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[Review] Tiger of Malaya

“What are we going to watch,” my husband asked as we entered the theatre. Not having watched a play in years, least of all a Singaporean production, he was apprehensive.

The only thing I knew about Tiger of Malaya was that the playwright, Alfian Sa’at, had found his inspiration (and title) in the 1943 war film, マライの虎 (Marai no tora, Tiger of Malaya) which you can watch here on Youtube:

Once upon a time, I wrote my Masters thesis on The Cinematic Portrayal of Sino-Japanese Relations in the Early War Years 1937-1940 (kindly hosted by a French cinephile friend). In other words, how China was portrayed in Japanese war films, or in layman speak why the Japanese so like that ah. It was my own way of investigating how the thriving Sino-Japanese cultural space in the early 20th century (Sun Yat Sen, Lu Xun, and other foremost Chinese thinkers all spent years in Japan hoping to learn its secret to modernisation; modern Chinese owes a good chunk of vocabulary to words first translated by the Japanese into kanji) gave way to calamitous war.

As the first black-and-white images of Marai no Tora appear in the mise-en-scène, flashbacks of countless hours spent in TV Asahi’s Kudanshita archives came to mind. As part of my MA research, I went through reams of black and white news films, the main source of war-related news (and village entertainment) for most of Japan during the 1930s. Sitting in the darkened room, it was hard repressing my astonishment and amusement at the crude story techniques and overbearing voiceovers. Yet there was a peculiar earnestness to the films which made for strangely compelling watching, a certain what is this crazy batshit and why can’t I stop watching it?

Tiger of Malaya (the play) takes us through this complex emotional journey as its characters attempt to reenact the film; in its own words, remaking and unmaking crucial scenes. It felt as though I was in Alfian’s head as he watched Marai no Tora, processing and dissecting each dramatic turn.

In the original film, 谷 豊 Tani Yukata’s turn from law-abiding citizen to patriotic Japanese secret agent hangs on the critical moment when a Fu-Manchu-esque 陳文慶Chen Wen Qing shoots his young eight-year-old sister Shizuko. The play turns the scene on its head by asking: what if Shizuko’s death was not intentional but inadvertant? Would Chen’s guilt be lesser, the same, or more? Would that have made Tani Yukata less, or more of a hero?

The play draws much of its laughs from the film’s racial stereotypes (a dramatic escape scene, for example, segues into a scene of ‘natives’ dancing along to Rasa Sayang on the beach) which the multi-ethnic, multi-national cast take apart and recast in a modern context. In less skillful hands this would most likely have fallen apart: each cast member has lines in at least two, most three languages, at times talking over each other in different languages, and yet the entire production comes together in a strangely mysterious, dazzlingly brilliant way. In typical Alfian-style the lines are witty yet deeply profound (the show features a Malay-Japanese cast so the Malays are ‘Japanese collaborators’, ha ha). Not only is the film multi-ethnic, multi-national and multi-lingual, it is also multi-textured (there is puppetry, multimedia, and even wayang kulit) and multi-dimensional, like standing in between two mirrors and watching a series of countless reflections. Yet despite its inventiveness and multi-ness, it never loses a beat, the original film setting the dramatic arc and pacing. From start to finish, Tiger of Malaya is engaging and entertaining.

I’ve had a bit of a hit-and-miss record bringing my husband to what he calls ‘arty-farty’ movies which he says usually fly over his head. But as we left the theatre, he turned to me, eyes shining, as though dazzled by what he had watched. “Thanks for bringing me,” he said. “I loved it. It was really enjoyable.”

My one regret (besides the fact that I didn’t write this play, ha ha), is missing out on this treasure trove of Japanese films and archives on the Southeast Asian invasion. My research centred on war films in the 1930s and filmmakers like Kamei Fumio who began to question the pointlessness of war (and the unconquerable nature of China’s inland cities) through their films. The cut-off date for my research was the year 1940, when much stricter film laws were passed, Kamei was arrested, and war films took on an increasingly strident, didactic nationalist tone. I didn’t bother with war films in the 40s because the few I saw came across as comical propaganda. On a superficial viewing, Marai no Tora is indeed comical, almost farcical. Yet, by probing its bones, taking it apart, then putting it back together, Tiger of Malaya emerges as a theatrical masterpiece that is both thought provoking and thoroughly entertaining.

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