WTF ASIA 249: Sepet (2004)

What better way to celebrate Chinese New Year than with a movie called…Slit Eyes? Erm…well, at least I did not post this on Sunday.

Approximately 102 minutes, if you can watch this video:

Or…103 minutes if you can watch this video:

Ah Loong is reading to his mother from a book of…wisdom. His mother particularly likes the part about the loving virtue of punishing one’s child. Ah Loong tells her to guess where the writer is from. Mainland China? Nope. India. He shows her the front cover. Whoever is on it, she says it looks like Amitabh Bachchan. Ah Loong has no idea who that is. Philistine, this kid. Anyways, she notes that, despite him being from a different culture and speaking a different language, we can feel what was in his heart. It’s a metaphor…for punishing your kid.

Speaking of a different culture, Orked is reciting from the Quran. When she is done, she puts the book aside and opens her closet, which has a whole bunch of photographs of…Takeshi Kaneshiro???? Well, he is a very handsome man, sure.

Ah Loong goes to see his buddies with 300 for someone named Jimmy and 300 for the tuition fees for the brother of one of them. The others are not keen on giving Jimmy less than what he is owed. Apparently, Jimmy is a local bigshot who will get violent towards others when it comes to his money or his girlfriend. He…shot some guy just the other day for touching her. Ah Loong is not interested in this talk. He just wants to dance.

A group of Jimmy’s guys come over and kind of act rough. Ah Loong gives them the money meant for Jimmy. Uh oh. Only 300. It’s supposed to be 600 per week. No one says anything about the tuition, and the main tough…gives them another week? Well, that was nice of him. The toughs leave and Ah Loong yells into the karaoke microphone that Jimmy can sell his sister for money. Ah Loong then leaves out the back before Jimmy and more toughs come to…oh, scene change.

Orked’s mother is going out with Orked and her friend Lin, but she forgot her handbag. Yam brings it out to her, and gives her grief for being absent-minded. Lin is confused; isn’t Yam the family servant? Orked warns her not to call Yam that in front of her mother.

Ah Loong returns home and tries to…sneak past his mother, but she catches him. He tells her that he is going to bathe, and she presumes that he is going to go hang out with his buddies selling VCDs. Dang, remember those things? She complains that she only ever sees him as he is leaving. And…he goes to the bathroom. She asks if he is coming back for dinner. Eventually he asks what it will be. Duck. Will Ah Loong’s Pah like it? Who cares what Pah likes, his mother says. I guess Pah would mind. Then again, he also minds all of the noise that his wife and son are making in the…middle of the day.

Orked’s mother drops her and Lin off at the market and says that they will meet back in half an hour. Well, that gives Orked half an hour to gush about Takeshi Kaneshiro. Lin prefers Leonard DiCaprio, which Orked says is a boring choice. All the girls love DiCaprio because they have all seen his movies, but have they seen Takeshi Kaneshiro in Fallen Angels? Lin has seen the poster of him that Orked has in her bathroom, and that is enough. No. No. That is not enough. Lin is in need for some culture. So, Orked takes her to a movie stand. She goes through the various discs to find the Chinese movies. She asks one of the employees for help with the…oh…

Orked and Ah Loong just stare at each other for like 15 seconds. It would have gone on longer had Lin not snapped them both back to reality. Acting like that whole 15 seconds of nothing never happened, Ah Loong asks if they want to buy some movies and Lin responds sarcastically. Orked casually tells Ah Loong to ignore Lin, as she is just chee-sin: a nice person who loves to mingle with people of other races. Okay…Orked asks “Boss” the shop has any Takeshi Kaneshiro movies. Ah Loong tells her to call him Jason. Uh…okay. Jason. Anyways, they have three. She has already seen one of them, so she asks for another one and will come back later when she has enough money for the last one. She purchases the VCD and thanks him…in Chinese. While walking away, Orked says that he is cute. Lin agrees kind of, but is not so sure about his…erm…sepet. Orked says that sepet are the best. I don’t know if “Jason” can hear them talking about him as he walks up behind them and gives Orked the third movie. He says that she can keep it no charge if she likes it and return it if she doesn’t. He then asks for her name. Orked. ooooOOOOOoooooo. Lin says that Jason likes Orked. No, says Orked. He doesn’t know her well enough to like her. But…she acknowledges that he is in love with her.

