The Haunting of Covid-19 House

by Amir Muhammad

On 18 March 2020, Malaysia imposed a semi-lockdown to deal with Covid-19. It was to last for two weeks (until 31 March). On 25 March, the government extended this semi-lockdown, known as MCO (Movement Control Order) for another two weeks, until 14 April.

On 29 March 2020, my company Kuman Pictures, put out a call for entries for short films to be made by Malaysians during the MCO period itself. We set a deadline for 15 April. Since the company has a focus on horror & thriller movies, we specifically asked for films in those genres.

The challenge: complete the short using only the talent, equipment and props available in your own homes. The winning short would get a modest cash price of RM1,000 ($US 230) but the links of all submitted works would be shared.

I expected to get around 50 entries. After all, although most people had camera-phones, how many would have the patience to shoot and edit something in the space of two weeks? But we were pleasantly surprised to receive 215 entries. Most can be viewed on the YouTube playlist here.

I recently watched anew all the shorts. Most of them are by people who are not in the film industry. It was great to see family members all getting together to act — or, on the other end of the scale, individual people who did everything by themselves.

Here are some of the statistics:

— 50% are in the Malay language, 6% in English, and  3% each in Tamil and Chinese. And one consisted of one Arabic phrase.

— 38% had no dialogue at all. Some had text messages or news broadcasts, but I didn’t count those. The lack of dialogue fulfilled a pragmatic purpose (lack of equipment to record them properly) but also strengthened the idea that the genres served as the main “language”. After all, a scream is a pretty universal form of communication!

— One thing that surprised me was that, at least among those in Malay, more than a third (judging from accents) came from the East Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak in Borneo. This is unexpected because those states usually have very little representation in the feature-film scene, which has remained Peninsula-centric since the very start.  

— The most common cast configuration would be “one man alone, sometimes with a featured ghost we see at the end” (26%). This is followed way behind by “one woman alone, sometimes with a featured ghost we glimpse at the end” (8%).

— More than 90% of the shorts were made entirely in people’s houses or apartments. The rest were in college dormitories or offices. Most were shot in such confined spaces that it was hard to tell if they were urban or rural settings, but at least 10% of those showed enough of the outdoors for us to know they were in village areas.

— The props probably corresponded closely with what Malaysians devoted their time to at home. 42% had handphones, 21% had computers, 12% had TVs, but a mere 8% had books. 15% featured food or cooking. Out of the many featuring handphones, one which cleverly exploited the way technology filled a void in our enforced isolation was A.I, which pushed Spike Jonze’s Her into actual horror territory.

— Since there was a choice between horror and thriller, 34% of the shorts featured visible ghosts, while 16% featured murders (usually by stabbing) committed by humans.

Ainedrag, image courtesy of Mekyorke

— 23% mentioned the MCO or Covid-19 directly, either through recorded broadcasts of the Prime Minister’s speech or in dialogue. Some also used witty signifiers that placed the work within the time-period specified. An example is Ainedrag – the elements being the face-mask worn by the solo protagonist and  (a Malaysian in-joke) the title is the brand of a bread company, spelled backwards. This food reference reminded one of the reports of this particular food item disappearing fast from supermarket shelves in the early weeks of the MCO due to “panic-buying”.

Fillet, image courtesy of Nick Davis

I was curious to see if any of them would have breached our notoriously censorious Censorship Board if they had been shown on conventional media channels. Most of them played it very safe. The only ones that may have been banned were the four that featured cannibalism, including one which had auto-cannibalism. The banning of James Lee’s feature Claypot Curry Killers (2011) proved that the subject is off-limits for local films — although it is allowed for foreign films. Go figure!

There was not a single sex scene (which would admittedly have been awkward to accomplish for a family project), although one opens with implied masturbation by the director himself. As for sexuality, only one can be said to have a queer sensibility where the Coronavirus was personified as a man named Mat Coro, and the dialogue with his intended male victim had an eroticised nihilism that played with sadomasochistic tropes.

