Sunday February 17, 2013
Bunohan can inspire local films
By DZOF AZMI
An entertaining Malaysian movie with a deep, thought-provoking story is a rare creature, but Bunohan should inspire us to strive toward greater heights.
IT’S Oscar time again, and as expected, there is a lot of buzz in the air about the potential winners – from me as well.
Yes, I reject the cynical view that the Oscars are a glorified public relations exercise because I am in love with the magic of the movies. It is a magic that carves out an alternate reality in your brain, creating moments that last a lifetime.
If there ever was a film that made its own alternate reality, it is Bunohan, a final five nominee for Best Film and Best Director at the recent Asian-Pacific Film Festival, and Malaysia’s candidate for the Oscar for Best Foreign Film. (Each country submits one entry, and the Academy in Hollywood then whittles it down to the final five nominees.)
Even though it did not make the nominee list, Bunohan’s success is noteworthy considering that Malaysia is not known as a producer of quality films, and few of our movies do well on the international circuit.
Why this is so is a vexing question for those of us involved in the creative content field. Coming up with a story and writing a script are arguably two of the cheapest parts of making a movie, yet I feel that many Malaysian films fail at this point more than any other.
There are also commercial concerns – Malaysian movies don’t make a lot of money, even if we take the limited market reach into consideration.
Adnan Sempit 2, the best-performing Malaysian movie at the box office in 2012, made just under RM7mil. However, The Avengers (the biggest earner in local cinemas last year) collected over RM30mil from Malaysian moviegoers. When ranked next to all films that played in Malaysia, the top-earning Malaysian film barely broke into the top 20.
Once, when asked what is now needed to move the industry forward, I glibly answered: “Knowing the difference between a bad and a good story – and recognising you have to work hard on the former to end up with the latter.”
Clearly this is easier said than done, but we must first admit there is a problem.
Firstly, my premise that people don’t know the difference between a good and a bad story is based on how much bad stuff I see out there. I recognise that taste is subjective, but I think we all know when a movie is boring or doesn’t make sense.
In fact, throughout the years, Malaysia has only considered two films to be worthy of consideration for the Oscars (the other being Puteri Gunung Ledang in 2004).
Yes, making films with a bad story or no story at all is not a uniquely Malaysian problem, but what exacerbates the issue is that I think we don’t even have enough cream to rise to the top so that we are not on a constant diet of dregs.
I admit that it’s not always easy to tell from a script what works and what doesn’t. When I watch productions based on my scripts, I frequently notice that what I thought would work when on paper doesn’t necessarily translate well to the screen. So learning to understand what doesn’t work is a key skill.
Once a problem in a script is identified, a bright mind then needs to fix it – with enough time to get it right. I feel that sometimes there is confusion between “given enough time to write something” and “given enough time to write several bad drafts before ending up with a good one”.
How much time is enough? At the extreme end, Pixar is famous for spending up to four years working on a story. And even though many people speak of films written “over a weekend”, the truth is that those writers have a pretty good idea of what the story is before starting.
Does a film really need a good story to make money? There are many, many examples of box office hits that weren’t very well written; and not all Oscar winners are box office winners.
You may also argue that the Malaysian public doesn’t want deep storylines; they just want to go to the cinema to have fun and not have to think too much.
Yet, the top international films of last year all show some depth of thought. The Avengers (No.1 at the box office worldwide) was about how five loners figure out how to work with one another, and The Dark Knight Rises (No.2) questioned why Batman would sacrifice so much for a corrupt city.
When big-budget Hollywood action movies can have deeper themes than most Malaysian films, perhaps that is an indication of how much better we can do if we only try.
My belief is that members of the creative industry have an obligation to innovate. It’s not enough to give the audience what they want; we should give them what they didn’t realise they wanted. They have to be surprised in the moment yet amazed at how obvious it seems looking back. Resolutions must be unexpected and inevitable at the same time.
The greatest sin is to tell stories that make the audience feel nothing, to create heroes who want less than our deepest desires and for them to not need to work as hard or as cleverly to overcome their problems.
We need to care so much about what they want and how they get it, that when we step out of the cinema into the light, we are disappointed at how mundane our lives are and how easy our choices seem in comparison.
In the end, the good stories are the ones that get remembered and revered, and many agree that Bunohan is one that is not easily forgotten.
Hopefully, at the very least, it will inspire others with the belief that more good Malaysian movies are in our future, and with a bit of luck, an Oscar or two.
Logic is the antithesis of emotion but mathematician-turned-scriptwriter Dzof Azmi’s theory is that people need both to make sense of life’s vagaries and contradictions. Speak to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.