Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Waves of Errr Nausea, I think

I have been reading the tweets and status updates and blogs about Ombak Rindu, the film which has garnered about RM10 million at the box office.

In particular, this post which opened up a slew of unpleasant remarks to the writer, whose opinions voice the thoughts of many of the audience members I presume - the main one being a niggling little thought about the premise of the movie : that being that the "heroine" was in love with the man to whom she was prostituted, the man who raped, and then ultimately bought her like a commodity to take home. 

The box office takings serve as a signifier that this unpleasant basis for the couple's relationship is not one that has had much effect on the audience's enjoyment of the movie.

I must say here that, I have not seen the movie nor read the book. I am sure that huge differences between the book and movie may exist, in part because I doubt the director read the book first and loved it enough to make a movie of it. I am sure all urges to make the movie were derived from a deisre to profit.

I am very interested, though, in why this movie has struck a chord with malaysian (and i think in this case, vastly malay) audiences. Though I cannot speak on the treatment of the story, the tone of it, or the specifics of it, I can certainly comment, I feel, on the reaction of audiences to it, no?

I looooove romance novels. Looove Mills and Boons fiction. Love it. In every one of these stories, the woman - usually gorgeous, sometimes Ugly Betty verging on Gorgeous, sometimes, nerdy, sometimes an outcast - gets the guy, who is usually gorgeous, but often rough, or distant, or cold, or even bad, but who usually ends up lusting for and then loving, the woman. Often, the relationship between the two can be fraught with awkward moments, nervous faux pas, intense sexual tension, even physical, sexual or verbal violence. If the man hurts her in any way, he realises his terrible ways and seeks forgiveness, after which he is usually rewarded with animal sex. I mean, LURVE. 

Now, in REAL life, I don't think I could even look someone in the eye who had any bad intention towards me, let alone one with premeditated, intended acts of violence, physical, sexual or verbal. Honestly, take a moment to think of yourself in that position. Imagine yourself sold by your own family, taken to a dingy back room to be traded like cattle, and in your fear and vulnerability, hurt and abused abysmally. It wouldn't matter if the guy was gorgeous or hideous, would it? You wouldn't stick around to find out if you guys could hit it off after, would you? That is how I think any woman who has placed any value on herself other than what she thinks others value her for, would think or feel.

ANd I have no doubt that most of the women who watched the movie, would not consider it a happy event, to be raped. They would definitely not think of themselves in terms of deserving it, or desiring the abuse.

And yet, it did so well. Why?

Well, I think for the same reason as I love romance novels, the audience loves this story.

I think the malay movie audience psyche is totally into the idea that a woman, just by virtue of being herself, or "baik", has the power to captivate, enchant, and turn even the most villainous of men into faithful lovers. 

It's the same audience that loves Twilight. I went to watch the first Twilight with Hubby Boo, and he was astonished that the cinema was full. We were also surprised at how many of the audience were be-scarved couples. It felt like we were about to watch an epic, like LOTR or something. Instead, we watched a whole lot of cinema time spent on longing gazes, intense sexual restraint, creepy voyeurism and a malingering sense of wrong that felt so right. I LOVED IT.

As a writer, I know that the film is about a whole lotta nothing happening except burgeoning sexual tension whipped into a frenzy with urgent, blue-balling stolen kisses and knowledge of imminent death. It's all foreplay of the imagination. It enjoys the idea that love transcends the dirty act of sex. That you can lust after and love someone, all in your mind, if you have superhuman self-restraint - oh, wait, he does! What a hero! 

But if you take a moment and look at the author's upbringing (if I am not mistaken, mormon), you'll see that all this takes on a tinge of the religious cadre. That age-old control of women and their bodies, cleverly disguised with independence-chic and liberation rhetoric. Bella is "free" to be whatever she wants. Well, she chooses not to have boyfriends or be particularly interested in boys, even though so many are interested in her and she is obviously hot. BUt no, she is pure, virginal. 

Of course, the one she falls for is the one she can't fathom, who seems almost to be hurt by his infatuation (or is it love?) with her. He can't help himself. He must have her. But he can't reveal what a monster he is to her. So he creeps into her bedroom at night to watch her sleep, leaving the instant she wakes, unseen. That is so sick. 

Just think of some guy creeping into your room to watch you sleep. If I didn't die of fright first to find someone watching me like that, I would feel the subjectification of "the gaze" down to my deepest core. You know what that is, every one of you, it's when someone looks at you and they strip you of your power because there is nothing you can do to stop that look, no matter how vile that look is. Their intent is to make you feel small, or feel like all you are is a piece of meat that they are about to carve up without any thought or conscience. It can be sexual or about power, and putting you in your place. I would say girls feel it more than boys, but that it isn't a feeling exclusive to girls. Sometimes, you cannot even articulate what it is. But it is all about feeling powerless, or being made to feel powerless. You ever been the centre of unwanted attention? If you don't turn and run, you have to take it. Either way, you have been robbed of some choice. It's like a person taking your picture without your permission, or continuing to take it even if you ask them to stop. Effectively, they are robbing you of your choice.

BUT ON THE FLIP SIDE... you ARE the object of that attention, unwanted or not. Now, the scariest thing in the world, is when you somehow find it in your self to be alright with that, or even, to be FLATTERED by it. And I kinda feel that this is what is happening, not only here in the malaysian cinema audience, but all over the world. 

