Cinema of sexism: Misogyny in Malay films

Because woman did not fight back, man quickly took over the advantage and made her the scapegoat for all his vices and fears. […] He was intimidated by woman’s sexual desire, and so he invented the mutually exclusive virgin and whore. […] He was ashamed of growing old and ugly, and even more ashamed of being ashamed, and so he invented female vanity to exorcise and account for these fears.

Molly Haskell, excerpted from Reverence to Rape: The treatment of women in the movies

Haskell wrote her stinging review of sexism in film over thirty years ago but a similar scenario in current film-making still rings true: a male-dominated film industry will always make films that maintain the patriarchal heteronormative dynamic. And although she was talking about Hollywood film-making in general, negative cinematic representations of women can be found in mainstream Malaysian (read: Malay) cinema. If speaking in broad terms, it is perhaps the only form of representation accorded to Malaysian actresses.

From 1990’s onwards, burgeoning modernity (e.g. market-driven conspicuous consumption) and resurgent religiosity (i.e. Saudi-inspired interpretation of Islam) in the country became the conflicting forces that usually fought over the bodies of women. This resulted in a rather schizophrenic representation of the new NEP Malay (men and women) in film – full of capitalistic aspirations but rooted firmly in traditional, patriarchal orientations.

For the many objectified, two-dimensional whore/virgin stereotypes with predictable outcomes (marriage, prison, death) in Malay cinema, there are a few who play interesting female characters. And by interesting I mean mildly transgressive characters; Sofia Jane played a tomboy in Cinta Kita (Our Love, 1995), Sasha Mohammed Saidin masqueraded as a man in Sama Tak Serupa (Similar but not identical, 1995), Erma Fatima and Susan Lankester were radical feminists in Femina (1993), and Tiara Jacquelina played a security guard in Kepala Angin (Crazy, 1987). But by the end of each film mentioned above, the female characters are tamed into heterosexual relationships by their patronising but heroic leading men, restoring the patriarchal order typically known as “Happily ever after”.

Image: filemmelayu.cjb.net

I sat through Ismail Yaacob’s Lenjan (Deceit, 1998) on Youtube today and watched in disbelief the continuous and shameless display of Malay masculine hypersexuality, misogyny, and capitalistic excesses. The film begins with a serial killer (played by Rosyam Nor) disposing a murdered woman into a car boot. His zipping up and belting his trousers suggests that he had raped the woman as well. Accessorised with a face-obscuring straggly mop of long hair and black leather jacket, his evil/crazed killer look is borderline comedic.

Poor editing cuts rather disjointedly to the home of a newly-married couple, Zita (Nina Juren) and Amir (Eman Manan). Amir is a highly successful industrialist-millionaire while Zita is a contented lady of leisure. For no explicable reason, Amir’s best friend, Kamal, is suspicious of his wife as he watches Amir write a multi-million ringgit will for her.

Meanwhile, Rosyam Nor’s character, Zarin, bumps off as many women as possible – bar-frequenting types and gullible ones who let Zarin disarm a faulty car alarm like he’s the last person anyone would be suspicious of. While the murders take place, Amir takes his wife to stay in a luxurious cabin in the rainforest for their first wedding anniversary. For no narrative rhyme or reason (until I find out later), Zarin follows them there. But when his bike breaks down, he’s saved and brought back to the cabin by Amir. Zita becomes the first person in the film to be uncomfortable by Zarin’s shifty demeanour while Amir doesn’t have a clue.

There are scenes that serve little narrative purpose but shot purely for titillation. One scene has Nina Juren’s character climbing a chair (with only her legs and half a chair in shot). Before the viewer gets an idea of what she’s reaching for she falls, and Zarin quickly comes to ‘comfort’ her. He paws all over her legs while she groans in a kind of sexual way. Amir comes to find what the commotion is all about and has his hands over her as well. After the camera lasciviously focuses on her legs and their hands for a minute or two, he finally tells Zarin, “That’s enough”.

