Yasmin Ahmad teeters precariously on the tightrope between rejecting the standards of societal norms of her culture and adhering to her artistic vision of being a director who bends and meanders through the dogmatic and prototypical standards established by her stifled and oppressed society. This artistic vision is encapsulated through the distorted depiction of the Malaysian society in her film, Sepet. She does this by not conforming to the stereotypes the Malaysian society conforms upon itself. This essay aims to delve into the artistic and directorial methods employed in the film, Sepet, that see to debunk the above-mentioned stereotypes.
The societal norms and tunnel vision narrow mindedness of the Malay society needs a breather of truth and Sepet certainly blows some wind in that direction.
Malaysians, in reality, their daily lives, bisect the limitations of cultural and ethnicity. Sepet exemplifies this reality and is unpretentious in its delivery. Most Malay films lack this artistic honesty when it comes to the portrayal of Malay culture way of life. In the blueprint of Malay film, there is no depth and dimension to the characters. The societal norms and tunnel vision narrow mindedness of the Malay society needs a breather of truth and Sepet certainly blows some wind in that direction.
Orked, her mother and the house maid, Mak Yam loves to watch Chinese Soap Opera and this is a rather unconventional portrayal of the usual characters in a Malay film. It can suggests a bad image to say that the modern Malay society is steering away from their own culture, as they are much more interested and intrigued by other cultures and races. However, if Malays were to keep their minds closed, they will be one dimensional, narrow minded people and that is a bigger stereotype problem, especially with the saying that Malays are lazy and easily pleased or satisfied. There is a domestic scene where the father reminds his wife, Orked’s mother and the house maid to do their evening prayers. However, fixated to the television set and immersed into yet another Chinese soap opera, both women show reluctance. Perhaps, from perspective of a “holier-than-thou” member of the audience, one would certainly find such portrayal rather offensive and rude. However, it is just so bracingly human.
Virtue is not by ritual but by conduct and is just a matter of how well a person can carry themselves.
In Sepet, Thai music and songs are portrayed to have a gutsy libidinous grip on Orked’s parents. The image of how Orked’s mum tying her sarong across her breast, revealing her bare shoulders and arm indiscreet. Again, Yasmin debunks the stereotype of a typical pious Malay Muslim lady having to cover her whole body and expected to possess good mannerism and adhere to standard social etiquettes. However I believe that the idea that a woman can only be socially acceptable if she shields her body from the public eye by covering up with layers of clothing is a stale and outdated concept.Virtue is not by ritual but by conduct and is just a matter of how well a person can carry themselves. This virtue is best exemplified through the character of Orked’s mother. By being who she is, she maintains this affectionate bonding with her daughter just like bonds between friends. This goes against the norms of how a daughter or a son’s stereotyped way of treating their elderly especially during the older days. However, this is not to disregard totally the respect the young is expected to show to the elder, Yasmin portrays this in a different approach to alter the era we are in now. The old stereotype works less efficient now in our contemporary and liberal society. She lets the strings loose a little. Later in the same scene, as they were dancing to the Thai music, a Malay lady sitting close to them utters “tak sopan” (rude). This is obviously very ironic and I think is a punch mark on the nutshell of the Malaysian Society of how narrow minded society in general can be.
Enforcing on the idea of being a little loose with the stereotypes, Loong’s mother is being portrayed as a Peranakan which is a very good example of a heritage who speaks Malay, dresses Malay and eats food that is reminiscent of the Malay cuisine and these are practiced without the presence of having to be an Islamic by religion. There is a tangible line between Malay as a society, a race and the religion Islam itself especially in a country like Malaysia is concerned. I think this is due to policies adopted by the country itself which moulds and colonizes people according to ethnicity and religion.