There used to be a time when people would be a little embarrassed to pose, or be seen as "posing" for a camera. Now, it's de rigeur! Camwhoring? FUN! Looking like a cheap slut? Wana see MY duckface? And I am rather worried that people can't tell when it is tongue-in-cheek, spoofing of others who do it, or when it is utterly sincere. There are people out there who genuinely think nothing of their POSING.

I also reckon, Malaysians or Asians, don't really even have any thoughts about this at all, so why would it be a point of analysis? I mean, store attendants prune their eyebrows right there at the counter, with all the products! That, to me, is horrific, because it just says vanity, vanity, vanity, and a splash of unprofessionalism. People take pictures of themselves, when they are alone, in public. I would be highly self-conscious if I tried to do that, so I would make a joke of it, to make it obvious that I am making fun of it. But those other people... they're not joking!

SO what I am saying is, it seems that being "subject" to another's gaze - well, that concept probably carries no emotional weight for many at all, here. So it is no surprise to me then, that the idea of BElla being watched without her knowledge or consent, wouldn't ruffle any feathers.

If we were to apply this to Ombak Rindu - well, it stands to reason that many audience members might think, the heroine should be FLATTERED that she is being given such full-on, loyal attention as her rapist is giving to her. After all, she is a good woman. She has risen above the distasteful events of being sold off, raped and then bought. Why, she has even begged her abuser for marriage in order to secure herself the sanctimony of wedlock. At least now she can allow herself to be raped, with her conscience clear! What a good woman she is! 

It kind of seems like a story about how being virtuous is contagious (after all,her abuser eventually begins to fight for her, no? like a prize) - but it really is about identifying one's sex as one's only source of power. So, never mind that Izzah is a victim of rape and abuse, she's one of those few who has risen above her abuse, has no need for justice, or even to acknowledge her rights to humane treatment or simply rights to safety. Instead, think of how she has managed to turn her abuser's scornful, evil intentions into caring and loyalty. 

Hey! We should save the state some money by taking all the rapists out of jail, and marrying them off to their sisters, daughters and friends that they raped, because as women, those girls have a duty to their religion and society, to overcome their distaste (damage? wounds?) for the evil that was done to them and do themselves a favour by winning moral points by becoming useless martyrs that stink of defilement, not because they were abused, but because the concept of "being religiously good" has been so warped by their peers and society.

Ignoring the original evil in order to bask in the glory of their lust-turned-love, is taking it a step too far. Defending it is morally reprehensible. I would agree with a viewer's right to enjoy the movie DESPITE the unpleasant premise, but not BECAUSE of it, and that distinction is very hard to make, when most people seem to think there is none.

So, while I do enjoy me a good romance novel, and I love to ride the waves of passion and love they ellicit, I do have enough of a brain to know that they are nonsensical, and usually undesirable in real life. I would like to think that local audiences simply wanted to enjoy those feelings romance novels create, and not really have to think about the reality, which is that they probably already know someone who has suffered some form of sexual abuse.

The reality of rape is that, it is a horrendously violent act, an act of intent to strip the victim of power, dignity and choice. MOre often than not, physical violence with intent to hurt or kill, accompanies it. Or the threat of physical violence in the form of a weapon, or verbal threat, which is a terrifying ordeal to be put through. If you have even a modicum of imagination, if you have ever been looked at, jeered at, felt up or touched inappropriately, simply because you are a woman, you will understand what that fear is.

Make no mistake, rape has less to do with sex and more to do with breaking someone's spirit, and imposing one's will over someone else.

After all, if a guy simply wanted to take care of his sexual needs, there are girls out there who would willingly be of service, free or for a charge.

Yes, the movie is just a movie. Yes, most of us understand it as such and know the difference between fact and fiction. The problem for me lies in this: that certain, very heavy issues, are being glamourised, heightened and even considered cool or (haha) nice. The girl who stands up for herself is portrayed negatively, like a shrew who overthinks things and places way too much value on her selfish pride. And yet, our heroine, who has had her pride stripped from her, is portrayed as the ideal woman, who ends up being so sublimely in love she might as well die and go straight to heaven.

THis is what scares me, the idea that, hey, it might actually be easy to get over being raped. Just think of yourself as 1) so desirable he couldn't help himself 2) so spiritually strong that you can get over the abuse of your body and rise above it  but in reality, thinking or doing any of these things ignores the real event of a gross misdeed by one of god's creatures against another. Praising Izzah for her religious and moral superiority in this context is ridiculous because at the very same time, you (and she) would be condoning Haris' horrendous ungodly act. What hypocrisy!

But, tell yourself, it's just a movie. That it simply has no power at all over our collective consciousness. That you do not have any emotional investment in it at all, even if you cry at some scenes, or hate certain characters. Tell yourself that movies are fiction, that all cinema has no relation at all to our society or to our culture... it is this very notion that keeps our film industry purely an entertainment business in the eyes of the masses, rather than a cultural phenomenon. When we tell stories, any story, even the silliest story, we express ourselves, reflect ourselves and create ourselves. If you don't get that, you really probably never will. Which is fine and is not an indication of my character at all haha!
As a footnote, I observed earlier that most of the cinema was filled with girls in headscarves with their dates/partners. I reckon the greatest appeal about Twilight, and probably about Ombak Rindu, was the unbearable sexual tension. The unrequited, unfulfilled, forever foreplaying sex/love/nosex dilemma that makes these books so appealing. It really says something about the malay psyche, don't you think? Part of the charm of holding off from physical relationships is that tension - and I must say, it seems a lot more appealing than the utter drudgery of endless one-night stands that those Westerners have to endure.



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