Proving not only a threat to womankind, Zarin also kills ethnic minorities. Amir finds kindly Uncle Gopal dead after he was last seen with Zarin and quickly added the two and two together. As the couple escape on motorbike, Zarin, in superhuman mode, catches up with them running through the more ‘primitive’ and ‘wild’ forest path rather than the civilised tarmac road the couple take. The two men struggle and Amir gets thrown off into a rushing river. Now with Amir out of the way, he goes to find Zita – who, surprise!, surprise!, was in cahoots with him all along. Unbeknownst to Amir, the two were not only after his millions but are also lovers.

But Amir quickly returns. Zarin finds him in the cabin and the two fight. During their struggle Zita fatally stabs Zarin by mistake, but surely the film cannot end there. Cinematic conventions will not let a cheating and plotting wife off so easily. Before they make it back home, Amir finds a letter that doesn’t say much but is ostensibly fishy. He confronts Zita for answers but she is only capable of asking for his forgiveness. Overcome by emotion, she runs off, falls over a cliff and dies. The closing sequence sees Amir on top of the Petronas Twin Towers, with trustworthy Kamal present – bromance and phallic victory prevail. In Khoo Gaik Cheng’s analysis of Malay film and literature, Reclaiming Adat, the scene brings to her mind the cliché “it’s lonely at the top” and “once you’ve reached the pinnacle of success there’s no other way but down”. The latter is certainly depicted in the final chase scene deep in the darkest recesses of the Malaysian jungle in which Amir is nearly defeated by a hypermasculinity gone haywire and female transgression.

What are the other examples of misogyny in Malaysian films?

OPS Belantara (Rodzee A Razak, 1993)

Rosyam Nor as Master Johan. Image: filemmelayu.cjb.net

In a rare example of action leading ladies, Oggy Ahmad Daud plays Mejar JJ who defeats the environmental terrorist Master Johan (Rosyam Nor). But sticking close to fictive convention, her heroism is perhaps spurred on following a sexual attack by one of Master Johan’s henchmen, Scorpio. Once the other male characters with heroic potential are gone (including an ethnic Chinese man), she blasts the villains with her bazooka. Her men give her the thumbs up and the film closes with her grinning and winking at the camera, far from looking visibly traumatised from her previous ordeal.

Amok (Adman Salleh, 1995)

The English ‘amuck’ doesn’t extend as far as its original definition and devastating implications. In the film, the ‘hero’ goes on a killing spree leaving behind dead ‘hippies’, white women, and his American girlfriend in his wake. The reason? He was pushed over the brink by his girlfriend’s emasculating taunts.

Femina film poster. Image: filemmelayu.cjb.net

Femina film poster. Image: filemmelayu.cjb.net

Femina’s (Aziz M. Osman, 1994) reductive attitude to feminism as simply a foreign, man-hating ideology serves as a ploy to diminish its female characters into pathetic figures who wait for a sexist man to set the filmic patriarchal order right. Tina, a radical feminist (played by Erma Fatima) falls for a bus driver Pyan (Eman Manan, again!) who compares her ‘regressive’ ideals to the ways of the ‘Arab Jahilia’. He suggests that the Western feminism she espouses will upset gender relations in Malaysia and provoke chaos and savagery of the pre-Islamic past.

Pyan’s anti-feminist influence over Tina causes her to dramatically reverse her views as shown in her televised speech on women’s rights at the end of the film, “We don’t want to be men. All we want is to be treated equally. And with respect. We Malaysian are very lucky because we’re given the opportunity to learn from the mistakes of those in the West before reaching disastrous levels. We live according to tradition. A written tradition. Men are entrusted to defend and support women. And responsibility is laid on the shoulders of ‘tuan’ [1] towards his wife, mother, children, and younger siblings and all women who need looking after. Give-and-take needs to exist between the sexes. We women really need men to defend and support us. We are women. For tradition. A good tradition needs to be fostered. For us and for the future generation” (Khoo’s translation)

[1] tuan = Malay for master. I rest my case.

One thought on “Cinema of sexism: Misogyny in Malay films

  1. That was… possibly one of the scariest things I’ve read in a while, possibly because it hits so close to home (wait, it IS from home, agh!).

    Thanks for sharing.

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