Most of our local box-office hits have featured a fairly diverse spectrum of stories, from the idyllic and optimistic (The Journey, Ola Bola) to the action-packed (Polis Evo, Evolusi KL Drift) and the supernatural (Munafik). But the film scene has been diversifying and welcoming a new array of stories, with a smaller proportion of local films having emerged to present social commentary and a public awareness on the ‘forgotten’ underbelly of our society.
Enter Jagat and Shuttle Life, two contemporary local films that the daily struggles of our society’s “unseen” oppressed minorities and working-class citizens. They challenge the idealistic and superfluous by offering profound glimpses into the seedier side of urban Malaysian life. Gritty, heartfelt and thought-provoking, both films visualise Malaysian lives burdened by a society that limits them social mobility due to poverty, crime, and a lack of education and opportunities.
Jagat (Shanjhey Kumar Perumal, 2015)
Jagat is director Shanjhey Kumar Perumal’s debut feature film, set in the early 1990s of Malaysia. In the film, Appoy, a rebellious schoolboy, prefers to watch gangster flicks on TV and engage in mischief rather than memorise his multiplication tables. Mildly resentful of his strict father, Maniam, and inevitably attracted to the criminal lifestyle led by his uncles, Appoy neglects his studies, while his uncle Bala tries to guide and advise the boy. Appoy greatly glamourises and admires the gangster life without fully realising its implications, or the difficult world his uncles experience by being a part of such a dangerous lifestyle. Appoy eventually witnesses Bala’s sudden death by drug overdose – an incident that tilts Appoy further off the path.
Jagat: Appoy (Harvind Raj) with his uncle, Bala (Senthil Kumaran Muniandy)
Image source: The Rakyat Post (http://www.therakyatpost.com/life/movies-life/2015/12/29/jagat-receives-international-film-festival-invitations/)
Jagat sheds light on the plight of Malaysian Indians living in the rural pockets of society, with limited access to education and job opportunities. The characters are constantly surrounded by the harsh, austere landscape of a rural squatter compound – a terrain of unforgiving violence and shady dealings that overwhelms Maniam’s stern yet well-meaning intentions to steer Appoy towards a better future. Maniam’s tough-love approach to parenting further repels Appoy away from pursuing a virtuous way of life, into the waiting arms of lawlessness and depravity, a lifestyle that appears to be a more relenting alternative to spending time in school and being disciplined. Appoy’s impressionability is a double-edged sword that eventually leads to his own unbecoming: his potential to be shaped into a righteous, law-abiding individual is hindered by his constant exposure to the social ills prevalent in his environment.
Appoy is not a bad person, merely another casualty of a limited education system, a struggling family unit and a society that disregards a young boy from the ghetto like him. While this film does not justify the choice of being a gangster, it paints youths who fall into this life in a softer light – they’re people just like us, who made complex decisions and fell through the cracks of a vicious cycle of moral corruption, with no support structure to tell them otherwise.
Jagat: Appoy’s father, Maniam (Kuben Mahadevan), a hardworking labourer who strives for a better future for Appoy
Image source: Star2 Online (http://www.star2.com/entertainment/movies/movie-news/2015/12/17/jagat-the-other-film-that-matters-this-week/)
Shuttle Life (Tan Seng Kiat, 2017)
On the other hand, Shuttle Life trains its focus on the trials and tribulations of Qiang, a conflicted youth who works in a motorcycle repair shop while trading stolen vehicle spare parts for extra income. Despite being exasperated by his mentally unstable mother, life seems bearable until the death of his beloved younger sister, Hui Shan in a hit-and-run accident on their way home from her birthday celebration. Owing to Hui Shan’s lack of a birth certificate, the hospital adamantly refuses to release her body to Qiang. The narrative then begins to focus on Qiang’s frustrations and what he’s forced to overcome in his convoluted quest to extract Hui Shan’s body from the hospital morgue. Hui Shan’s tragic end appears to exert a lingering presence throughout the film, influencing Qiang’s decisions every step of the way. After failing to get a legitimate copy of Hui Shan’s birth certificate from his unreliable mother, Qiang sets out to take matters into his own hands – he resorts to producing a fake birth certificate for his sister.
Shuttle Life: Qiang (Jack Tan) bustling around town on his trusty motorcycle with Hui Shan (Angel Chan)
Image source: Malay Mail Online (http://www.themalaymailonline.com/showbiz/article/malaysian-film-shuttle-life-wins-big-at-shanghai-film-festival#SqXKdYMGkYHoV9es.97)
The adversities faced by Qiang and his family are anchored to an extended metaphor of a prolonged, city-wide water supply cut, as well as recurring images of angular, perilous stairways and spiralling car park complexes. It is disheartening to see Qiang thrown into the chaotic trappings of bureaucracy, ignorance and institutional shortcomings without even time to grieve for his beloved sister. Despite Qiang’s persistent display of pragmatism in dealing with his struggles, his devastation is in his determination to secure the return of his sister’s body, compelling him to resort to petty crime and confrontations with the authorities. While Qiang’s moral compass is questionable, his actions and judgments are only an effect of a flawed bureaucracy and social system that disadvantages the marginalised and underprivileged.
The film is also punctuated with scenes of urban displacement, resource inequality and an uncaring bureaucracy. Furthermore, Qiang’s streetwise intelligence contrasts the contented innocence of his departed sister, implying the price one has to pay for subsistence in the rougher parts of the city. There is no place for tolerance, compassion and consideration in the rigidity of red tape procedures. Without empathy, we are all guilty of making the world a worse place for the urban poor.
Shuttle Life: Qiang (far right) with his buddies-in-crime, fretting over the payment for Hui Shan’s fake birth certificate
Image source: Hollywood Reporter (http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/review/shuttle-life-1018509)
Both films culminate in ambiguous endings which amplify the resonating impact of the narrative besides prompting us to ponder their implications of the characters’ predicaments. Both films are a reflection of what it means to be poor and underprivileged in the urban society of Malaysia – it is a life that seems futile, with no hope and bleak prospects. When you’re privileged, it is relatively easier to accept misfortune. But for the poor who live in modern metropolises like Kuala Lumpur who feel like there is no chance of upward mobility, it is almost too easy to give up and give in to a terrible world.
Teeming with an atmosphere of powerlessness and resistance in varying measures, Jagat and Shuttle Life are powerful reminders of the people who live on the fringes of society, sidelined by rapid urban development. Involvement in crime and violence runs rife in both films; but then again, where do morals stand when the stakes of survival and sustenance remain unjustifiably high?
Written by Choo Suet Fun