Malaysia's recent cinematic surge has been partially fronted by two female directors who have plenty to say and are not afraid to say it. With female directing voices thin on the ground, even in much less conservative societies than Muslim-dominated Malaysia, Yasmin Ahmad and Tan Chui Mui are airing their views on controversial issues and are now reaching far beyond their home turf.
As a Malaysian Muslim, Ahmad, in particular, has been daring in her dealings with racial and religious issues. Her latest film, Mukhsin, premiered at Tokyo, where she was awarded a retrospective, and goes on to compete in Berlin's Generation Kplus section next month. Tan's well-received debut Love Conquers All plays in Competition at Rotterdam at the end of January, where she enters CineMart with her next project Living Quietly, which has also been selected for the Cannes residency.
Ahmad began to draw international attention when her Sepet won best Asian film at Tokyo in 2005. At the time, she had only made a single television movie, Rabun, and was best known as an award-winning creative director in the advertising industry (she still heads up the creative division at Kuala Lumpur's Leo Burnett).
With its inter-racial love story between a Malay girl and a Chinese boy, Sepet was banned at home until Ahmad agreed to eight cuts. Her follow-up, Gubra, drew criticism for a plotline involving a Malay imam and his wife who are kind to two prostitutes. Both Sepet and Gubra swept the Malaysian film awards.
Ahmad, whose mother is half-Japanese and is married to a Chinese man, will not be shying away from controversy with her next film either, the $285,000 Muallaf, about a non-Malay man who converts to Islam. Muallaf will be financed by Chinese businessman Yap Lim Sen, who offered to back Ahmad after watching Sepet. Filming is expected to start in April.
'I don't find it too difficult to raise money as long as we present a good script,' says Ahmad, who writes all her own films. Local broadcaster TV3's film-making arm Grand Brilliance has backed Rabun and Mukhsin while Malaysia's National Film Development Board (Finas) partially funded Sepet.
Although Ahmad's films are not strictly commercial, they are accessible. Gubra opened on a healthy 30 screens, as will Mukhsin; Tan, named best new Asian film-maker at Pusan for Love Conquers All, had to make do with three cinemas for her home release, despite Love winning the Fipresci prize at Pusan and being backed by Rotterdam's Hubert Bals Fund.
But Tan has found other ways to get her film seen. "The internet has made it possible for someone in a developing country to easily apply for film funds online, get the money, make the film at a low budget and send it out to international festivals," she says.
Her next project, Living Quietly, is about two women in their fifties who plan to build a house by the sea. To be produced by Philippe Avril, it won a CNC grant at Locarno's Open Doors 2006.
Hong Kong's Focus Films has taken on international sales rights to both Mukhsin and Love Conquers All.