Back at Orked’s house, Lin is leafing through one of Orked’s books and asks her about it. Orked says that it is about the psychological effect that the colonizer has on the colonized. What effects? Orked talks of the French conquering Algeria and deliberately making the natives believe that they were inferior, which led to the desire to marry upward. Lin seems skeptical that one race can affect another that much. Orked brings up Malaysia; the Brits left ages ago, but some Malaysians still think that anything from the West is good and anything Asian is not good, specifically Chinese features. You know, like how DiCaprio is better than Takeshi. Orked does point out, though, that Algerian writer who wrote that book married a White woman. Whatever. You like who you like. Who cares if people like people from another race? The problem is when people hate the other race. Did I mention that most of this conversation is in English?

And with that intellectual conversation over, Orked balances a stuffed giraffe on her face. Lin gets the VCDs and notices that Jason put in a piece of paper where he had written his phone number. Screeeeeeams.

Ah Loong is having dinner with his parents, his brother, and his sister-in-law. And a crying baby. Father demands that the baby be picked up. Sister-in-law says that her mother had said that picking up the baby too much would spoil it. Mother snaps: what would this bloody Singaporean and her mother know? The phone rings and Brother picks it up. Jason? Who is Jason? Ah Loong takes the phone and walks out. The rest of the family asks Brother who that is. Some…Malay girl.

Some time later, “Jason” and Orked are on a date at a fast food place called Chicken King. And they…talk about what they like and don’t like at the fast food place…god this is awkward. Finally, Orked changes the subject to…Jason’s hair. She likes it. He seems to appreciate that, especially since his mother had badmouthed it the other day. But that is a non-starter, so Jason then says that Orked is the first Malay person to buy Chinese movies from him. Orked thinks that that is strange. He asks why she does that.  Well, her mother and her mother’s friend watch Chinese soaps all day, and so Orked became familiar through osmosis. Orked picked up the language here and there, but then became obsessed with John Woo films…John Woo films with…Takeshi Kaneshiro? Was he even in a John Woo film before Red Cliff, which would come 4 years after this? And were these soaps from the Mainland or Hong Kong? Whatever, Jason mentions that his best friend Keong also loves John Woo films. As for Jason, though? He says that one can see violence in this town already. He says that most Chinese girls don’t like John Woo films, preferring loves stories. Orked gags. Love stories? Perish the thought. Actually, Jason says that he likes love stories. Oopsies.

Jason asks Orked…what happened to Malay movies. They used to be so good, and his mother loves to watch them. But the ones these days are terrible. Is this the director making a second thesis statement? He also mentions that his mother loves listening to Malay music, but she cannot listen to any when his father is home, as he hates Malay songs. And he is home all the time after being knocked down by a motorbike. Jason says that his mother has wished that he would get knocked down by a truck so that she can listen to her Malay songs again. Apparently, his father was abusive and unfaithful, but now his mother is not afraid of him anymore. Cut to his mother making his father fall out of his wheelchair. Jeez…I don’t suppose going back to talking about fast food is an option.

A man comes around with flowers and Jason is about to buy a bouquet, but Orked politely declines. She doesn’t really like flowers like that, but she appreciates the gesture. Jason thought that girls like when boys give them flowers. Not Orked, though she does like tuberoses. Has Jason given flowers to a lot of girls? Does he have a girlfriend. Before Jason can say anything, Lin shows up to remind Orked that she had promised to accompany her to a party. Now. Orked gets up to leave, but Jason asks if they will meet again. He has so many things to ask her and to tell her. Of course.

Orked doesn’t particularly seem to be enjoying the party, but she tells Johari, the boy sitting by her on the stairs, that she is having a good time. Lin calls to her and the boy pulls her away to a place where they are alone. He starts to force himself on her and she tries to push away.

Back home, Orked’s father expresses unease about this party. Orked’s mother is not worried. Johari is a good boy and Lin is looking after her. Erm…

The next day, Ah Loong goes around the city looking for tuberoses. He has trouble finding them in flower shops, but he does encounter this girl. She asks what he is doing and he lies that he is doing errands for his mother. He promises to call her later, but she says that he always says that and then never calls. He makes some more excuses, which she doesn’t believe. He tries to leave and she says that she might get her brother Jimmy to try to call him. Wait…Jimmy…the violent guy? Is this the sister whom Ah Loong suggested that he sell? Yikes, dude.

