The Malays have this bad habit of noticing, in retrospect, atypical behaviour on the part of people who had recently died unexpectedly. These forms of conduct are called buang tebiat, which literally means “throw behaviour.” I say it’s a bad habit because our religious leaders say it’s more in line with superstition than Islam. But still we do it.
And so it was that when Yasmin Ahmad left us so suddenly, we were left looking for clues that she had unknowingly left behind. A newspaper pointed out that she had mysteriously mentioned to her husband that she “probably wouldn’t be able to celebrate Dad’s birthday with him next year.” In the films, too, there could be signs: Why was her final feature Talentime (2009), which had been glibly called “the Malaysian High School Musical” by the media before release, so preoccupied with death, to the extent that its closing shot is of lights in a school hall being shut off?
But even these were feeble attempts at imposing meaning (of the “It was as if she knew” kind). It’s safe to say that her passing was a huge shock. I know that’s a clichéd way of putting it, but she would not have been afraid of an honest cliché. She was the same age as Michael Jackson, who’d gone just a few weeks earlier (an occasion she’d marked on her wildly popular English-language blog: yasminthefilmmaker.blogspot.com), the crucial distinction being that there was so much more she seemed on the verge of doing.
After more than a decade of commercials, Yasmin started making narrative films at the relatively late age of 45. This meant two things: She had amassed enough of a standing through her award-winning commercials to get full creative control; and her films, though born out of an adult worldview, still had the startling vitality of practically a new career.
How could someone with so much life not only in her but ahead of her be snuffed out so soon? Being the religious person that she was—hers were the only film sets I visited where work stopped daily for each of the five prayer times—she would say that Allah knows best.
She made six feature-length films at a prolific rate. The first four, from the made-for-TV Rabun (2003) to Mukhsin (2006) by way of Sepet (2004) and Gubra (2006), all featured the autobiographical Orked as the protagonist. Her last two features, Muallaf (2008) and Talentime, broke away from Orked’s life story but still featured many of the same cast and even the same locations.
She was in the midst of planning two further features whose financing seemed to be secure: a Japanese co-production called Wasurenagusa (Forget-Me-Not) and a Singaporean film with the working title (at least I hope it was just a working title) of Go Thaddeus! The first would have been a fictional drama about a partly Japanese woman (played by her regular actress Sharifah Amani) while the second would have been a biopic of a Singaporean athlete who died very young. (Another case of buang tebiat, perhaps).
Those films, whose fates are now uncertain, would have been interesting because of the different countries involved. Although she had one bona-fide hit (Mukhsin), the others all had devoted followings, as you can see from the hundreds of comments after each of the posts on her still-extant blog. The site, by the way, is an excellent introduction to her voice: cultured and urbane, but also “sentimental and annoying” (in her words), the site of a few spats and small crusades, too. (You can’t leave comments anymore: she had Enabled Moderation after receiving a slew of personal insults disguised as curiosity about her past. But her Facebook page, where she had the maximum amount of allowed friends, has become an oddly cathartic memorial site.)
The sentimentality of her fable-like TV commercials in particular drew a huge following in a country where only 5% of the population even goes to the cinema. They were anticipated during all of our many festive occasions; Malaysia has more public holidays than almost any other place.
Oh, there were people who hated her guts! The basis of this is erotic. Malaysia is a peaceful country in which ethnic tension nonetheless ebbs and flows, exacerbated by the government’s discriminatory policies in favour of the majority ethnic Malays. (Malay is an ethnicity that describes many people in neighbouring countries, too; it does not mean Malaysian citizen. We always have a laugh when a foreign festival catalogue, for example, calls Ho Yuhang a “Malay filmmaker.”)
Yasmin eroticized this by frequently foregrounding interracial romance or attraction. (This describes four out of her six features, and several of her most popular commercials, all of which have been duly Youtubed, which she would have approved of: “Piracy,” she once told me, “is stealing from greedy people.”) She claimed with faux-naïveté to be guided purely by sentiment, but these taboo-busters shocked the prudes. She didn’t back down, and would gladly trumpet the international achievements of her films and commercials (which she continued to make), which of course annoyed some people even more. The death of Yasmin means that there is one less person to laugh at the bigots.
It wasn’t all about interracial love; that would have made her very monotonous. There’s a real sense of family in her films, not just because of the domestic unit that is always foregrounded, but because there is a humane yet raucous inclusivity in her stories, which become miniatures of how Malaysian society can function if we’d just let go of a few hang-ups. Some films I liked more than others. There are things in them that are clumsy, didactic, more akin to PSAs. But they were all unquestionably a part of a thought-out vision that has meant a lot in a country that is still afraid of telling its own stories with candour.
Yasmin’s final film is called Chocolate, is about three minutes long, and was released posthumously as part of an online series called 15Malaysia. (You can view it at www.15malaysia.com.) It’s a parable about the increasing distrust between our two main ethnic groups. A teenage boy is nagged by his offscreen mother. It’s a tight shot of his pretty face. They are ethnically Chinese, and she’s telling him there are no opportunities for him here. We hear another offscreen voice belonging to a young Malay girl, asking if anyone’s around. It turns out he’s at his family-owned grocery store; business must be slow for the counter to be unmanned. The boy goes out, still shirtless, to see her and is struck by her prettiness, which isn’t concealed by her all-white Muslim headgear (the tudung). She asks for batteries and he, like Freud would have approved, shoves a baby bottle at her instead.
She also wants a small bar of chocolate but is a few cents short. The mood until now is almost flirty. But then his mother barks again, demanding to know why he’s talking so much to “that Malay girl.” His tone changes; he snaps to the girl that if she can’t pay for the chocolate, she should just do without it. She leaves, dismayed more by his brusqueness than by his refusal to bend the rules. He seems conflicted about something, then leaves the chocolate and the money she’d given on the counter before he goes offscreen.
There’s a mine of subtextual allusions. There’s the identification of the Chinese with commerce, of the Malays as needing assistance. But this is complicated further: the business isn’t exactly a big one, and she just happens to be carrying not enough change. (In fact, her accent seems posher than his.) The actor is Kahoe Hon, who had played a guy with a grudge against a bright Malay classmate in Talentime. And the actress is Sharifah Amani, whose last scene in Muallaf shows her, for the first time, in a tudung. It seems like they are continuing or at least echoing those earlier roles.
He is drawn to her (does she represent the country?), but at the same time held back by his mother’s worldview. “They fuck you up, your mom and dad. They may not mean to, but they do.”
And what of the chocolate itself? We tend to like it sweet (here in the Orient!) but there’s also the imported bitter type. One of my favourite Yasmin scenes is where Orked’s maid in Mukhsin explains how she makes her style of ice cream. You’ve got to mix in the bitter so you can appreciate the sweet. So it’s oddly apposite that this is what Yasmin has finally, quite literally, put on the table for us.
Amir Muhammad is a Malaysian writer, publisher, and filmmaker. He decided to write the forthcoming book Yasmin Ahmad’s Films (Matahari Books, ISBN 9789834484514) after realizing this article leaves many things unsaid.