 Juvenile journalism

Did you know that in the 2013 ASEAN International Film Festival and Awards, Bunohan won the award for Best Screenplay, Songlap for the Best Action Award (lead actor Shaheizy Sam walked away with Best Actor Award), and Istanbul, Aku Datang! naturally won the award for Best Comedy. Meanwhile, though Chow Kit didn't win anything, it was notable enough to be nominated for Best Directing, Best Cinematography and Best Art Direction awards in the 2013 Asia Image Apollo Awards.

Were you aware of all this? If you're not, it's not really your fault.

Plenty of wartawan hiburan (with unwarranted self-importance) out there are more eager about finding out who's dating who, when a female celebrity's gonna get pregnant, which celebrity was photographed holding a dog, and whether or not Nad Zainal's embarrassed about being the face of Kotex. This is just scratching the surface. Our newspapers are just full none-of-your-goddamn-business type of things that they pass off as news.

Of course, if you were to call them out on this, they'll just have a go at the public and claim "it's what the people want to read about". I'm sorry, but I can't agree with that. Not to mention that the public will just fire back at them and say, "it's all you folks write about! What choice do we have?"

Now I understand that unless you're a small-time writer like me, you gotta spice up the facts with some sensationalism to keep the business running. But goddammit take it down a few notches and have a little dignity! When your front page material includes how a C-list celebrity's gonna sit for SPM this year (who was it, again? I forgot), what does that say about your opinion of our industry?

#7 Not enough people doing the "boring" part

This won't be a very strong point primarily because my idea about it is pretty hazy as well. It's about the marketing part of movies. I can't elaborate much on this, but it's also something I can't skip because it's directly connected the whole claim about the industry just meeting the public's demand. Often times I'd just dismiss this as a pointless chicken-and-egg blame game.

But every now and then I'd also wonder if market research is actually conducted. I don't know how to go about doing that, but the idea is to have the facts and figures as to how the audience feel about local movies, and not just hypothesis based on how well Jangan Pandang Belakang [2007], Adnan Sempit [2010] and KL Gangster [2011] did.

"KL Gangster made RM12 million? Well, let's make movies like that for the next two years!"

It doesn't work. And so far in 2013, all of the movies supposedly made due to popular demand are not making money at all.

#6 Flawed business model

Good movies are a product of passion, but like how a car runs on fuel, movies need money for it to get made. And if the cost is greater than the profit, well... you can do the math. This also leads to #5, but we'll get to that in a bit.

To put it bluntly, local movies are selling like shit cakes. If you think the numbers look bad, you also need to know that half of the money movies make go to cinemas. Of course, this is not unique to Malaysia. Apparently even in Hollywood, a studio can still lose money even if their movie makes almost a billion dollars in global revenue. I'm not sure how. This whole box office thing is tricky business, and the concept's a little lost on me.

But the general rule applies. A movie needs to make twice its budget, or the production loses money, and when the production loses money, things get restrictive. They'd have little room for innovation or anything stimulating. This is just one of the reasons why people feel like local movies are not worth putting their pants on for, let alone the trip and ticket price.

I don't know if this is a tangible solution, but perhaps a governing body could play a proactive role by dictating the percentage cinemas can take when it comes to local movies? For example, if a local movie is making less than a million, then cinemas are only entitled to, say, 30% of the gross. Something like that. Maybe. I leave this matter to someone more attuned to the industry.

It's not very healthy, I admit. What we really need to do is step up, and the last thing we need is more crutches from the government. However, considering that our industry is already handicapped in so many aspects, it's not too bad a solution, wouldn't you say? At least until we can think of something else.

#5 Shady industry players

Now I must stress that movie producers are not inherently slimeballs. They play a huge role in bringing all the elements together before you can even think about getting a movie made, which takes crazy organisational skills and high tolerance for headaches (and bullshit). It's kind of a thankless job too, perhaps something writers can relate to.

A producer is only a slimeball by choice. The kind who'd cut corners, and cheat the production out of its money. Taking #4 into consideration, it's somewhat understandable. Everybody wants a slice of the pie. But when the pie is no larger than a saucer, then everybody gets greedy. I'm lucky to have only experienced this once (so far).

If you think this doesn't affect what you see on screen, I assure you it does. If something doesn't look right (e.g. everything looks cheap, there are only three extras when the scene could use fifteen, etc), it's either a genuine budget issue, or the producer keeps a hundred for every fifty bucks they spend. How do you know if it's the former or the latter?

More often than not, you can't. Because producers also handle the finances of a production. At the end of the day, it all comes down to one's character.

