Alienation: Who are “We” in the S.E.A?

“What is it that I had seen in my experience of the real land? I believed in those days that a man became native to the country only if he could identify with its landscape.” 

— K.S. Maniam in ‘In Far Country’

In searching for our own identity, we find ourselves struggling to relate to something that connotes to the parts of our selves such the land in which we’re born or with the society.  In ‘Tapai’, Rais Hishammuddin is able to relate to his Malay-ness through his gastronomic adventures with traditional Malay food. Perhaps it is the desire for this familiarity that leads us to want to identify with groups of people. We try to fit ourselves in a collective of histories and in doing so, contest them. Do we really fit in or become alienated because we choose to hold on to our own identity? Do we even have an original self? It is difficult to find answers when our lives might be constructed to a particular pace in the world today. Many film-makers across South East Asia, a region seared with its own histories, have attempted to interpret this idea of alienation within their own countries.

Various films from Singapore explore a sense of alienation and nostalgia in the metropolitan.  Eric Khoo is perhaps the auteur most known for films that highlight urban alienation.  He tends to capture gritty, less-than-perfect images of Singapore, projecting the struggles of Singaporeans in a fast-paced city hidden beneath the affluence, order and success of the country. Independent film-making in Malaysia, on the other hand, is usually low-budget, non-profit oriented and tends to provoke critical engagement from its audience by focusing on alienated social and political ideas. It is usually presented through racial sentiments such as in ‘Sepet’ by the late Yasmin Ahmad. We can also see this topic portrayed critically through James Lee’s lenses.

The Ipoh born Malaysian director, James Lee (Chinese: 李添兴) is one of the pioneers of the Malaysian New Wave (Malaysian Independent Film movement), he has directed numerous films which gained recognition around the world such as the Best Asean Feature Award and FIPRESCI Prize at the Bangkok International Film Festival 2005 for one of his earliest work, ‘The Beautiful Washing Machine’.  His latest film, ‘If Not Now, Then When?’ premiered at the 2012 Busan International Film Festival in South Korea.

James Lee is currently a producer, director and cinematographer for many Malaysian films. He was a self-taught filmmaker and was actively involved in theatre. He directed a few stage plays before venturing into filmmaking and his earlier films were produced under his production house, Doghouse73 Pictures. In 2005, along with Amir Muhammad, Tan Chui Mui and Liew Seng Tat established Da Huang Pictures.

The trailer of ‘If Not Now, Then When?’ might be familiar to us. The only difference is that the scenes are framed in a tint of desaturated palette, representing an estrangement of the relationships between the characters. The background music, a music box-like melody with a hint of melancholy seems strangely soothing, despite the uneasiness building up as we are slowly pulled into the world James Lee created. This subtle representation of apathy is familiar in his other films like ‘Gerhana’, a short film of two lovers meeting in secret though very little emotion is shown for one another and the socio-political matters discussed in their homeland as they watch the news. The same cold colour palette is used here. Perhaps the reason is so that we could see a more honest reality through a discoloured lens?

Alienation as understood today is fundamentally a Marxist terminology, conceptualised to describe a state of estrangement resulted in the capitalist system of labour and production. Marx foresees a dehumanizing aspect in the capitalist mode of production; a systematic exploitation of surplus value to which the worker is alienated by his works, his workings, himself and his co-workers. Reading into the textuality of ‘If Not Now, Then When?’, one can immediately notice the characteristic coldness or stillness in his depiction of the everyday life: from the alienated middle-class urbanites, their irreconcilable distance in conversations (or attempts at) to the desires that can never be satisfied. The characters are engulfed in alienation so much so that they become an extension of the capitalist desiring-machine. Who then, are We?

Felicia Tan, Tan Zi Hao, Teng Sook Boon, Yow Chi Leng, Zoe Low

"Zeal without knowledge is fire without light." - Thomas Fuller, 17th century historian

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