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Sepet, A Malaysian Movie

Three years after its release, I finally watched Sepet, and have come away amazed. The film's incisive criticisms and depiction of Malaysian society make it a movie unlike any other.

Written by johnleemk on 10:39:31 pm Apr 12, 2007.

When it comes to movies, yours truly is unfortunately still stuck in 2004. I had the recent (and by recent, I mean two months ago) good fortune to watch Yasmin Ahmad's Sepet on VCD, and finally understand why this has been called one of the best Malaysian films in recent history.

The normal Malay movie — a I understand it from vague stereotyping — is rather vapid, perhaps a bit shallow, and conforms to the norms of society (i.e. the norms as perceived by the government).

It is no wonder then that the Malaysian movie scene has suffered so much. The whole point of art is to be different, to depart from the norms, to take a critical look at our normal conception of things.

Yasmin Ahmad is one of the few Malaysian and Malay filmmakers out there who do depart from the norm (another one is Amir Muhammad, who if he keeps up at this rate, may end up being the moviemaker with most films banned by the Malaysian government). For this, she deserves recognition that has not been as forthcoming as one would like.

Yasmin has never been exactly the normal movie director. Even if you've not seen any of her movies, you've probably watched something directed by her. Many muhibbah-themed advertisements have been directed by her, including (if I'm not mistaken) those commissioned by Petronas to commemorate certain festivals.

Since Sepet is so unconventional in how it approaches our society, it has naturally been on the receiving end of much criticism.

After all, what normal Malaysian movie shows a Chinese performing the dikir barat? What normal Malaysian movie depicts a relationship between a Chinese VCD-seller and a Malay middle class girl?

What normal Malaysian movie shows a Malay husband and wife dancing sensuously, and later in bed? What normal Malaysian movie shows a Malay girl hiking up her baju kurung to pose with her Chinese boyfriend? (The latter two scenes were so offensive to the government's perception of Malaysian societal norms that they were cut.)

Sepet is a landmark movie because it is one of the few movies to be uniquely honest and forthright in its criticism of our society and how we approach our lives, and also because it is one of the few that dares to present a vision of a future that is free from the prejudices which plague us presently.

Sepet does not preach about the importance of multiculturalism. It does not tell us to be open-minded; it shows us how we can be open-minded.

The movie is, of course, not an accurate depiction of Malaysian society. But it is a breakthrough in how it deals with certain issues that really do affect Malaysians — it brings up the inequitable government scholarship policies. The female protagonist launches into a tirade against Malays who mindlessly ape the West half-way through the film.

And, as many have noted, Sepet seems to be one of the few (if not the only) movies that has successfully captured how bahasa rojak, our true national language, is spoken.

Sepet does not stop there; it goes on to show what we could be if our prejudices did not get in our way. Its idealised depiction of interactions between people of different races shows how much more dynamic and powerful our society could be if we took advantage of our cultural plurality.

Yasmin Ahmad's Sepet is very controversial in the establishment for a reason. Unlike the traditional bland Malaysian movies, Sepet has dared to critique the norms of Malaysian society — and for this, it deserves recognition.