Is There Hope for Our Film Industry?

Is the brain drain phenomenon in our film industry a sign of the Malaysian society’s failures?

A typically languid Monday morning was turned on its head as spectators nationwide, who had all been on the edge of their seats, were swept in a whirlwind of emotions. Tan Sri Michelle Yeoh had just won an Oscar. As she gracefully ascended the stage to accept the highly coveted Best Actress award—knowing full well that she had just made history as the first Asian woman to triumph in the category—the veteran actress gave a rousing speech about inclusivity, ageism, and motherhood before giving a shout-out to her family and friends in the country. This prompted another round of cheers and chants.

Also tucked within that speech was the fact that Malaysia had no part in making her the actress she is today. She said: “To my extended family in Hong Kong, where I started my career. Thank you for letting me stand on your shoulders, giving me a leg up so that I can be here today.” Sure, the Ipoh-born stumbled into acting—she landed a contract with D&B Films shortly after she won the 1983 Miss Malaysia pageant and did well in a commercial in which she starred alongside Jackie Chan—but the fact that she found that opportunity abroad and stayed to hone her craft says something about the state of our film industry.

Edmund Yeo, whose resume is peppered with accolades including a Best Director award from the Tokyo International Film Festival, has never had one of his films screened here due to censorship and genre bias. In our last conversation with the filmmaker, he pointed out that a big part of the problem is Malaysia treating arts and culture as an afterthought. “Our upbringing and education do not really prioritise it,” he said. “In other countries, it is normal for teachers to bring the pupils to festival screenings. That is why most of them have a vast exposure to films of different genres, from all over the world,” he added.

Taking a closer look at the subject opens the floodgates to a host of names that have found success outside of the country. Penang-born director Sam Quah, for instance, is mostly unknown here, but his crime thriller Sheep Without a Shepherd reportedly grossed nearly USD200 million in China. Even the more established names like Chiu Keng Guan who directed the award-winning picture and box office hit The Journey—the highest-grossing local film in 2014 with a haul of MYR17 million—retreated to China. His sport-themed drama On Your Mark raked in USD22 million in the republic just a couple of years back.

Many of their peers have also managed to build successful careers away from home including the uber-controversial Namewee, Tsai Ming-Liang, and Lau Kok Rui. Whether it is a question of better opportunity, a natural progression as a human being who always craves for more, or the confluence of both, it raises some important questions: why do these great talents only receive recognition when they start making a name for themselves overseas? More importantly, what have we done to incentivise them to contribute to our own industry? Or have we not been providing them with the kind of platform they need to grow?

Seeing the global film community getting the kind of head start and witnessing the gap widening year after year spells a bleak future for the next generation of moviegoers and filmmakers, and Yeo recognised it as such. “If commercial movies and big blockbusters are the only types of films playing in the cinema, then those will be the only types of films the audience can ever accept,” he said, before stressing that it is a real problem that has been around for aeons. “We are inherently facing all these disadvantages and it is very difficult for us to reach our potential. It is not a problem that can be solved easily,” he added.

Mentega Terbang

The lack of access to diverse modes of moviemaking and storytelling has a lot, if not everything, to do with the strict gatekeeping faced by our talents. Mentega Terbang made headlines just recently after it was taken down from Hong Kong streaming service Viu, following an intervention by the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission. The backlash against the Khairi Anwar-directed film has led to no less than eight police reports, prompting the law enforcement agency to launch an investigation over the allegations of religious provocation.

Premiered at the Indonesian Jogja-Netpac Asian Film Festival in 2021, the locally produced independent picture follows 15-year-old Muslim schoolgirl Aisyah on her exploration of faith and the afterlife after the death of her terminally ill mother. Mentega Terbang features controversial scenes including one where the main character’s father allows her to convert to another religion. The outrage among Malaysians recently escalated and took a turn for the worse when religious extremists sent Khairi and screenwriter Arjun Thanaraju death threats and vandalised their cars with paint and acid.

It is a similar pushback, albeit to a lesser extent, endured by the late Yasmin Ahmad’s Muallaf. Released in theatres in 2009, the film was initially banned by the authorities due to “offensive” elements depicted in the movie, notably the part where Sharifah Amani, the lead actress, shaved her head bald for the role. For context: Muslim women in Malaysia are prohibited from having short hair and dressing like men as they violate the tenets of Islam, according to the National Fatwa Council. Aware of the severity of the issue, Amani, who is known for her candour, tread cautiously when contacted for a comment.

