Rotterdam 2010: Malaysian Gems

Daniel Kasman

Kill them with kindness—a rare approach and quality for political cinema, usually so bristling and over-eager. Amir Muhammad’s Malaysian Gods takes an instructive and benign attitude.  The video traces the outskirts of Malaysia’s tumultuous politics in the late 90s and early 00s, dense with demonstrations and police action, with an emphasis on the role Malaysian Tamils have had in the country.  But the video does this all with a chuckling humor through playful explanative title cards (assuming most are deficient in their knowledge of the situation in Malaysia), and more thoroughly by inverting a principle and well-tired documentary convention.  Rather than interviewing historically important people in generic talking-heads settings, abstract and without context, Muhammad shot his video at locations with rich history and featuring what might be called historically relevant people.  That is, normal people, those who live, or work, or were passing through these places now, not necessarily then.  Geographical past is then momentarily united to the personal—and perhaps unrelated—present.  Though we learn the events, we never are quite told of the politics at stake, and thereby the specifics of Malaysian Gods is not partisan ideology, but rather its interest in documenting everyday people in the everyday places that have informed their country’s political unrest.

You could measure how many movies are being projected digitally here at IFFR—once I even spied the UI of Apple’s DVD player on screen before a movie started—by the degree to which my pulse jumped when I saw Woman on Fire Looks for Water begin with the telltales speckles on the screen, the image trembling slightly, all signs indicating something physical and real was being projected.  But the longer lasting pleasure came when this additional texture was added to a particularly beautiful and sensitive film, one of the finds of the festival.

Woo Ming Jin’s feature begins immediately with a strikingly lovely, modest mise-en-scène—short focus with subtly geometric foreground framing, a sharp attention to busy image textures, simple, oblique and presentational two-shot and close-ups of actors, lovely jungle pastels—and doesn’t stop there continuing to build a low-key but richly textured story.  The usual tentative-coy boy-girl plot is nicely complicated by relationship politics when another family tries to woo away our young male protagonist to their daughter, and the waterside village that is the setting for young courtship is deepened by Woo through  the visceral details of local fishing economies, the way cockles are farmed, frogs are sold, fish are cleaned.  This economic space is filled out by character-actor style casting of the kind where the introduction of a new actor or actress subtly expands the film’s village world, just as a close-up of fish guts opens up the day-to-day life there.  Our hero’s romance with a coy local girl and his anguish drifting between her and the courting family’s daughter is accented and mirrored by the regrets of his infirmed father, who takes to visiting an old flame.  Conversation is not limited to flitting boy-girl flirtation, but encompasses the words of old, sick, drunk, and dying men too.  Woo’s story is one of the most grounded I’ve seen in a while: he stakes his camera to the village and gives us a lot of the little going on there.  The film's constantly fresh, nuanced photography enlivens it all, melodrama fails to intrude, exquisite light is used as a climax, and Woman on Fire Looks for Water blossoms as a sweet, lovely work of rare, youthful sadness.

Don't miss our latest features and interviews.

Sign up for the Notebook Weekly Edit newsletter.


International Film Festival RotterdamAmir MuhammadJohn WooFestival Coverage
Please sign up to add a new comment.


Notebook is a daily, international film publication. Our mission is to guide film lovers searching, lost or adrift in an overwhelming sea of content. We offer text, images, sounds and video as critical maps, passways and illuminations to the worlds of contemporary and classic film. Notebook is a MUBI publication.


If you're interested in contributing to Notebook, please see our pitching guidelines. For all other inquiries, contact the editorial team.