#4 Fuckin' LPF

As of right now, I have nothing to add to what I've already said about the censorship board. I hate it with a passion. Not so much for what they stand for, but the dictatorial nature of it. I hate how they think that every cinema-goer in this country are impressionable ten-year-olds who'd do any of the things I wrote about in that link above.

If they want to make that claim, then they have to back it up with a study that proves that there's a direct correlation between crime, moral decay and films. Of course there isn't. Ever heard of poverty?

You know what's the worst part? Them folks in the LPF are not even people who know anything about movies. They're just people like Puan Senah (Pengerusi PIBG dari celah mana entah) and Encik Kudin (JKK Whatever Persatuan) who watches out for the "bad" things in isolation, as opposed to how the scenes serve the movies.

You wouldn't ask a member of the public to scrutinise the building of a skyscraper, would you? Right. Because they're not engineers and they wouldn't know what they're talking about. It's the same thing with films, wouldn't you say? Imagine how hellish it is to make a meaningful movie when they also have to sidestep the extensive no-nos set by the Board.

As a result, the movies end up not being able to evoke any sort of emotion (except for anger and annoyance), in addition to being substance-free, totally not thought-provoking, bland, and leave a bad taste in the mouth. Furthermore, to avoid butchering from LPF, production houses just straight up play safe by mass-producing Jangan Pandang Belakangs, Adnan Sempits and KL Gangsters.

#3 Writers are mostly just hired hands

Another thing I must stress is that this isn't a bad thing by itself. After all, it doesn't matter how good a writer you are, you're not going to write masterpieces all the time. Even P. Ramlee had a bad set once or twice, I bet. The reason he almost never made a bad movie was because he had creative freedom. It was only after he moved to Studio Merdeka when he felt stifled and then everything started to suck. Interesting to note, eh?

But I digress. Going back to the subject at hand, it's nothing to be frowned upon if a story was thought up by a producer, and a writer or two were brought in just to work on it for a payday. Unless he or she is the world-weary type, this collaboration is fun for them and it benefits both the writer and the production house.

It is a problem, however, when a production house lose sight on why people go to the movies; ultimately it's to watch a story and be entertained, not because they have the hots for Neelofa (it wouldn't hurt, of course). As a result, writers are reduced to just hired hands they feel like they can afford not to pay, let alone invest in since they needed all that money to hire celebrities to be in their movie.

But writers, just like VFX crew, are passionate people who love the idea of doing what they love for a living. They'll stick around for as long as they could. But eventually, they'll leave in favour of becoming lecturers in universities and colleges, and teach students who'll only end up in that same cycle they used to be.

The ones who actually stay? Well... They're probably responsible for all those laughable drama that plenty of Malaysians on Twitter mock and poke fun at. It sucks, but they kinda have to do it. You gotta put food on the table somehow. So c'mon... Loosen the purse strings a little bit, why don'tcha?

#2 "Dumb it down" is an actual part of the process

It's not over yet for writers, I'm afraid. When you combine the poor box office reception, studios playing it safe and the LPF's butcher knife, writers have very limited things to play with. To ensure that the industry can keep making movies, everything has to be made to appeal to as many people as possible.

Now, this is not to say that our audiences are stupid. What I am saying, however, movies have to be simplified in such a way so it can be understood equally by everybody. You can't make a movie about Malaysian stockbrokers because not that many people are familiar that world (me included). A medical thriller? Nope. People won't be able to keep up with all the medical jargons.

But mat rempit? Yeah, everybody knows rempit. So let's just make that. Ghosts, too. Muslims here are gung-ho about being Muslims, tapi kencing tepi jalan tetap mintak izin dari hantu. They love it. So let's keep making horror movies as well. You know what's even better? A comedy and horror hybrid! Love stories? Yeah, why not?

Even then, there's a very limited way you can portray the characters. For instance, a devout and deeply spiritual Christian? Mana boleh! Harom! The late Yasmin Ahmad was probably one of the few mainstream film-makers who were able to get away with this. So... Yeah, characters have to be simplified as well to the point where you can hardly relate or identify with any of them.

Everybody either has to be Xanax-mellow or cocaine-crazy, filthy rich or dirt poor, unbelievably resilient or super submissive (sometimes they overlap), lower-than-down-to-earth or extra-larger-than-life, and so on.

Of course, I'm not saying these things shouldn't be used at all. Heck, even I use 'em from time to time as long as it's not a serious drama that I'm writing. All I'm saying is, if you ever wonder why you can't seem to feel anything for characters in pseudo-serious (and often unintentionally funny) drama, that's probably why.