Yasmin also idealized but refuses to romanticize the character of Ah Loong’s mother. There is no easy bridge two way thing between Loong and Orked. She will accept her eventually but not that simple and direct as to how peranakan mothers are idealized to be towards the idea of mix-marriages. Peranakan mothers would not object to the idea of a mix-marriage if compared to a onservative Malay Muslim mother. I reckon that the taboo of inter-racial marriage is a flawed streak of Malaysian society. The essence of the film goes to the root of Malaysian society’s tunnel of vision mindset of viewing things from a skewed and micro perspective scale of picture and keeping it undertone, under their own constrictions, which they create themselves, thinking it is all for the better. The world never changes and alters itself according to their whim and fancy though I might be exaggerating a bit on this.
Ah Loong, one of the main character in the story, sells pirated dvds. Despite the stereotype of his social standing, he has a very intriguing hobby of writing and reading poetry. Ah Loong simply has to come out best by all available opportunities in a realm where one slip can mean his extinction. Fluctuating in and out of hazardous cartage on his motor-cycle and distorting his docile body to dance to the sway of a traditional Malay tune, Loong personifies the struggle to live in a society where there is asperity and violence.
Despite Yasmin Ahmad’s rather modern portrayal of a Malay family, she decides to not portray the family as a wealthy, ambitious upper-middle-class malays. The family is one of which that is not class vigilant. They practice equality, treating their house maid like one of their own, something all humans should at least own despite it being an employee-employer relationship. How we know they are not well off is when Orked tells Loong that her family is not able to afford a piano. One more cite in the film that associates with this point is when Orked’s friend’s surprising find when she got to know how equal Orked treats her house maid.
The character of Orked sits on a stand of one of the biggest victim of societal stereotypes, Women. In this social context, she is no longer the dependable, submissive, homely, not educated, non-English speaking Malay lady. Orked defies the old stereotypes of a malay lady. She is someone open, her idiosyncratic character and her liveliness is clear. However, Yasmin approaches this very subtly. It is not by physical the outbursts of defiance, but more of internal build ups as Orked still puts on a traditional baju kurung in almost all the scenes she is in. On the other perspective, it also brings forward the compelling idea of how multi-faceted our young is. Orked’s idealistic hero as shown in Sepet, is of a Japanese-Chinese heritage, again highlighting the film’s eye for blurring the stereotypes more. This of course was the cause of her event of meeting up with Ah Loong later on in the film.
In the hospital scene between Keong and Loong, there is an exchange of some witty dialogues. The injection of the idea of the characterization of brotherhood in the Malay Annal such as the five Hangs, ( Hang Tuah, Hang Jebat, Hang Kasturi, Hang Lekir and Hang Lekiu.) taking a possibility form of being Chinese somehow to me give out a gasp of displeasure and antipathy in the dimmed cinema and especially penetrates more to purist nationalists who will find this rude in regards that they are not being able to take in humour considering these legends are seen as sacrosanct.
Sepet breeds a new kind of air for Malaysian filmmaking. It sets out to give a new look to the very stubborn and formulated, stereotypical Malay films tracking back to the olden days.
Sepet breeds a new kind of air for Malaysian filmmaking. It sets out to give a new look to the very stubborn and formulated, stereotypical Malay films tracking back to the olden days. Thus, the fact that it is new and daring, organic in its own sense, it will definitely be a film that will get heavily criticized by the public especially the Malay society and communities not only in Malaysia but also other neighboring countries like Singapore predominantly. This is will especially concentrate on the older generation who still are very rooted to their life principles they carry with them from their ancestors.
The sarcasms and unconventionality in this film in handling the Malaysian stereotypes works to an extent it is not that blunt. Yasmin Ahmad smoothens the sharp inverting by inserting elements of humour. In this way, she makes her audience simultaneously laugh while they are trying to judge the film thus making some kind of balance there transforming the edginess into something pretty much neutral for everyone to absorb in.
We are living in the context of an ever liberalized society, and as the world progresses, are we to move ahead with them or hang on desperately to stale ideas and outdated intangible cultures? Ponder. Having said this, how do we strike a balance in a manner that does not totally obliterate our cultural identity and yet still maintain a fresh and contemporary perspective on world views.
Endra Jamil, is a Level Two film student.