The Big Durian
Posted by martinteller on June 3, 2012
When I first discovered James Lee via his magnificent film The Beautiful Washing Machine, there was an essay in the DVD case that mentioned his role in the “Malaysian New Wave.” I had decided to seek out more of this movement but besides Lee and Tan Chui Mui, I didn’t follow up on it, but I’m finally getting to another film that I noted when I was looking into it. In this documentary (produced by Lee and with second unit camera by Tan, suggesting that the Malaysian New Wave crew is pretty tight), Amir Muhammed starts with a 1987 incident. It seems a certain Private Adam went amok (“amok”, the film tells us, is one of two Malaysian words used in the English language… the other is “orangutan”) and killed a couple of people with an M16 before being persuaded by a superior officer to give himself up. Acts of violence being relatively rare in the country, it created a big stir. In the aftermath, there were some unsettling repercussions of governmental oppression.
Besides its powerful odor and acquired taste, the durian of the title is a fruit is known for its thick, thorny husk. Durian itself is never mentioned in the film, but “thorny” is a word that comes up frequently as Muhammad uses the Private Adam incident as a springboard to explore touchy subjects, such as Malaysia’s political climate and racial difficulties, with tensions among the country’s Malay, Indian and Chinese populations. Muhammad employs a light, humorous style, and there’s a lot of funny to offset the sometimes dry material (there’s a number of scenes of people reading newspaper articles). Some of the interviewees are actors playing characters, but this isn’t so much an intent to deceive the audience — they aren’t acting particularly well — as an attempt to illustrate cultural attitudes by cartoonish examples.
As a documentary style I really enjoyed it, and learned a lot about Malaysian culture. However, I don’t think it’s meant for outsiders to appreciate (though it was the first Malaysian film to screen at Sundance), as the discussion of politics is pretty complex and seems to require some knowledge of their system, history and major players. Maybe it’s because I watched it late at night, but I found myself getting lost in all the different organizations and acronyms and unfamiliar names. The messages are still clear, however, as Muhammad tries to wake his countrymen out of their apathy and take a closer look at some of the goings-on in their government and their cultural attitudes. Rating: Good