Wednesday, 9 May 2007

Village People Radio Show (Apa khabar orang kampung) (2007)

Malaysia's last malay communists

It wouldn't be a mistake to think of Village People Radio Show as a follow-up to Amir Muhammad's previous movie on Chin Peng, The Last Communist, but it'll be a pity to see this documentary as merely a continuation of Amir's investigation of surviving members of the Malayan Communist Party and its armed forces. The key to this documentary lies in its subject, the 10th regiment of the Communist Party of Malaya, composed almost entirely of Malay volunteers and activists. While Chin Peng may have been an ideal launching point for a documentary on the fading legacy of the communists and the disproportionately long shadow they cast on Malaya, this sequel of sorts arrests the convenient national propaganda (undertaken by both Malaysian and Singaporean governments) that has demonised Chin Peng and the Malayan Communist Party as some sort of Yellow Peril, the ChiCom threat.

And so, it might be more rewarding to regard Village People Radio Show as a corrective educational piece that parades before its viewers elderly Malay men and women, who dedicated the better parts of their youth - and then some more - to the ideals of the Communist Party of Malaya, who volunteered in the anti-colonial struggle for independence, and then were rejected by the new leaders of Malaya, and fought a long guerilla war in the jungles before retiring to Thailand. These are the same elderly Malay and women who pray dutifully at their village mosque, construct probably the last remaining authentic Malay stilt villages on the Peninsular, and spend their evenings playing traditional music together. These people, because of who they are and what they do, because of the language they speak, are the gravest threats to the official propaganda of Malaysia. And because of their age, they may no longer pose a threat to official history of a PRC-backed Malayan Communist Party that lost out to more democratic forces because it could never touch the hearts and minds of non-Chinese in the Peninsular.

And so, Village People Radio Show, being aware of its duty to history, is more serious and less whimsical than The Last Communist. Amir Muhammad duly lets the camera roll as veterans of WW2 and the Emergency speak of their life histories and activities as members of the Party, and their life after the signing of the armistice in 1989. It is unclear whether Amir had pushed his subjects hard enough during the interviews, but at times, their reluctance to discuss the party's attacks on civilians becomes disturbing, like an elephant in the room or an itch that cannot be scratched.

Like The Last Communist, the Village People Radio Show has a narrative within a narrative, a Thai radio play that apparently is an adaptation of A Winter's Tale. At times whimsical and overdramatic, it speaks of a sense of lost and exile that must surely haunt the surviving members of the Malayan Communist Party. One only wishes, on the documentary strength of the material in Village People Radio Show, that Amir Muhammad had instead made a far more serious documentary trilogy on the party, interviewing (and not just commenting ironically from the sidelines of his road trip) Chin Peng, the Malay communist soldiers, as well as surviving politicians and fighters on the side of the colonialists and their successors in Malaya. That would surely be documentary project far more worthy of its subjects of inquiry, instead of 2 film essays that just feel incomplete.

First published at incinemas on 10 May 2007

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