“There are pockets of people who appreciate the film and there are those who don’t,” said the 37-year-old who has had her share of intimidations and threats. “I’m talking about those who have actually watched the film and had different opinions about it—whether they liked it, whether they thought it was right or wrong—and that is the conversation that we should be able to have. Alas, we cannot because it is always ‘my way or the highway’ and that’s it,” she added, telling the filmmakers who have the opportunity to leave the country to do so and realise their full potential elsewhere.


“I have been working since I was 17. I have seen the ups and downs of the industry, and the death of many film practitioners. I have seen amazing storytellers cut down in their prime because they didn’t follow suit, write a film that a particular group wanted, or disagreed on some political issues,” she said. “Those who don’t have the privilege to leave, like me, will band together and strive to do what we can because we believe in the arts. But for the rest, leave,” she reiterated, adding that Malaysia does not respect or want the arts community to thrive and succeed.

“It’s bleak but it is the truth. We don’t even have a dedicated ministry to take care of us—we have to share with tourism— which is a shame because we know that a society that values arts and culture is a society that thrives,” she added. Amani then recalled that many of her own films were not accepted in Malaysia until they began receiving attention abroad, citing Sepet, Gubra, Muallaf, and Mukhsin as examples. “Maybe it is our curse for how awfully we treated the practitioners during the late P. Ramlee’s time. We are doomed to have the same fate—to die of a broken heart,” she mulled.

Acknowledging her privilege—Amani is what the culture today begrudgingly calls a “nepo baby”—she is also concerned about the younger filmmakers who are not given the opportunity to grow and evolve as the world around them does. She contemplated the reasons for a moment and supposed that it is because they are not seen as worthy or of a certain ethnicity, since stories about different races and cultures rarely do well. The latter, especially, is not a far-fetched theory if the domestic box office report is any indication: the top-10 list of highest-grossing films of all time is exclusively made up of Malay language movies.

“It might be true, although it is something we can never find out,” said one of the pioneers of Malaysian New Wave, Tan Chui Mui, when asked if our racial makeup plays a part in audience turnout. “We can assume Michelle Yeoh made the right decision going to Hong Kong. But if you think about it, do you see any other Hong Kong actors winning an Oscar? It is also obvious that not everyone who moves to Hollywood will get an Oscar. A success story is always unique to an individual and cannot be replicated,” she added, responding to the notion that Yeoh wouldn’t be the star that she is today had she not pulled up the stakes.

Tan Chui Mui

Delving further into the brain drain phenomenon among our filmmakers, Tan offered a more pragmatic outlook on the subject matter. “I think leaving one’s own country is a positive thing, especially for artistic achievement. We should aim for international exposure and recognition, which is good for both the individual and the nation,” she said enthusiastically. “However, it is not accurate to say that success can only be achieved abroad. With the right support, infrastructure, and opportunities, Malaysian creatives can achieve success both locally and internationally,” she added.

On the hot-button issue of censorship, the award-winning producer, director and actress made her stand: “We should never ban films,” she proclaimed. “Banning a film limits our access to diverse perspectives and ideas, which can stifle critical thinking and creativity. I can’t predict if the crucifixion of Mentega Terbang would lead to more regulations being imposed on filmmakers in the future but I do believe that Fahmi Fadzil, the Communications and Digital minister, who has a background in arts and theatre can do more to help the industry. I remain hopeful,” she said.

Nonetheless, our history is dotted with stories of neglected artists and those in power who leeched off their successes. It still rings true to this day and was particularly evident when the world was at the height of the pandemic a couple of years back, during which actors had to raise funds for the hidden figures of filmmaking: crew members, who are often precluded from receiving residuals and royalties. The lack of support in turn disincentivises the studios from experimenting with original stories—a high-risk, low-return investment proposition, especially without a built-in audience.

So, how do we build an audience? We can start by cultivating the moviegoing crowd at the grassroots level through education, revisiting the draconian laws firmly rooted in our film industry that hold our creatives back, and weed out the higher-ups of the same mentality if need be. A growing chorus of filmmakers is and has been demanding a top-down change and a better future for the arts industry as promised to them year in and year out—and at every election season. But the question is: will they listen?