Why ‘Pendatang’ is a game changer

Azmyl Yunor

'Pendatang' is a dystopian thriller set in a fictional Malaysia where the different races are not allowed to mix. – Movie poster, December 29, 2023.

FINALLY, everyone – from usually staid academics to scam-informing Boomers – are abuzz about a Malaysian film that premiered recently: “Pendatang”.

While the film’s producers have stated that they have no plans to screen the film in schools, contrary to Finas chairman Kamil Othman’s suggestion. I, for one, see this film as a game changer to address seemingly taboo topics that have been embedded in the Malaysian consciousness for far too long.

I’d be happy to counter the arguments by naysayers, I would further the argument that in this day of media saturation, encouraging constructive discussion in educational settings about such supposedly taboo topics is best done through a discussion of artworks – in this case cinema.

While there has always been some invisible ideological resistance to encouraging discourse of national issues through the arts in primary and secondary education, I find it worrisome that it is completely bypassed in higher education, especially in this digital era we live in.

I professionally believe that media studies, which may also encompass film studies, should be a compulsory subject. Of which level of education, well, I’ll let the noisy experts suss that out.

Here are my arguments to why “Pendatang” is an important film:

1. It uses genre effectively set a fictional tone to a real issue

If you didn’t already know (or are too lazy to Google, like most reactive naysayers), a genre is a form of classification type of communication in any mode (written, spoken, digital, artistic, etc.) with socially-agreed-upon conventions developed over time.

These in turn develop their own codes and conventions from which knowing audiences derive pleasure.

Think any horror, comedy, romance, or science fiction genre film – they share common tropes and story development and characters with other films in their similar genres.

This is where one tends to either enjoy a film because it adheres to convention or breaks it, which some dislike.

“Pendatang” is categorised as a “dystopian” genre film, which is the opposite of a “utopian” one.

As Wikipedia states, utopian and dystopian fiction are subgenres of science fiction that explore social and political structures and has literary roots.

“Pendatang”, in spite of its seemingly rustic and folksy setting, is by all measures a science fiction dystopian film in the same vein as “Blade Runner”, minus the blinking neon lights and robots.

If you didn’t know, all science fiction films are political in their soul because they address the shortcomings and ethical quandaries of human society.

There is no rule that states a science fiction film has to feature flying spaceships, robots and laser guns but the general rule of a science fiction, in this case the more popular dystopian kind, features a world gone awry and our voyeuristic pleasure of watching the characters in this fictional world navigate through their thickening plots.

“Pendatang” succeeds because the film can also be analysed as a science fiction film in media or film studies classes through a discussion of its stylistic and formal elements, which would then need to be contextualised with the fiction film world and setting to make sense of the work’s creative decisions.

Lo and behold, the classroom would have learnt about a film genre and Malaysian political issues in one class or assignment without making anyone uncomfortable or offending anyone.

2. It’s a good case study on how to navigate creative works in a increasingly monopolised digital landscape

It’s a fact that the internet is already a wild jungle of misinformation, advertising and evil algorithms.

Filmmakers, like most artists, have to contend, and have been at it for a while, with this changing landscape which has forced them to be what the root word of being creative means: problem-solving.

Being creative isn’t just about doing fancy chin-stroking stuff. Creativity is about navigating and finding novel solutions one has to face and doing it in style.

“Pendatang” took a lot of guts as the first Malaysian feature film to premiere and be solely available on YouTube since it cuts the middle conmen (the people who upload full movies without the permission of the owners) and turns the tables against opportunists.

Streaming is already increasingly monopolised by a few major corporations and most online platforms are in many ways tied to one major owner, so what can one do?

Contrary to saying “if you can’t beat them, join them”, “Pendatang” goes a step ahead and “joins them to beat them” but in an unconventional way.

If you haven’t watched the film, go watch it and there is no excuse since it’s free on YouTube. 

Happy New Year! – December 29, 2023.

* Azmyl Yunor is a touring underground recording artiste, and an academic in media and cultural studies. He has published articles on pop culture, subcultures and Malaysian cultural politics. He adheres to the three-chords-and-the-truth school of songwriting, and Woody Guthrie’s maxim “All you can write is what you see”. He is @azmyl on Twitter.

* This is the opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insight. Article may be edited for brevity and clarity.

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