By Corrie Tan
(1228 words, 10-minute read)
A man is rising from the water. The sea is birthing him: his closely-cropped hair, his bare chest and shoulders, his damp sarong clinging to his thighs. On land, another man with a shorn scalp is sitting cross-legged in the sand and mud, his distended lips pulled back over a metal mouth harness. A line of drool creeps down his chin. He begins to move, slowly, unfurling his arms and lifting his knees. Over our headphones, two men sing a bare bones version of Melaka, the lush ode that introduces the opening credits of the 1956 film Hang Tuah. Their voices are unaccompanied and unadorned:
Negeri Melaka negeri bertuah (The Malaccan state, the affluent state)
Tempat lahirnya datuk Hang Tuah (The birthplace of Hang Tuah)
Banyak jasanya dalam sejarah (Many of his contributions in history)
Sangat masyhur tiap daerah (Are held in high esteem in all regions)
The lyrics are celebratory, but there’s no celebration here. The man from the sea approaches the man on land and rests his hand tenderly on his head. In the late afternoon heat, the clouds low and swollen with rain, there seems to be something almost electric in the air as the two men meet.
The Asian Film Archive’s ongoing State of Motion programme opened in mid-January with a series of small-group performance tours to former filming locations across the mainland and offshore islands. This year, the Archive trains its focus on the Shaw Brothers’ Malay Film Productions unit and its golden age of the 1950s and 1960s. This edition is subtitled ‘Sejarah-ku’ (‘my history’), and the selected films feel very much like a personal history of pre-independence Singapore, blending themes of romance (Sri Menanti, 1958), humour (Seniman Bujang Lapok, 1961), social commentary (Mogok, 1957), religion (Isi Neraka, 1960), and legend and folklore (Hang Tuah, 1956; Hang Jebat, 1961). Each former film site also features an artwork responding to the film in question, interrogating its themes and how, in the intervening decades, each film site has been repurposed, reclaimed or erased.
Cinta Tuah Jebat (‘The Love of Tuah and Jebat’), by the collective akulah BIMBO SAKTI (‘I am the MAGIC BIMBO’), earns its place as the culminating performance of the two weekends. It’s a short work, a 20-minute performance bookended by the boat ride to Pulau Ubin, where portions of both Hang Tuah and Hang Jebat were filmed, and back to Changi Point Ferry Terminal. But the journey is rich and deeply profound and works best, I think, as an epilogue to the artworks of the mainland tour (which I had attended as a volunteer the week before).
The collective’s founder, Noor Effendy Ibrahim – a multi-hyphenate performance maker and former artistic director of both The Substation and Teater Ekamatra – has crafted a cinematic visual poem of love and loss, set against the backdrop of a dramatic island shoreline. Part site-specific performance, part immersive audio experience, Cinta Tuah Jebat both pays homage to and subverts the climactic fight between the legendary warriors Hang Tuah and Hang Jebat in their eponymous 1956 and 1961 films where, after a series of unfortunate events, the best friends find themselves pitted against each other in a fight to the death. These characters have been interpreted and reinterpreted over the course of film and theatre history in the ebb and tide of shifting socio-political sentiments, with Hang Tuah often standing in for the traditional hero and feudalist, and Hang Jebat as social reformer and rebel.
This political binary may loom in the background, but it’s less of a priority for Effendy, who recasts their fight as an intimate pas de deux against the gorgeous, evocative backdrop of the Pulau Ubin shore and horizon line. The performance is preceded by a screening of a short compilation of excerpts from both films, but it’s well worth seeing each film in its entirety. In Hang Tuah, as the young Tuah and Jebat train to become warriors under the watchful eye of their guru, the camera lingers on the gleam of their sweaty torsos by firelight and moonlight as they wrestle with each other, skin on skin. That latent eroticism is heightened here, drawing from the interlocking themes that often inform Effendy’s work: flesh and fetish, pain and bliss, restraint and abandon – and how men navigate intimacy with each other, whether it’s the relationship between father and son, between lovers, or between friends. In this case, he grapples with that conflicting blend of violence and tenderness that passes between Tuah and Jebat – a bloody, brutal fight that concludes with an act of great affection, where one man gently lays the other to eternal rest, cradling his cheek.
Khairulnizam Razali, who has risen from the ocean, holds his fellow performer and dancer Norisham Osman close, then inserts the two long metal rods dangling from Norisham’s mouthpiece into the single-finger gloves on his hands. Norisham looks like a rod puppet. He now has an incredibly limited range of movement, and Khairulnizam heaves him onto his back and staggers towards the open sea. I’ve chosen to attend the sunset tour, the 5.15pm to 7pm slot, when the high tide has swallowed up several rocky outcrops and the current tugs at the performers in the water. Khairulnizam scoops handfuls of water from the sea and pours it over Norisham, lying prone in his lap. There’s a touch of the sacred to this rite; it feels like both a baptism and a funeral, the ritual of purification by water preparing them for rebirth but also preparing them for death.
There’s an imagined conversation between Tuah and Jebat playing over my headphones, but I’m distracted by the image of Norisham floating in the water, limp and rigid all at once, the water lapping dangerously at his nose and mouth. I catch a fragment of the conversation: “It is enough that you are here with me, my dear.” A careless movement from Khairulnizam and I’m sure Norisham might begin to drown. But he doesn’t. Effendy draws careful and clever emotional parallels between Tuah and Jebat’s journey in the films and the physical states of his performers – in both cases, one places complete trust in the other, there is great tenderness in great pain, and there is absolute control set against absolute vulnerability.
akulah BIMBO SAKTI’s nuanced response to the original films chips away at their violent displays of masculinity – stolen women, snubbed sultans, the slaughter of marauding pirates – and sculpts them into a gentle encounter between two men who may be brothers, friends, or lovers. Unlike the choreographed precision of the films that inspired this work, it’s a piece that submits to the elements, changing at every low tide and high tide as the sea backs away and then returns to consume the shore. Do figures from folklore and legend also weather the erosion of time? As the audio track concludes and we’re shepherded back to a waiting van on the dirt path that led us to this quiet alcove, I can’t quite tear my eyes away from the two men bobbing in the sea in the purgatorial twilight, suspended between one wave and the next, between floating and drowning, both remembered and forgotten.
The performance tours have concluded, but State of Motion continues till Feb 11 with several talks and film screenings.