Oh, I am totally sure that these are meant to treat stomachaches and are not for sex.

Uh…yes. I too enjoy eating grapes.

It is 4 in the morning when Jimmy’s sister catches Ah Loong trying to sneak out of her apartment. She asks him to stay, but Ah Loong reminds her that Jimmy dislikes him. She doesn’t care about that, but Ah Loong assures her that he will call her tomorrow. She doesn’t believe him, but doesn’t fight.

Lin and her boyfriend are chatting at school when Orked walks by. She takes a look at Lin’s boyfriend and says that he looks nothing like Leonardo DiCaprio. Lin’s boyfriend responds by mocking her for dating a Chinese boy. Well, I see one thing that the Malays inherited from the Brits is contempt for slanted eyes, even though Malays are hardly exempt from that feature. He even does that pulling at the sides of the eyes thing. Orked says that such talk will get him into trouble, and she scolds him for trying to spread gossip about her after she went on ONE date with a Chinese boy. He accuses Orked of acting too good for her own race, hanging out in clubs looking to land a White boy. Orked denies going to clubs and says that it is Lin who is looking for a White boy. She calls him a substitute White man who failed his English exam. Malay men had been marrying outside their race for generations. But now she wants to and it is a problem? He asks if that is why she dumped Johari. Orked calls him a big wanker who tried to assault her. Lin’s boyfriend dismisses that as boyfriend/girlfriend behavior. So Orked kicks a basketball at his arm and walks off.

Jason has shown up at Orked’s school. She is surprised, as they were supposed to meet at Chicken King later. She notes that he looks tired. Jason claims that he had to check the new video stock. I guess that that is a better story than sleeping with your ex-girlfriend. Orked suggests that they put the date on hold so that he can sleep. He asks for her house number, but she expresses concern that her father would pick up the phone. Jason mentions going all over town the other day trying…and failing…to find tuberoses for Orked. Then he found out that there was a shop right by his video stall that sells them. He had gone everywhere but there.

After going to a photo shop to get a bunch of silly pictures taken, Jason and Orked go sit by the water. Jason asks Orked how long she thinks it takes to fall in love with someone. She says a minute. She then asks him how long it took for him to fall in love with her. Much less than that.

This was the second movie directed by Yasmin Ahmad. You might notice a few similarities between this and her final film, Talentime. In both, a well-to-do high school girl falls for a poor non-Muslim ethnic minority. Here, it is a troubled Chinese boy, while in Talentime, it is an Indian. The ethnic tensions are a little more upfront here, as is the teen romance. Actually, I gather that Ahmad had wanted Sharifah Amani, who played Orked, to play Melur in Talentime, but scheduling conflicts made that impossible. She did get other actors from this movie to be in that one, though.

Malay Muslims are the majority in Malaysia, though by only around 50% to 60%. And what would be the most important thing to society than preserving the ethnic and religious purity of their girls? Well, Yasmin Ahmad knew what it was like being a Muslim Malay girl and bristled against such impositions of purity. And that shows in her movies and her previous work in advertising, both of which got her in trouble with Malaysian religious authorities.

I cannot say how much of this movie is autobiographical or if Orked is meant to represent Ahmad herself. Ahmad was in her forties when this movie was made. She had previously been married to an Indian man and had recently gotten married to a Chinese Muslim. So, she may have had first-hand experiences with the troubles surrounding interracial romance, though not necessarily the ones facing teenagers at the start of the millennium.

In the movie, the barriers between the characters do not always present themselves with outright maliciousness. Sometimes they quiet and subtle. Sometimes they are silly and funny. More often, they are simply built into the status quo. Chinese Malaysians make up between 20% to 25% of the country. Often, it is more that the characters never really notice the other people. One of Ah Loong’s friends says that he has never really thought of Malays before, despite seeing them every day.

There is the issue of linguistic difference, even though everyone seems to know English and the people in the Chinese community speak various types of Chinese. Even the religious angle is downplayed. Sure, there is the issue of Muslims not eating pig, but there is little else explicitly referencing religion aside from Orked’s introduction, another scene of her in the same garb, and a mention of prayer time. We don’t even really see any outright religious reference from the Chinese.

