RaEL Film Guide

Adman Salleh [Speedy VCD]

In one fell swoop, Adman Salleh's Paloh touches every neurotic nerve from racial hatred, taboos against intermarriages to political bogeymen. It's that kind of film, important for a Malaysian and $ingaporean audience but probably perplexing for anyone who hasn't been here.

Set in 1945 during the closing months of World War II, the film sets out to understand where the roots of racial hate stemmed from. Paloh puts the figure of 60,000 as the number of Chinese killed in the Sook Ching operation where the Japanese weeded out their opponents and brutally massacred them. The story is set around the town of Paloh, in the state of Johor, a communist stronghold in Malaysia, which has a police station manned by Malays in the employ of the Japanese army.

The communist movement had been growing in tandem with rising Chinese hatred for the Japanese. Unfortunately, this has begun to be transferred to the Malays, who are working for the Japanese. Interestingly, the love interest of the protagonist, Ahmad (Nam Ron), is a Chinese girl, Siew Lan (Janet Khoo). Early on in the film, we see them groping passionately in a love motel.

This is the reason Ahmad saves Siew Lan from being raped by his Japanese officer and why he helps her family to escape. Siew Lan's father, who is connected to the communists, wants to repay Ahmad by promising that he and his Malay friends will be spared in any communist attack.

That promise is broken inadvertently and, in a final shootout, Ahmad is ironically saved by a mixed-blood Chinese-Malay spy who was planted within the communist camp. Besides the work of U-Wei bin Haji Saari, Adman Salleh's previous film, Amok, was one of the other interesting Malaysian films in the '90s. Paloh was shot with characteristic restraint by Teoh Gay Hian, who has photographed many of the new Malaysian digital films, Paloh is also consciously different by its use of ethnic music.

Produced by FINAS, the national film development agency, the sensitivity of the film's subject has meant that its director has fought hard to maintain authorial control. However, he has said that he has saved about 85 per cent of his original vision.

And that vision is a pluralistic one. As one character notes, whether it's the British or the Japanese, Chinese communists or the Malays, it has always been the interest of one group, that the other two kill themselves off. And it's not a case of whether racial hatred is a reality or not but it's whether you can choose to believe otherwise. Paloh tells us that that choice has always been taken away from us. - Philip Cheah

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