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FilmsAsia: Asian film reviews
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   Big Durian  



 

The Big Durian

1. Reviewed by Justin Santiago 2. Comments by Ambient Noise

Director : Amir Muhammad
Writing Credits: Amir Muhammad
Country: Malaysia
Language: English, Malay, Cantonese
Genre: Drama
Year Released: 2003
Runtime: 75 min

1. Review by Justin Santiago

Rating: **½ (out of four stars)

Amir Muhammad gives no excuses for his latest film, The Big Durian. If he appears to give a myopic view about the events surrounding Operation Lalang, the third biggest swoop under Malaysia’s Internal Security Act which detained more than one hundred people without trial on 27th October 1987, then you are the one who needs to get spectacles.

The movie is a social commentary and was scripted in a way that intersperses readings of newspaper articles during that period with on the ground interviews with people remotely connected with incidents of that day. On the surface it shows the different races living in Malaysian coping at their comic best with each having to live under different sets of rules. On a deeper level it tries to provoke a response to a personal view that the constitutional rights of Malaysian citizens to their fundamental liberties of freedom of speech, assembly and association are being held hostage.

The film however does not touch upon the fact that such controls are imposed by governments on citizens all over the world and that Malaysia is not unique in that respect. It does not say anything positive about the fact that Malaysia has come a long way in allowing such a film to be produced in the first place!

Some observations about The Big Durian. Many of the people interviewed were social activists or were connected with social activists which gave the film an uneven balance. Also, a lot of footage was devoted to Private Adam, the trigger-happy soldier who ran amok and killed three people during those tense moments although two questions remained, "Who is Private Adam?" and "What has happened to Private Adam?"

A couple of notable achievements:

The Big Durian was shot in an amazingly nine days according to producer, James Lee and seeing that shooting was completed just 11 days before the closing date for the Singapore Film Festival.

The Big Durian is refreshingly Malaysian - a mixture of languages, cast and crew which blended quite well into an end product that Malaysians of all races can identify with.

2. Comments by Ambient Noise

A good friend once told me, When the government calls our society a 'multiracial' one, that is in itself a racist statement. Racist, perhaps not because the government delineates the citizenry according to ethnicity but because that truism was only ever intended to convey a tourist-brochure picture of a melting-pot society. Indeed, too often are minority views (in Malaysia as well as Singapore) subsumed under the hegemony of the ethnic majority. Swirling beneath politically correct surfaces are strong undercurrents of ethnic resentment, prejudices and misconceptions. For the sake of harmony, unity and social order, we should all just shut up, put on a happy face and treat those issues are nonexistent.

Not anymore.

Amir Muhammad explodes the myth of a multiracial society and makes us confront what we’ve known all along: 'harmony' is merely an excuse for not bothering to listen to what others are saying. The Big Durian uses the incident of Private Adam's amok with an M16 in Chow Kit, 1987 as a starting point to examine the issues of race, religion, the Internal Security Act, neo-feudalism and, most worryingly, bad 80's pop music. Imbued with Amir's characteristic humour, wit and candor, this film doesn't play with kid gloves but invites you to bust it open with a parang and deal with what you find within.

But why should anyone here give a damn about it?

Because it is the first truly Malaysian movie.

Everyone in this movie is uniquely, identifiably Malaysian. "Malaysia truly Asia"? Bollocks. There is not a hint of political correctness in here. This is how Malaysians (at least KLites) talk, and what they talk about. They speak in Cantonese, Hokkien, Malay, English or East Malaysian dialects. They speculate, they gossip, they recollect, they opine. One person who made the strongest impression on me was political scientist, Dr. Farish Noor. Speaking in mellifluous Malay, his words were strident and provocative. My favorite quote of this Fest comes from him:

"Budaya politik kita ni langsung tidak bertamadun." ("Our political culture is absolutely uncivilized)."

If I have just one complaint, it is that those unfamiliar with Malaysian's socio-political landscape may find the deluge of names, places and events overwhelming. Amir, after all, made the film for his people, for Malaysians. If we feel it doesn’t pander to outsiders, then that’s our problem.

The Big Durian is a film that sticks in the memory. It raises questions. It persuades us that, in a multiethnic society, perhaps what's needed is not tolerance but dialogue. Dialogue, without fear or fervor but with the understanding that we are all in this together, and no-one should get left behind or cast aside.