Babi (Malaysia, 2020) [NYAFF 2021]

For his latest feature film, rapper and filmmaker Namewee (the stage name of Wee Meng Chee) revisits a disturbing real-life “never reported” but “never forgotten” chain of violent events that took place at a high school located in southern Malaysia in 2000, which left two students dead and numerous others injured. To this day, no media coverage has reported on the events. As such, what actually transpired largely remains unknown outside of the students and faculty who were present on that day. What is known, as the film relates, is that students bore the brunt of the consequences (expulsion, rehab) while only two faculty members were transferred. With its provocative title, a Malay word that means “pig” and often used as a racial slur, Namewee uses the unknowability of the events in order to tackle head-on the ongoing ethnic tensions among the three principal ethnic communities that make up Malaysia–indigenous Malays, Malaysian Chinese, and Malaysian Indian–how they manifest themselves in a school setting, and the ignoble state of the educational system. In employing a variety of student perspectives to narrate what could have led to the violence and ultimately the deaths of two male students but also the kind of interactions that prevail between students of different ethnicities and between students and faculty, the film is clear about being on the side of students. If admittedly uneven on an emotional, narrative, and performative level, the film is nevertheless of socio-historical import, one whose title should prompt spectators to think more thoughtfully and dialogue about the racial conflicts with which it is associated and not simply turn their backs because of it, the reason for which the Malaysian censorship film board banned the film.

For those familiar with contemporary Malaysian cinema, Babi should also prompt spectators to recall Amir Muhammad’s The Big Durian (2003). Both films tread directly on race relations and racism and privilege regular citizens’ voices and perspectives. The Big Durian is a documentary, with some dramatized scenes spliced here and there, about the socio-cultural events and issues surrounding a soldier who “ran amok” with a gun in the streets of the “Big Durian” (that is, Kuala Lumpur), killing one person and injuring two others in the process in 1987. It is also ostensibly about the infamous Internal Security Act (ISA), enacted in 1960 but repealed only in 2012, which permitted authorities to detain citizens without charges or trial. Around the time of the above-mentioned incident as well as a growing oppositional contingent vis-à-vis then prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, in the name of ISA more than a hundred citizens were withheld due to a supposed boiling point of racial animosity and for their “protection.” The Big Durian explores these interrelated issues in a highly critical but also offbeat, comical manner to glean insights on Malaysia’s culturally diverse and contested past and present.

To be sure, Babi is vastly different from The Big Durian on a formal level; the former operates more like a high school movie than an inflammatory tract. Or, better yet, it takes the high school movie template precisely to present all of the aforementioned issues to a younger demographic. For coincidentally similar to The Big Durian’s interviews with Kuala Lumpur citizens, in Babi the police investigating the aftermath of violence interviews Chinese, Malay, and Indian students individually. The film is structured according to each interviewee’s witnessing of events. With each subsequent testimony of the same time frame, the world of the school thickens and acquires layers, particularly its complex social and racial politics. This layering of perspectives is a smart, useful element since the film is set exclusively in the school, a veritable microcosm of Malaysian society then and now. This layering, too, nicely nuances the identities and qualities of the principal students involved in the events and in fact provides a bit of an optimistic lining (however briefly) with regards to a sense of community across Indians, Chinese, and Malays.

Yet such layering of characters and relationships of the students is pitted against a stifling, manipulative force, signified by the early and concluding shots of gates being locked and doors closing. These bookending shots denote the covering up of the events at the school as well as the oppressive, even claustrophobic, atmosphere that motivated such a cover up between the police and the school faculty in the first place. Unlike the somewhat nuanced representations of the students, the characters of the school principal and teacher are razor-thin. They are predatory, unscrupulous, and downright despicable and caricatural, so that the film is unequivocal in attributing the school’s highly toxic environment to these two men. These men obviously signify an authoritative system within a high school movie of rebellion and angst, but it is a bit of a missed opportunity for more critically complex details that would have further contributed to the film’s world-building.

Serving as a kind of epilogue is the video of the film’s theme song, “Happy Family,” which is presented during the end credits. Though not nearly as incendiary as the film’s title, the theme song’s title is nevertheless just as direct in expressing sarcasm and hostility towards Malaysian society’s systemic problems, beginning with the education sector. At the same time, the song nods to the frustration and hurt but also defiance and potential solidarity that the student body in the film is meant to embody, being notably in Malay, Mandarin, Tamil, and English and performed by Namewee himself but accompanied by The Real Masta Clan and 5Forty2.

Babi is showing at the New York Asian Film Festival on August 20.