By Corrie Tan
(2,080 words, 10-minute read)
Spoiler alert: this essay discusses certain plot points about Tiger of Malaya in detail.
The Drama Centre Black Box, on level five of the National Library, is bracketed by floors and floors of reference books and historical documents; to get there you must ascend past the Asian Film Archive on level four. To think of the archive, like the library building and what it contains, is to associate it with stable objects that remain unchanged, eternally re-readable and re-watchable on paper and on film. But to think of performance is often to connect it with what is alive and then slips away, hidden in the bodies of actors and memories of audience members, never to be reproduced exactly as it was, or to be remade anew each time.
But is the archive really a stable record of history? Can what is archived ever be revived through performance? And, if that’s the case – can history ever be performed and remade? These are the burning central questions of Teater Ekamatra’s 30th anniversary production in the Drama Centre Black Box, the stunning Tiger of Malaya. It’s a play within a film within a play, it’s a piece of film criticism, it’s a research paper on history and representation strutting about in clever theatrical disguise – it’s a work so delightful and sophisticated in its reflexivity and subversion that I had to watch it twice. The first watch left me wordless, and I needed the second to find the words with which to write about the audacity of its ambition.
The subject of this remake is the 1943 Japanese propaganda film, Tiger of Malaya (“Marai no Tora”), dug from its archival grave, its frames shuddering from one to the next over the distorted crackle of its soundscape. The war-time epic loosely follows the story of the real-life Japanese martyr Tani Yutaka, the Fukuoka-born, Terengganu-bred barber who would eventually become a fearsome guerrilla leader and whose Robin Hood heroics included taking down slimy British authorities and their Chinese co-conspirators.
The film’s earworm of a theme song is the first thing we hear in the darkness of the Black Box (“harimauuuu!” yelped by a chorus of voices), as its grainy black-and-white footage comes into focus on a set of three movable screens on stage. Two performers stumble onto the stage, sobbing and clawing at each other’s clothes and declaring the film’s lines in floridly translated English, aping what happens on screen as a bloodied Tani Yutaka gasps his last words to one of his followers, Salim.
The lights snap on and we realise the two actors, Adnan (Farez Najid) and Lai Teck (Rei Poh), are auditioning for parts in a low-budget theatrical remake of Tiger of Malaya. They’re immediately recruited to join a motley Japanese-Singaporean cast by popular actress Faridah (Siti Khalijah Zainal). We soon meet their Japanese counterparts: the comedic performer Yudai (“You Die”, Yuya Tanaka) and the post-dramatic posturer Saiko (“Psycho”, Rei Kitagawa) who baffles the Singaporean team with her demonstration of “being a poem on paper”. As the five performers – each with a different theatrical heritage – embark on the blackly comic process of remaking the original film, they find themselves haunted by the futures and the pasts of their countries, as well as the diverging historical narratives each place has chosen to record and remember.
Throughout its 30-year existence, Teater Ekamatra has dedicated itself to Malay-language performance practice and to interrogating what this performance practice, one committed to the minority voice, really is. Its development as a Malay, multilingual theatre company has led to an ongoing dramatic examination of identity, indigeneity, language, religion, family, gender – and how all of these are constructed – through the many theatremakers it has ushered through its doors. Its work has always felt urgent and contemporary, never flinching from the provocative or the experimental, even if this has meant flailing and failing from time to time. Playwright Alfian Sa’at has been one of the company’s frequent headliners, with previous work such as the award-winning plays Nadirah (2009), Kakak Kau Punya Laki (Your Sister’s Husband, 2013) and GRC (Geng Rebut Cabinet, 2015) – all of which needle at the narratives and representations we take for granted, whether it’s conversion, terrorism or Singapore’s political landscape.
