Mat Sallehs with Cameras: Malaysia Portrayed in Western Films
Francois Truffaut said ‘every film should say something about life and something about film.’ Since the 1930s and the golden age of B.S. Rajhans, Malaysian films have had much to say about Malaysian life. But what happens when Westerners get behind the camera? Have their portrayals of the country been positive, negative, fair-minded, inaccurate? How have such movies changed over the years?
One of the earliest offerings was Four Frightened People (1934) directed by Cecil B DeMille, Hollywood autocrat and master of the biblical epic. Four Americans wash up in the jungles of Borneo, having left their collective sense of shame on the boat. Cue plenty of close-up kisses and half-naked frolicking in waterfalls – about as racy as the movies could get back then. Four Frightened People taps into a long-held Western delusion that the East is just one big steamy, licentious free-for-all. As we’ll see later, this delusion persists today. Despite being set in Malaysia, Four Frightened People was in fact filmed in Hawaii and the native characters played by Japanese…
Film noir is a genre one usually associates with American cities, not rubber plantations in Southeast Asia. However, The Letter (1940) stars femme fatale Bette Davis as Leslie Crosbie, the homicidal wife of a colonial administrator (Herbert Marshall) in Singapore. The opening montage – beautifully shot on location – is all cockatoos, coolies and rubber trickling from branches. Based on the play by W Somerset Maugham, The Letter climaxes with Marshall announcing his plan to buy a property in Sumatra. The problem is his wife has paid all their money to a blackmailer in possession of a letter that incriminates her…
In the 1950s and ‘60s, World War II became a favourite subject. Filmed in both Malaysia and Australia, A Town Like Alice (1956) was based on the bestselling Nevil Shute novel and starred Virginia McKenna and future Academy Award winner Peter Finch. Jean Paget (McKenna) is living and working in Kuala Lumpur when the Japanese invade. She survives the rest of the war thanks to her fluency in the Malay language and desire to engage with local ways. After the war is over, her ‘Malayophilia’ prompts her to return to the country to build a well for the orang asli.
The Camp on Blood Island (1958), made by British B-movie studio Hammer, has the politically incorrect strapline: ‘Jap War Crimes Exposed!’ That sort of sums it up really: allied POWs endure torture and humiliation in a prison camp in occupied British Malaya – not the greatest advertisement for the country! Although not a classic, The Camp on Blood Island’s graphic realism was very much ahead of its time.
Jumping ahead in time, the thriller Turtle Beach (1992) remains the most controversial Western flick to have engaged with local politics. Greta Scacchi plays a journalist investigating the plight of Vietnamese boat people in Pulau Bidong. Both the Malaysian government and elements of the Australian media lambasted the scene in which refugees are murdered by Malaysian policemen. While noting the talents of the lead actresses – Australian Greta Scacchi and Chinese-American Joan Chen – the critical reception was generally poor.
Entrapment (1999) is an altogether more light-hearted – and superficial – affair. A confused mixture of romantic comedy, Bond rip-off (apt then that Sean Connery stars) and crime caper, there is at least a gripping heist beneath the Petronas Towers and some stunning shots of attractions like KLCC, Bukit Jalil Station and the Malacca River. One wonders if Entrapment works better as a tourist information film.
Return to Paradise (1998) plays on the greatest fear of the hedonistic Western backpacker: getting busted for drugs. A suspenseful set-up is marred by poor research – the loose local women, gang violence and drinking culture make you wonder if writer Bruce Robinson has confused Malaysia with, well, somewhere else entirely. Robinson may well have brought his own interests into this script – he was, after all, responsible for the the cult British comedy Withnail & I (1986) which follows the (mis)fortunes of two alcoholic actors. Like other Western movies before it, Return to Paradise exoticises Malaysia as a sensuous land of easy thrills, yet when the protagonist (Joaquin Phoneix) falls foul of the law, we are presented with an authoritarian hell. Anyone who’s spent half an hour in Malaysia knows both conceptions are bunk!
Jungles of carnal abandon, mysterious plantations, brutal prison camps, island paradises – Western films have imagined Malaysia in many different ways over the last eighty years. But whereas Malaysian-made films have tended to say something about Malaysia, Western films about Malaysia have tended to say more about Western preoccupations.
First published in The Expat, October 2011