#1 It's all one big Battle of Thermopylae

Malaysians are just so overly-critical of our films for reasons I can't comprehend (check out item #5 on this entry). Oh, I talk a lot of smack about local movies as well. But I don't resort to nitpicking, at least I don't feel that way.

Maybe it's coming from a good place. Like, they want to be able to feel proud of our movies. They want our movies to be able to compete internationally. Which is good. And yes, we can make movies just as good as the best of them. But in order to do that, we need creative freedom. Yet, when film-makers asked for just that (i.e. abolish LPF) everybody lost their mind.

The dumbest commentary I've read was something along the lines of "nanti buat citer lucah je memanjang." I'm sorry, but that's just dumb. How would you even know that? It's like outlawing people from talking because they might swear. "But no, that's not the same", you might say. "Talking can be put into a lot of good use." Yeap, exactly like movies then.

I mean, we're Malaysians too. We're not interested in making pornos. I'll have you know that Hugh Hefner, Russ Meyer and Ron Jeremy do not work in our industry, so we're not in any danger of seeing Porno Melayu Terakhir any time soon. However, in the off-chance that a film-maker gets naughty and do just that, then we can all gather around and hold said film-maker accountable.

Whatever you do, you don't just prevent somebody from trying something new just because you might not approve of the outcome. That's not how the world should work. This isn't the Dark Ages anymore. After all, you don't murder a baby just because there's a chance he or she might grow up into a bad person, do you?


fadz said...

this is an important piece, tq!

Mamü Vies said...

Good to hear!
Thanks for your support, mate! :D

Lisa Sahari said...

Glad I read to the last word.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for having those thoughts. Ive read alot regarding on why local films suck, and lots of you guys(including you) have similar precious points yet the truth but why the "people" still can't seem to realise this. Why? Speaking of movies basically I am primarily just a consumer rather than contributer but I think as a 20yr old Malaysian who overly passionate in movie I still hoping the contributer could look through this thing deeply hence producing great outcome. It's a shame late Yasmin has gone for good but her sweats are not wasted as the youngsters could possibly make into a great example. Anyway totally agree on the limited ways of potraying character , like a religious Christian. Bsc I'm a Christian myself but a committed Muslim in a local movie is no harm for me, at all, plus a new positive perspective instead. Nice piece btw

Anonymous said...

As someone who actually works in this industry, i have to say a lot of your points are actually true and valid. It's an uphill battle but do know that there are many of the younger generation who are trying hard to do something about it. We do need the support of the society, and only then can the independent scene keep building to where we become part of the official scene.

asrap virtuoso said...

Of the categories you've mentioned I'm partly in category (b) because I have low expectations of local movies and rarely see them in full. But then again its the only thing my mom watches, so when I'm sitting in the living room read a paper or playing with my nephews, I do get to see large parts of the movies. And I still don't like what I see on screen.

But the problem is there are plenty who do like just the way it is as you mentioned in #2. We do have to accept filmakers need to make money.I recently saw KIL and loved it! Really refreshing and probably suits the mainstream audience. I heard Bunohan was good but even if it was a Hollywood movie, there was no way it was going to make a lot of money. If we want to change the local mentality we should produce more "KIL"s first.... good quality but appeals to the masses. Then only making these heavy art-films.

Unknown said...

I would kill to watch porno melayu terakhir.

Mamü Vies said...

I see that so far, most of us are on the same page. But things will get better. I just know it.

@Hafiz Tajuddin

ticktech said...

Guilty as charged...

Anonymous said...

And why did you use the F word for Kollywood? Were you having an assumption that all the Kollywood movies are absurd and useless? I wartched plenty of local films (Malay, Tamil and Chinese) all them were so bad that I lost interest in watching local films.

Mamü Vies said...

Because our society, generally speaking (me included), doesn't have a high opinion of Kollywood movies.

I wasn't having a go at their industry, I was reflecting on our mentality (again, mine included);

"Here's an industry that you look down upon, yet they're better than us!"

p/s: You must be n00dia? If you're not, abaikan.

Anna Tan said...

I kind of fall into the category of I don't even know what local movies there are because I don't ever hear of them. And those I *do* hear of (once in a blue moon) the story line doesn't sound enticing enough for me to bother.

Disclaimer: I don't watch a whole bunch of movies, local or not, anyway.

That said, I've enjoyed most of the short + sweet theatre & musicals in PenangPAC recently - so there may be new hope (assuming they manage to write their way into movie theaters)

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