The hyper-intelligent Tiger of Malaya is very much a part of this lineage. Alfian, together with director Fared Jainal, dramaturg Shawn Chua and an extraordinary cast, has constructed a hysterically funny and utterly devastating theatre production that asserts that the body remembers what the archive will not. The team knows that a relic can be a leaping-off point, “that performance remains and recordings disappear, that archives perform and that documents are performative” (Clarke et al, 2018, p. 11) – and the play-within-a-play format allows the performers to resuscitate and recreate the problematic dead in their own image. The original film was performed almost entirely by Japanese actors, many of them in brownface playing bizarrely named Malay characters in an attempt to win over the region’s Malay population to the Japanese cause (on stage, Adnan singles out the snivelly, buck-toothed detective Batebau and the Yutaka family’s devoted friend-but-probably-servant Sari – yes, spelled the same way as the traditional Indian dress).
On stage, the performers decide that their multicultural company will give the film some much-needed historical accuracy, a triumphant attempt to reclaim proper representation. But as Faridah, Adnan, Teck, Yudai and Saiko assign themselves parts to play, they realise that the act of mapping character to performer isn’t as straightforward as it seems. Teck chafes at playing the one-dimensional villain, the communist “Chinaman” Chen Wen Qing – even though, as a Chinese actor playing a Chinese role, he is “rectifying” the racial appropriation of the past. Teck demands more context for his sunglass-wearing, water-sleeve-waving stereotype of a character as a sympathetic member of the Chinese resistance. But does that mean every character deserves a well-rounded back story? How long of a film would that take? How much of the film should be preserved – and how much should be reclaimed?
Tiger of Malaya doesn’t just snipe at the problems of representation in the film. It also takes on the linguistic boundaries of Singaporean theatre and Singapore’s attempts at the intercultural (cue the requisite joke the play makes about Ong Keng Sen) – and the sort of multicultural and multilingual theatre we have come to pride ourselves on. Faridah and Adnan laugh at a brand of “Chinese theatre” that prides itself on technical precision, leaving its performances flat and soulless; Teck is irritated by what he believes to be over-emoting in “Malay theatre”, where performers try so hard to “tangkap” (catch) a feeling that every scene ends up drenched in melodrama. This sort of metatheatricality is often used as an easy inside joke or a lazy shortcut to empathy for a theatre-going audience familiar with the ins and outs of their local theatre scene, but here the creative team doesn’t go for the punchlines it knows it can get, but waits for a longer-term payoff.
You can feel the creative team’s glee in toying with the language of representation – and the representation of language. In another scene, Saiko plays Tani Yutaka’s youngest sister, Shizuko, calling for her mother (“okaa-san!”) in what will be a fateful Chinese-instigated riot. The actors first perform this in Japanese, but Faridah – a Malay actress playing a Japanese mother – insists that she can’t quite grasp the thick emotions of trauma unless she performs in her “mother tongue”. She tells Saiko to call her “mak!” instead. The result is a scene both deeply tragic and incredibly funny as Faridah discards the rigid, repressed formality with which she was performing a “Japanese grief” and borrows instead from the over-emoting tropes of “Malay theatre” to edit the lines she’s been given and play her grief to epic proportions in the way she knows how.
These intercultural frictions accumulate as the Singaporeans and the Japanese struggle over a character claimed by both Japan and Malaya, and a history fraught with divisive interpretations. What do all of us really know about our own histories and what really happened, or how we really wish it had happened, and whose stories are given precedence, and whose are pencilled into the margins of the history books?
In Tiger of Malaya, the reenactments begin to stray farther and farther from the original, as the performers gripe and snap at each other in social justice jargon over how their characters ought to behave, or the uncomfortable portrayal of the “tropical natives” as unproductive brown bodies who just sing and dance, or the film’s vulgar use of beloved folk songs like Rasa Sayang for its anti-British motives. The Singaporean performers edge closer and closer to making their Japanese colleagues stand in for a cruel military, to bear responsibility for acts the performers have never committed and will never understand. In a quiet moment, Yudai asks if the Singaporeans think that Japan helped to liberate Asia from colonialism. He asks this in English, the language of our British colonisers. English is the only spoken language left untranslated, invisible, taken for granted.