What about politics? The MCO was an especially fraught time for Malaysia because the government had just changed hands from the Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition headed by Dr. Mahathir Mohamad to the Perikatan Nasional (PN) coalition headed by Muhyiddin Yassin. This bloodless coup was accomplished when several MPs from PH, including most of those from Mahathir’s own party, jumped ship and joined up with Umno (the party that ran Malaysia for six decades, with many of its leaders including former premier Najib Razak – now mired in corruption scandals) and the Islamist party PAS. The King assented to give PN the leadership position despite there being no parliamentary session or election. The new PM wasted no time in rewarding all the MPs in this new coalition with lucrative positions in the Cabinet (now the most bloated in Malaysian history) as well as the stewardships of GLCs. That these cynical political shenanigans took place at the start of a global pandemic did not endear the new political leaders to many Malaysians.

Surprisingly, very few of the shorts chose to address politics directly. One of them is  Wawasan 2020, reminiscent of Blumhouse’s “The Purge” – in its dystopian look at a society riven by class paranoia and violence. It also has one of the best lines: “the lack of cars on the streets is not due to lockdown but because all the cars are now flying” — a reference to the utopian ideal of “Vision 2020” that Malaysians had been taught to anticipate since the early 1990s, when a “fully developed” and “psychologically liberated” society by this year was promulgated by Dr. Mahathir during his first tenure as Prime Minister (1981-2003). Safe to say, while people had been pessimistic for some time that 2020 would be a gleaming paradise, no one thought we would spend months captive in our own homes, governed by a coalition none of us had voted for!

Another short that had a playful wholesome jab at politics is Sebelum Hantu Covid Duduk Rumah Kau, as can be seen in this sequence:

Sebelum Hantu Covid Duduk Rumah Kau, image courtesy of Wou Media

In a delightfully DIY way, the creepy girl is the personification of Covid-19, while the adult who has come to “disinfect” the situation has a prominent tag identifying him as a Cabinet Minister. This is an in-joke referring to a public relations gaffe by one of our least popular politicians, Zuraida Kamaruddin (one of those who had “jumped ship” politically) who did indeed display such a tag in a strange episode where she disinfected building exteriors and road surfaces, for reasons best known to herself.

Sebelum Hantu Covid Duduk Rumah Kau, image courtesy of Wou Media

When it came to story, perhaps the most common would be “a person sits at home minding his own business, but something creepy comes to disturb him.” Although these disturbances would usually take the form of visible ghosts, one of the more minimal ones, Visitor used just the power of suggestion. Another popular trope would be “when someone you know becomes possessed or impersonated by an entity”.An example is the ending of Hide & Seek, which starts with the spooky premise that two grown men would want to play that game. Religion also plays a role with 9% of the shorts featuring prayer scenes, and the effort to cure the loud Satanic possession of Jin Kafir might have been inspired by Malaysia’s most successful movie of all time, Munafik 2.

Although most made a stab at narrative (with some veering to stay-at-home PSAs – public service announcements), a handful were brave enough to experiment with just images and sound. Amongst these, a highlight would be Limbo.

Watching all these shorts during March and April made an interesting contrast to news reports about how the virus was affecting the film industry, with not only cinemas closing but film festivals and markets postponed. It made me think that these zero-budget and spontaneous shorts represented true independent cinema, while regular “indie movies” had come to a halt because they are so cripplingly dependant on conventional financing and exhibition, not to mention the gatekeepers of film-festival programmers and market selectors.

Virus Mairus, image courtesy of Gogularaajan

And which short won the contest? The answer: Virus Mairus. It was one of only six Tamil-language entries, and the second word in its title is a play on a popular Tamil swear-word. It didn’t have a ghost or murder! The horror came from something more mundane — alcoholism — and it had a lightness of touch that belied its seriousness.

The director revealed in an interview that some family members objected to the epilogue of the film. In fact, if this topic had been handled by someone from outside the Tamil community, it may have been attacked for perpetuating negative stereotypes. Although this had no bearing on the judging, the film itself was produced by the Padai Film Community, a coalition of artists who want to make socially engaged and rooted content in Malaysian Tamil.

The winning film aside, most of the 215 shorts were not made by people who considered themselves career filmmakers — but perhaps careerism is now a drawback. Watching them made me determined to keep producing cheap movies! The less reliant we are on investors and gatekeepers, the freer we will be. The name of my company Kuman literally means “germ” — partly to show that you can be impactful even when small.

After all, the spirit of creativity can thrive and, yes, go viral even during a lockdown.

Amir Muhammad is a Malaysian who runs movie production company Kuman Pictures and book publishing company Buku Fixi.

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