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FEATURE/Golden Horse nominee unearths Malaysia's hushed-up history

11/24/2023 12:37 PM
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Malaysian director Chong Keat Aun holds a book about the May 13 incident in this recent photo. CNA file photo
Malaysian director Chong Keat Aun holds a book about the May 13 incident in this recent photo. CNA file photo

By James Lo, CNA staff writer

It took director Chong Keat Aun (張吉安) nearly a decade to complete "Snow in Midsummer" (五月雪), a deft chronicle of Malaysia's May 13 incident told through one woman's search for her brother and father.

Although only his second feature, it leads the field at this year's Golden Horse Awards with nine nominations.

Chong said it had been a struggle to get people to share their memories of the inter-communal violence following the 1969 national election, known among the country's ethnic-Chinese community as "513."

"My father, for example, would shut the conversation down if my mother or grandma even mentioned the topic," Chong told CNA in a recent interview.

Although a "symbol of fear," Chong said, "513" was more akin to an "invisible monster," alluded to by adults to instill obedience in children.

"My Grandma would tell me in Cantonese that if I continue to misbehave, that '513' would come and get me," Chong said.

According to the director, it was only in high school that he became aware of the history behind the term.

Even then, relatives painted the gravity of what occurred in broad strokes.

"I remember when I started to vote in college in Kuala Lumpur, my parents would tell me to vote for a certain party so that I wouldn't be targeted," Chong said.

Chong also said he remembered his mother developing a habit of stocking their house with supplies before a major election and telling him to do the same when he moved out of the family home.

'Herstory' vs. official record

Chong Keat Aun. CNA file photo
Chong Keat Aun. CNA file photo

Malaysia maintains that only 196 people died in the May 13 incident, characterized by successive governments as a spontaneous outbreak of violence and a matter consigned to the past in the interest of racial harmony.

But the credulity of the official record remains contested, not least by those whose relatives seemingly vanished in the chaos.

Chong said that many of the registered missing ended up in mass graves marked "Unidentified Chinese."

One such burial site, located in a former leper colony in the town of Sungai Buloh on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur, serves as a backdrop for the events in "Snow in Midsummer."

"We started doing field interviews at Sungai Buloh in 2009, waiting until Tomb Sweeping Day to try and see if they [those visiting the graves] would share their story," Chong said.

However, Chong said most at Sungai Buloh were reluctant to share their stories, conscious of the lingering societal tensions and fearful violence may once again erupt.

Eventually, Chong and his team were able to convince 14 people to give personal accounts of the events of 1969, almost all of whom were women.

"It is conversations between women that family stories are often passed down from, as they, unlike men, are also not afraid to share their feelings and observations," Chong said.

Video: Swallow Wings Films

Lingering sensitivity

Chong said the sensitive subject matter prompted his producers to discourage him from making "Snow in Midsummer."

Harder yet was the process of casting and subsequently convincing actors to stay on board, the director said.

"We wanted to have all 14 women appear at the end of the film but actresses backed out," Chong said.

"An unfortunate example is the actress who was originally cast to play young Ah Eng [the protagonist], the older version of whom is played by main actress Wan Fang (萬芳). After we put the young actress through acting classes, she had to quit five days before we started shooting because her grandfather, a public servant, found the script and was furious."

In the end, Chong himself had to condense characters and recycle actors.

Chong's take on the specific time in Malaysia's history may never get the chance to get screened in the nation after all.

"Our international premiere was in Venice (80th Venice International Film Festival on Sept. 7); Southeast Asia will be in Singapore and the Asian premiere is Taiwan's Golden Horse Film Festival," Chong said.

"I have the luck of being a closing or opening film at these prestigious film festivals -- but I most likely won't be able to screen 'Snow in Midsummer' in Malaysia."

Chong said he is driven by wanting to face history and facts and present them fearlessly so that wounds can be addressed, allowing forgiveness and progress to be cultivated.

"I think it is important that someone needs to take the first step," Chong said. "Otherwise it will be something that no one will talk about. Then, no lesson or progress will be made, not for the government or Malaysia's film industry."

Enditem/ASG

Chong Keat Aun. CNA file photo
Chong Keat Aun. CNA file photo
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