Tiger of Malaya doesn’t just play with how performers reshape meaning through language; it skewers the very form of the film itself in both low- and high-tech ways. The frame of the low-budget production means that the performers often rely on their own bodies to narrate the plot, whether through interpretive movements or doubling up as scenery (coconut trees, birds, rocks, airplanes, trains, you name it). But there are also some very clever interventions managed by multimedia designer Eric Lee, where shaky-cam iPhone footage of the on-stage performers is superimposed on or interrupts the static frames of their predecessors. Context is crucial, the production emphasises – whether it’s inserting a present performer into a past context, or recontextualising every scene that we see in the light of how things have turned out to be. The scene that Adnan and Teck performed for their audition finds new meaning later on – in terms of how the film wanted to connect with its various target audiences, both Japanese and Malayan, and their conceptions of a meaningful life or a meaningful death.
I haven’t even begun to scratch at everything else Tiger of Malaya does to point out how our lithe, slippery histories have solidified into static objects, smoothed over into flat and digestible things that can be retrieved as fact and truth from buildings such as the National Library. There’s a scene close to the end that I assumed, from its setup of two opposing long tables, would be a scene from the British surrender to the Japanese – a scene hammered into my mind as a child by social studies school trips to the ghostly waxworks in the Surrender Chambers at Fort Siloso, Singapore’s “impregnable fortress”. The histories we are made to learn soon become synonymous with our memories. The scene isn’t the British surrender, but someone else is coerced into surrendering something quite different, to try to fit a version of history into right-wrong, yes-no binaries – when there in fact are none.
On a recent trip to Yogyakarta I learnt a new phrase, alih tubuh (literally, “changing bodies”), from a collective of Indonesian practitioners I was working with. Alih tubuh means a role isn’t just passed between one performer’s badan (physical body) and the next as a set of static gestures and traits, but is given new life by the spiritual, emotional, and psychological landscapes of its new host – its new co-creator. We pass history down through our bodies. Pieces of ourselves stick to it as it moves from one generation to the next; in the case of Tiger of Malaya, from character to performer to audience. The body is a different kind of archive, the kind that remakes even as it remembers.
Already my body is forgetting this theatre production, trying to decipher what I have written about it in my notebook, or who said which line and how or why. But already my body is remembering, as I write, what I felt in my gut or my throat as I laughed and cried, conjuring up Tani Yutaka in my mind, his hand on his samping, his eyes peering out at us under the lid of his songkok, against the chilling chorus of the Japanese war song as they march on to Singapore, to a war and an occupation that will actually happen, to my Singaporean grandfather who will be late for work and miraculously escape a death camp, to my Malaysian grandmother who will dress up as a boy and miraculously escape rape, to me sitting here in this dark theatre studio, watching my own history happen before my life begins.
Selected bibliography and further reading:
Clarke, Paul, Jones, Simon, Kaye, Nick and Linsley, Johanna, eds. (2018). Artists in the Archive: Creative and Curatorial Engagements with Documents of Art and Performance. London: Routledge.
Drury, Jackie Sibblies. (2012). We Are Proud to Present a Presentation About the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as South West Africa, From the German Südwestafrika, Between the Years 1884 – 1915. London: Bloomsbury.
Phelan, Peggy. (1993). Unmarked: The Politics of Performance. London and New York: Routledge.
Powell, Benjamin D., and Shaffer, Tracey Stephenson. (2009). “On the Haunting of Performance Studies” in Liminalities: A Journal of Performance Studies, 5:1.
Taylor, Diana. (2003). The Archive and the Repertoire: Performing Cultural Memory in the Americas. Durham and London: Duke University Press.
Teater Ekamatra’s Tiger of Malaya ran from 12 to 23 September 2018 at the Drama Centre Black Box inside the National Library Building, Singapore.