Like…elsewhere, Chinese Malaysians have succeeded economically and in the world of business. Yet, it has been argued that that economic dominance has come at the expense of a political voice and civil rights. We find out later that Ah Loong had gotten very good grades in school, better than Orked and much better than Lin’s boyfriend. But he will never reap the benefits of that. He may eventually become rich, but he will always be on the lower rungs of society. Not everyone can be Michelle Yeoh. No matter how successful he may become, Ah Loong will always be the employee to the Malay customer. In engaging with Orked beyond that context, in being Jason, Ah Loong stepped beyond his station.

In this movie, cultural purity is already a non-starter. Thanks to British colonialism, a good portion of this movie is in English. Also, British colonialism is why many ethnic Chinese are in Malaysia in the first place. Cross-cultural exchange and consumption are common, though mostly superficial. The movie starts out with the Chinese Ah Loong reading an Indian book to his mother. Her statement about being able to understand the heart of someone from a different culture is, of course, the thesis statement of the movie. Yet, it is just words, words expressed in the midst of surprised wonderment, not one of certainty. It is just words, not actual interactions. Ah Loong’s mother has no problem snapping at her Singaporean daughter-in-law. It is a one-way cultural exchange, just like when Ah Loong dances to that music in the next scene. His mother loves old Malay movies and records while Orked’s mother and her friend love Chinese soap operas. That filtered down to Orked in the form of Hong Kong movies. Her infatuation with Takeshi Kaneshiro is a sign that her heart…or at least her hormones, can branch out beyond her own kind. She may be able to intellectually and politically justify it as better than Lin’s crush on Leonardo DiCaprio through some sort of anti-colonial stance, inspired by that Algerian book. All of these examples of accepted cultural barrier-crossing are done at a safe distance, taking it as it is and interpreting it as one wishes. There is absorption and there is consumption, but no mixing.

When Ah Loong and Orked meet for the first time, it goes beyond all that. It goes beyond nice words, reasoned collaboration, artistic taste, exoticized fetishization, and intellectual abstractions regarding cross cultural tolerance and acceptance. It is immediate, it is real, it is pure. Perhaps it is also foolish and dangerous. Ah Loong, though, posits that there was a time far back in Malay history that it was not necessarily the case. So, why is it so difficult now?

There is, in a sense, a bit of irony in the medium. It presents this teenage romance as a pure example of crossing cultural barriers, but it is, in itself a movie. A Malaysian movie. A work of art to be viewed and piece of commerce to be consumed. Orked may scoff at the idea or watching love stories, but that is what this movie is. On the other hand, all of those other examples are of one culture presented undisturbed to another culture undisturbed, although having the half-Okinawan Japanese/Taiwanese Takeshi Kaneshiro as Orked’s celebrity crush was probably a deliberate choice. This movie is not that. This movie is of two cultures bumped up against each other. It is not quite the two-tiered system as described in that Algerian book, but the tensions are ever-present.

Despite, or because of the controversy, Sepet was a huge hit. Perhaps the youths enjoyed the romance. Maybe the statement about the silliness of racial tensions struck a chord. Perhaps it was the random “MILF” reference late in the movie. Whatever the case, it was popular enough for there to be TWO follow-ups made in the next year. Gubra is a sequel while Mukhsin is a prequel. Are they any good? I don’t know. Like with Sepet, I could find Gubra only on Youtube. And while the subtitles for Sepet can be a little inconsistent, the video for Gubra had none. And now I cannot even find it. Mukhsin is on Netflix and…why even bother purchasing that one when the previous two movies are not legitimately available anywhere? I would check that one out if I could watch Gubra properly, but I cannot, so I have not. Also, there was a musical made of Sepet a couple of years ago. That suggests that it still resonates.

The movie is a little raw and rough. The acting is pretty low-key and there are a few odd choices. The actor who plays Ah Loong’s friend Keong is perhaps the most noticeably bad, just reciting his lines. I feel, though, that the movie cuts down on the sheen to focus on the characters, the story, and the themes. And I think that that is what resonated with viewers. I cannot really say how contemporary Malaysian cinema was at that time, but this was seen as different, as pure, as real, as true. And that is what I like about it as well.


WTF ASIA 250: Goodbye Mother (Vietnam: 2019, approx. 106 minutes)

No Wikipedia

Available in AustraliaCanadathe United States, and perhaps a few other countries.

WTF ASIA 251: First Love (Japan: 2019, approx. 108 minutes)


Available in AustraliaCanada, France, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, the United States, and perhaps a few other countries.