[For the month of July, we will be covering the New York Asian Film Festival and the (also New York-based) Japan Cuts Film Festival, which together form one of the largest showcases of Asian cinema in the world. For our NYAFF coverage, head over here. For Japan Cuts, here.]
Nasi Lemak 2.0 is a zany comedy that touches on the idea of racial identity and cultural identity in Malaysia. I’m not really familiar with the larger social context or political history of Malaysia, unfortunately, so any response I have to that material will be superficial at best. What I do know is that the film portrays all three of the country’s main ethnic groups on relatively equal footing: native Malaysians, Chinese, and Indian.
The film feels a lot like a Stephen Chow movie, with distinct notes of God of Cookery. It’s both a good thing and a bad thing. Nasi Lemak 2.0 felt like it lacked its own identity for a while (it finds it eventually), but in a film about the way three ethnic groups live together, maybe it makes sense that one sensibility would be so dominant.
Nasi Lemak 2.0 (辣死你妈)
You can tell a lot about a culture by its food, and food is the hub of Nasi Lemak 2.0. Nasi lemak is rice prepared in coconut milk and served with anchovies and sambal. It’s considered the national dish of Malaysia. But there’s also lots of Chinese and Indian influence in the culture, which means there are numerous palates to please and numerous cultural identities to consider. Maybe a nasi lemak 2.0 is some hobo stew version of the food. That may be a fitting way to think of the film given the anarchic, bizarre, everywhere-and-everything style.
The film’s director and star, Namewee, plays Huang, who’s more interested in traditional Chinese cooking. The man makes a mean fried rice, but it takes him forever to do it. He’s eventually enlisted by a bushy-browed girl named Xiao (Karen Kong), to help her father maintain ownership of his Chinese restaurant. Xiao’s aunt is trying to take the business for herself, and she’s hired a hotshot Chinese chef (his chest and neck draped with medals) who also happens to be Hunag’s rival from culinary school.
That’s the launching point for lots of strange digressions and broad slapstick. Xiao’s eyebrows are the size of caterpillars; the two waiters at Huang’s restaurant are slouching, slack-jawed bumpkins; moles are the size of baby shoes; food as weaponry; a Bollywood dance number; and there are even daydreams about period flying swordsman films. It’s an unpredictable film in a lot of ways, but at times it’s also feels very familiar because of its tone and approach.
I mentioned Stephen Chow, and the zaniness of Chow’s films really comes through in Nasi Lemak 2.0. It was distracting at first. For a while I found myself trying to think of the Stephen Chow film that a joke in the movie reminded me of. The comical ugliness of the characters is basically like Kin-Yan Lee’s shtick, and the karaoke number is very much like the “Shaolin Kung-Fu/California Dreaming” bit in Shaolin Soccer. It was like I was picking at the samples used in a song rather than paying attention to the lyrics. This eventually went away once the film set its plot into motion: Huang is given a quest to become a Malay supercook and hopefully save the day.
Namewee has an interesting spot in contemporary Malaysian culture. (“Interesting” in the Chinese curse sense, maybe.) He’s a rapper who created a stir with “I Love My Country Negarakuku (Visit Malaysia 2007 Theme Song).” It fused the Malaysian national anthem with a hiphop beat, and featured lyrics critical of the way the country is run. The reaction was so negative from some members of Malay society that Namewee was forced to issue an apology; he was also investigated for sedition by the government. A gag order was placed on the media, asking that there be no more reports on Namewee. According to wikipedia, no major press outlets have covered Namewee since late August 2007.
What’s interesting is that looking at the lyrics of “I Love My Country Megarakuku,” they don’t seem to be anything out of ordinary in a protest song or social criticism ditty, like something by Billy Bragg, “The Message”; hell, this isn’t close to “Fuck tha Police” (though this is my biased Western point of view). Anyways, because he’s such a divisive and controversial figure, Namewee wasn’t able to secure any government funding for Nasi Lemak 2.0. It was shot low budget and wound up being a major word-of-mouth sensation across Malaysia.
It’s somewhat obvious why the film would play so well: at its heart, under the funny faces, physical comedy, and the occasional fart joke, is a deep and sincere call for national unity. Malay national identity is all three: native Malaysian, Chinese, and Indian (though maybe the film leans heavily toward a Chinese sensibility since Namewee is Malaysian Chinese). It embraces the melting pot, and since it’s a slapstick comedy, it suffers from first-degree burns after this show of racial tolerance and cultural understanding.
Looking at the controversial song that made Namewee the figure he is today, it feels like his love for Malaysia is as sincere as his distrust of its government — when you love something a lot, you can also be critical of the thing you love.
While I don’t have the cultural background to understand all of the pointed bits of social criticism and Malay in-jokes, I can at least dig on the absurdist rush from place to place and from joke to joke. Some of the self-aware movie gags are especially funny (like one about how to find Indian people based on Bollywood films), and many of the backgrounds and edges of frames contain some kind of hilarious detail. Nasi Lemak 2.0 can be a hodgepodge at times, but it’s definitely edible.
[Nasi Lemak 2.0 will be screening at Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater Monday, July 9th at 2:50 PM and Thursday, July 12th at 6:15pm. As of this writing, there are conflicting reports about producer Fred Chong being in attendance at Thursday’s screening. We will keep you posted.]