ZOMBI KILANG BISKUT (ZOMBIES OF THE BISCUIT FACTORY): MORE OF THE GLEEFUL BUT ALSO DREADFUL BY MAMAT KHALID
by: Hassan Muthalib
Mamat Khalid, the Bohemian among Malaysian film directors, is at it again. With his latest venture, ZOMBI KILANG BISKUT, he is at his biting best with his forte – parody – with which he trains his sights gleefully on local issues, mores and idiosyncrasies. In Mamat Khalid’s hands, zombies are not just zombies. They are powerful signifiers that are pointers as to the problems plaguing the local entertainment industry. And it is all in the subtext!
In the first (of a proposed trilogy), ZOMBI KAMPUNG PISANG (The Zombies of Banana Village, 2008), the local entertainment scene was his real subject, which lurked in the film’s background story. So was the gothic KALA MALAM BULAN MENGAMBANG (When the Moon Waxes Full, 2009), perhaps his most accomplished film. KALA, in a black and white mode, stilted dialogue and stylized acting, was a signifier as to the low depths that the local film industry had sunk to over the last decade or so in spite of film graduates and academics entering the film arena.
In ZOMBI KAMPUNG PISANG, Mamat introduced for the first time, down-to-earth characters such as Husin (played by Awie), Pak Abu (the late Zami Ismail), Pak Jabit (Man Kadir) - and later Kak Limah (Delimawati). Usop Wilca (Shy8), is another character who received his moniker by being in a wheelchair but, who, at times, could miraculously regain the use of his lower limbs in times of crisis. In this, Mamat is in good company. The legendary P Ramlee made use of the characters of Ramli, Ajis and Sudin in three films (BUJANG LAPOK, PENDEKAR BUJANG LAPOK and SENIMAN BUJANG LAPOK). Yasmin Ahmad had the characters of Jason and Orked in three of her films (SEPET, GUBRA and MUKHSIN). The record of using the same characters, without doubt, goes to Japanese director, Yoji Yamada. His character of Tora-san, his sister, brother-in-law, nephew and neighbours appeared in an unbelievable 48 films! The series only ended when the lead character, Kiyoshi Atsumi, died.
Familiarity is, of course, one of the key ingredients in the marketing of a film. When audiences recognize characters - and, more so, if they identify themselves with the characters - it makes for easier storytelling and hardly requires promoting. Like the bangsawan troupes of yesteryear, Mamat, too, uses almost invariably, the same actors from film to film, and this is prevalent especially in his zombie series. Each one of Mamat’s characters has his/her own quirks and traits. Lines of dialogue are associated with certain characters (‘Sabor jerlah!’ and ‘Bala! Bala’), or even keeps crossing over into the next film (‘Maznah ke tu?), borrowed from a classic P Ramlee movie, making the line even funnier due to its recognition. Mamat’s films are rich with incidents from local history or sequences and songs from films of the 1950s and even from Hollywood and Japanese movies. The zombie genre itself is from Hollywood’s B-movies that were popular in the 1950s and 1960s. In ZOMBI KILANG BISKUT, there are references to films such as THE CAR THAT ATE PARIS and MAD MAX.
But perhaps Mamat’s biggest achievement is in taking Awie, a rock singer with a macho image, and turning him into the meek-as-a-cat village boy who, at the end of the film, becomes a reluctant hero. At the hands of Mamat, Awie’s talent as a comedy actor comes brilliantly to the fore. Another actor who (this time, a film graduate), is Soffi Jikan, who shines as a character actor. He has appeared in almost every one of Mamat’s films. And in the zombie series, he has always played a negative character - no doubt depicting the kind of person that everyone has to contend with in their lives. However, in MAN LAKSA, he excellently articulated (in the subtext), the character of an artiste who perseveres in the face of extreme adversity (while waiting desperately outside an occupied toilet!). In ZOMBI KAMPUNG PISANG, he played (again in the subtext) the role of a veteran in the industry who did nothing even though he was given a prominent position to help the industry with its problems. In HANTU KAK LIMAH BALIK KE RUMAH, he was the shaman from Thailand who was brought in to exorcise the ghost of Kak Limah but ends up a cropper. This was a subversion of the role of a shaman and a parody of the flood of local horror movies that usually had his ignominious presence. And in ZOMBI KILANG BISKUT, Soffi is the manager of a biscuit factory (with a PhD, no less!) who feeds ecstasy pills to the workers as part of an experiment that he is working on.
From his very first film, Mamat’s ability to entertain while at the same time, inserting social comment into the plot as well as depicting a quintessentially Malay milieu, showed him to be different from the millennium’s slew of new and rising directors. His subtext almost always relates to the entertainment industry, be it music, television or film. It is no different with ZOMBI KILANG BISKUT. Moving away from making fun of the established industry players, he now focuses his attention (in the subtext), on the next generation of filmmakers (who are now studying film in the universities). His treatment of the story has, however, moved from the comic to one of seriousness. He now shows his concern at students today and how they are receiving their education at the hands of inept lecturers in faculties that have clearly lost their way. Students appear to be imprisoned and are being churned out as in a factory and look like zombies, i.e., a pointer to their not being critical and innovative but simply following what they are being asked to do and not to raise any questions!
In a downplayed role, Sofi Jikan expertly portrays the evil nature of the factory manager. The seriousness of the subject matter is paralled by the acting of Mamat’s characters who, heretofore, had been comic in their renditions. Usop Wilca himself is uncharacteristically violent. It appears that Mamat has suddenly lapsed into black comedy but his hand is sure. Earlier, he had shown male students performing a rap dance on stage (a pointer to students frequently staging populist musical numbers on request). At the end of the film, Mamat sums up what he wants to say as the film story ends. As the credits roll, a box by the side shows Husin (Awie) leading students, this time, female, down a corridor resembling that of a certain faculty, in singing the populist song, Yale, Yale. It appears to be a celebratory event. It is, however, one that can be interpreted as being tragic and expressing Mamat’s despair over what is happening. The clue to this can be seen in one instance where Husin covers his face with his hands as he leads them on in the song. It is an unarticulated lament over what is happening to the young people of today and how they are being taught to be frivolous and not being academic in their studies. And at the end of the song, the students disperse. Husin turns to look at them. He then shakes his head (another unspoken lament), and silently goes off screen.
Yes, Mamat Khalid is angry. Which is why his parody has now become dark. We, too, should be angry at what is going on in certain universities. Our young people must be saved from these purveyors of imbecilic ideologies.
Before it is too late.
(ZOMBI KILANG BISKUT is into its third week at the cinemas nationwide. The final song, Yale Yale, in the credits has been made into a music video but with the lyrics muted. Here, Mamat invites viewers to sing along but also asks them to understand it as a song of despair).