We are often told that the best way to understand a culture is to consume as its society does. We watch their films, read their books and listen to their music. And it’s by doing so that we begin to understand and get a grasp on what the world is to them.
This essentially makes sense, since it’s well been established that art mirrors the culture in which it exists. But can we really expect artists to create representations of us that are authentic?
Can we really develop an understanding of a nation just by looking at it’s art?
While hoping for a mirror image of society in its media is quixotic, what we can instead find in art is an interpretation. A borrowed lens from its creator to perceive the world as he does.
During this month, two local films premiered in cinemas that each illustrated very different pictures of Malaysia. These films were Rise: Ini Kalilah (released September 13th) and One Two Jaga (released September 6th).
Both films were similar to one another in that they were comprised of several interconnected stories that ran simultaneously and neatly came together in the end.
But the two films couldn’t be more distinct. While one paints a bright, cheerful portrait of a nation coming together, the other depicts a dark, gritty look at a part of the city we don’t usually see.
Rise: Ini Kalilah, directed by Saw Teong Hin, Nik Amir Mustapha and Prem Nath, was inspired by the events leading up to the recently concluded 14th General Elections. While no real names of people or parties were used, it was clear in its writing that the film was to celebrate Pakatan Harapan‘s victory over the former corrupt regime.
However, the movie is not in any way political. It is in fact patriotic, narrating the tales of Malaysians who care enough to make a change. And regardless of its critiques, the movie has an inherent way of tugging at heartstrings.
For those of us who voted on May 9th, it’s a nostalgic piece encompassing the anxiety and thrill we felt as we spent the night watching the live results. We see our people forming a human barricade, trying to stop a car from bringing illegal ballot boxes into a polling station, reminding us of the time when residents in Lembah Pantai did the same during the 13th General Elections. We watch them as they then huddle around their laptops, getting more and more frenzied as the results begin to come out. We hear their protests and their demands for a fair and clean election. And finally, we feel the joy in their eyes that light up as soon as it becomes clear they have finally won.
It is a classic narrative of good prevailing bad. It is the story of Malaysians who will spend their every last breath hoping to witness the end of a 61-year-long rule.
The final scenes, which take place outside Istana Negara, with people cheering, singing and waving their flags about are a tearful tribute to the defeat of the real-life regime we’ve been forced to live through. For the first time in decades, the country really did feel like it belonged to its people. And as the old regime collapsed, a New Malaysia was finally in sight.
Rise: Ini Kalilah depicts a Malaysia where its people have power and its corrupt systems will fall. It illustrates to its audience the Malaysia we want the world to know we are.
But One Two Jaga, on the other hand, paints a very different picture of the Malaysia we know.
Directed by Namron and produced by Bront Palarae, it is a grim look into the nation’s battle with police corruption and human trafficking. Except, as the film progresses, we start to learn that it isn’t a battle at all. There is no good versus bad in this film or any clear boundary between black and white. There are only realms of grey.
This is not a feel-good film like Rise is. One Two Jaga doesn’t make us feel fuzzy inside. If anything, it makes us uncomfortable.
It is perhaps fitting that the film seems to only be set in the back-alleys and barren sides of the nation. Though we realise that this is a movie that takes place in Kuala Lumpur, not once do we see an establishing shot of the city to confirm it really does.
One Two Jaga’s Malaysia is the Malaysia that we don’t want to see. It is the part of us we don’t usually see in cinema and hope will disappear if we close our eyes long enough.
Every character, even the ones with seemingly good intentions, are tarnished or corrupt in some way. The nation’s many systems are shown to perpetuate a cycle of injustice and oppresses anyone who seeks to break it. It is bleak. It is cruel. And it is disturbing.
What also differs One Two Jaga from Rise is that it is not just a story about Malaysia. It is about how Malaysia treats its immigrants. Through the film, we are exposed to the inhumane ways we handle our migrants and the vicious cycle of corruption they are controlled by. In this story, our country is a prison where liberation is a fool’s dream. It is not a film we watch to feel better about ourselves.
This is not meant to say that one film is the better of the two. But what is so compelling about exploring these films is how greatly the narratives contrast from one another.
It is almost as if we are shown both the good and bad side of Kuala Lumpur and Malaysia as a whole through Rise: Ini Kalilah and One Two Jaga. And while there is nothing wrong with celebrating the good, there is indeed danger in ignoring the bad.
Art has and will always be an interpretation. One piece cannot fully showcase all there is to know of a nation. But what we can do is to consume as much as we can, even if it means coming to terms with some of our more uncomfortable truths.
There are many ways to be patriotic. Some choose to stay in the comforts of nostalgia and hope, while some choose to shed a light on the bitterness of reality. All of which should be celebrated.
Happy Malaysia Day.
One Two Jaga and Rise: Ini Kalilah is currently in cinemas nationwide