translated by HO Hsiao-fu, edited by Stefanie ESCHENLOHR and proofread by TSAI Wan-ying
Malaysia-born Chinese director LAU Kek-huat has been distant from his father since he was a child. Searching for the cause of this estrangement, LAU traced his family's secrets, and disclosed an untold national trauma and taboo — the history of the Communist Party of Malaya, whose members were listed as terrorists by the Malayan government.
Since 2016, Absent Without Leave has been screened at festivals worldwide, including the Busan International Film Festival, the Taipei Film Festival, the Kaohsiung Film Festival, and the Singapore International Film Festival. However, in Malaysia, the motherland of the director, this film is banned from public screening. If we look at the various stages of the film - from the planning stage to the actual shooting, from post-production to screening, how has this controversial documentary sparked discussion in Malaysia and in the world?
Q1. What was your motivation for making this film? And what was your initial plan?
At first, I planned to make a feature film set in the time when my grandfather lived, so I did some field research starting with my grandfather. During this research, I found out that he was a Malayan communist.
Setiawan is my hometown, which was very supportive of left-wing politics. However, as the Malayan Communists started guerrilla warfare against the British armed forces, people got trapped in between and were forced to take sides. Misunderstandings became more severe, leading to a deepening division, and Malayan Communists were eventually discredited. For many years, we have been taught at school that Malaysian Communists were brutal and cruel terrorists, while no one told us that they were the first ones who strived for independence. Nor has the violence by the British army under British colonial rule ever been openly discussed.
Perhaps many people will think that this film portrays Malayan Communists as heroes, but that is not the intention of this film. The truth is that we have very few documentary films on this topic. I have always said that I am waiting for a Malaysian director filming his grandfather who fought for the British army but died in the battlefield. How would Malaysians today think of the war? Would they miss their grandfathers? Only when we have more of these kinds of film, can we put together a realistic picture of Malaysia.
I think that documentary filmmakers should try their best to grasp the feeling of past times rather than judging the rights or wrongs of history. That's not a filmmaker's job. History should be multi-faceted. There shouldn't be one official version told by the government. History should be written bottom-up, from personal history to family history, from social history to national history. History can be told in many ways, rather than just giving one interpretation.
Q2. What do the songs, the music, and the repeated playing national anthem of Malaysia represent in this film?
The Malaysian national anthem was a famous love song in Indonesia that had various language versions before it was officially declared as the national anthem of Malaysia. It is absolutely romantic to have a national anthem that was a former love song. However, when this song was declared as the national anthem of Malaysia, the Indonesian government forbade its people to sing it to show respect for Malaysia as it has become an independent country with its own national anthem.
Although I had to sing the national anthem since my childhood, I never really got to love this song. Even though I have left Malaysia for so many years, I have never really felt patriotic about this country. I didn't have to do anything, and I was given a Malaysian ID card when I was born; these interviewees, however, who could never obtain Malaysian citizenship in their whole lives, fought for this land. I wanted to know what they love about this place. I was wondering if I could find some way to love Malaysia through these love songs in my film, either the anthem or the country itself.
Apart from the national anthem, the other songs in this film are revolutionary songs sung by Malayan Communists at that time. But I did not use the original songs, because I didn’t want to split the Malaysian audience; instead, I rearranged the songs by removing the lyrics and adding more melody.
Moreover, in my opinion, these songs can be used as efficient promotional tools. You can say that I made this film for the interviewees and for the families of the war victims. Some of the songs are very evocative for Malayan Communists. You would sing any of those songs, and people would think about those who went to fight in this war, with an ever smaller number of survivors returning. More important, I hope that grieving families of those who were killed by Malayan Communists will not reject this film when they watch it. Perhaps they might understand my pining for my grandfather through music, and in turn appreciate my perspective.
Q3. How did the interviewees respond to the film when you finished Absent from Leave?
Some veterans who watched the film were deeply touched; among them, Mr. Yeh from Hong Kong, who also appears in the film, left the deepest impression on me. The veterans living in Hong Kong are the most down and out. All the interviews with Mr. Yeh were held in a park, as his son did not see anything his experiences. He even kicked us out when we first held the interview at his house.
It is very sad when you hear an old person saying that his son does not believe him. Mr. Yeh said that he fought for us Malaysians, but he is despised by his own son. When I heard what he said in the park, I thought that I owed him a lot. It was such an odd feeling.
His son complained about why his father got involved in the revolution, which drove his family into destitution and caused his offspring to suffer from discrimination.“You said you fought against the Japanese, but this has never been acknowledged by Malaysia, so it's just what you are telling us.”He thought that his father was just boasting. Later, after Mr. Yeh had passed away, his son finally watched this film. As Mr. Yeh was the one of the few remaining anti-Japanese veterans in Hong Kong, the existing few Malayan Communists even held a memorial ceremony for him and his son also attended it.
Q4. What was your experience when the film was screened internationally? How was the response by the audiences?
The audiences in Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand were more responsive and resonated with this film. In Thailand, screenings were legal, but were not allowed in downtown areas. Some people in the audience would ask why there was no such film in Thailand. In Singapore, where my film was shown at the film festival, and more screenings were added. In Malaysia, the film was immediately banned, so could only legally be watched online. Recently, there is an interesting trend in Singapore and Malaysia: films which are banned in Malaysia can be screened in Singapore, and vice versa. Therefore, people in these two countries can watch films about the other one (laughs).
What impressed me most was the screening in Japan. The audience was a group of Japanese scholars who did research on the communist insurgency in Malaysia. These scholars could not only speak fluent Malay, but also could read Javanese, which was beyond my comprehension. Some of them had been researching the history of Southeast Asia for a long time, so they tended to ask some really sharp questions.
I do hope that this film can return to Malaysia and be screened in national universities, or that I can give talks on campus to discuss with students about history and issues related to Malaya Communists through my grandfather's stories. In fact, before independence, the University of Malaya was very open and liberal, but it became more and more conservative after independence. I am, however, hopeful that we will get back to an open-minded and liberal atmosphere someday.