Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Yasmin Ahmad - Arguably Malaysia's Best Storyteller, Film-Maker And Advertiser

I felt uncharacteristically down the other day and thought to revisit The Storyteller, the late Yasmin Ahmad's blog.

Yasmin Ahmad Blog Profile Photo

Yasmin Ahmad was arguably Malaysia's best storyteller, film-maker and advertiser.

Come this July 25th, it will be two years since her untimely death from a stroke at the age of 51.

She first came to the Malaysian public's attention as a result of the TV commercials she did for Petronas, celebrating Chinese New Year, Hari Raya Adilfitri and Deepavali and also those for National Day celebrations.

The commercials she did for Petronas never failed to tug at and warm the hearts of Malaysian viewers. For her TV commercials to be able to do this consistently spoke much of her. Each year  Malaysians of all races would look forward to her Petronas commercials.

               A Petronas Hari Raya Commecial In Malay with English subtitles      

Yasmin Ahmad had won numerous local and international awards for her work in the advertising industry. Her Petronas  Merdeka Day (National Day) commercial "Tan Hong Ming In Love" garnered multiple international awards including the top Golden Lion in the Cannes Lions International Advertising Festival in 2008.

                                             Tan Hong Ming In Love

She also did several commercials for Singapore's Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports, including the poignant, touching and yet funny "Funeral"


Yasmin Ahmad was born on the 7th of January 1958 in  Muar,  Johore where I once worked. She graduated with a B.A in Psychology from the Newcastle University, England.

She worked briefly as a trainee banker in 1982, then moved to work as a marketing representative with IBM while she moonlighted as a singer and pianist at night. In 1993, she started work as a copywriter with Ogilvy and Mather and left in 1998 to work as joint creative director with Leo Burnett where her career took off in a big way.

Yasmin Ahmad had much success in the advertising industry, but it was her full feature films that brought her work to another level.


Her first feature lenght film Rabun (failing eyes) completed in 2002, was about a loving elderly couple who moved from the city to live in the kampung. The film is said to be based on Yasmin Ahmad's own parents. Rabun drew much flak from conservative Malays and Muslims and suffered several cuts in the hands of the censors before being allowed to be screened. I have not seen Rabun, so I can't say much about it.

However, it was Sepet (slit eyes) that brought Yasmin Ahmad to the attention of a wider spectrum of audience. Sepet is one of a trilogy about the life of Orked. 

Sepet is actually a simple but honest film on interracial love between a 16 year old Malay girl (Orked) waiting  for her SPM school results and an older Chinese boy (Jason) who sells pirated VCDs with a penchant for poems and who spouts Rabindranath Tagore, the Indian poet.

Yasmin Ahmad broke all stereotypes by not making the Malay girl convert her Chinese boy friend much to the chagrin of the censors here who refused to release the film without  cuts. The dialogues, for a much refreshing change, are not the usual suspects, cliched and stilted.

For the first time, in Malaysian movie history, viewers could actually identify with the dialogues as how Malaysians talk to each other in real life. The ending too, was not the usual predictable bore. In fact, the ending itself caused no little stir or discussion among movie goers.

For the first time too, Malaysians realised that Sepet is a Malaysian film, not a Malay, Chinese or Indian film. And for the first time too, audiences of all races, Chinese , Malays and Indians and even some kwailos , flocked to the cinemas to watch the film. They laughed,  they clapped and they cried.

And for a long time since the P. Ramlee movies, many have watched the film not once but many times

Yasmin Ahmad was on to something, if she was able to make such a diverse Malaysian audience enjoy the film.

A large part was due to the honesty, the taboo-busting dialoges and simply the warmth and love of the human spirit the film conveys.

Despite being criticised, Sepet swept several local film awards, including for Most Original Story and Best Film in 2005.

Sepet Trailer

It went on to win an award at the Creteil International Film Festival in France in 2005 and the award for Best Asian Film at the 18th Tokyo International Film Festival also in 2005, among some other international film awards.


The second of the Orked trilogy Gubra (anxiety) was released in 2006. It too, drew some controversy. Gubra is actually two stories in one. The story of a  loving bilal and his wife and their relationship with a prostitute cleverly juxtaposed with the story of Orked who has married a two-timing husband (not Jason). That scene of the bilal comforting a dog while on his way to sound the morning azan, drew the ire of conservative Muslims.

Mukhsin is the last of the Orked trilogy released in 2007 and tells the story of a young Orked and her first love.

I will just leave readers with some foreign reviews of the film Yasmin Ahmad left in her The Storyteller blog.

                                                           Gubra Trailer

                                                     Mukhsin Trailer

Yasmin Ahmad released two more films before she passed way, Talentime and Muallaf (The Convert). Muallaf was in fact produced earlier but released for screening only after Talentine because of the controversy over the scene in which Syarifah Armani ( the character for Rohani) was shaved bald for the film, something conservative Muslims and the censors considered going against Muslim tenets. But it enjoyed huge success when first screened in Singapore.

                                                    Talentime Trailer           

                                                      Muallaf Trailer                 

Everyone of Yasmin Ahmad's feature films has won international awards of one kind or another, including Mukhsin which had won the grand prix award under the Generation Section and the Crystal Bear Special Mention under the Generation K-Plus at the Berlin Film Festival 2007.

Post Script : Before she passed  away, Yasmin Ahmad was to direct two other films, one a joint   Malaysia-Japan effort Wasurenagusa (Touch-Me-Not) about a young Malay girl searching for her Japanese mother in Japan and Go, Thaddeus about the late Singaporean triathlete Thaddeus Chong.

Her films have also been screened in retrospectives in several countries including Japan, Taiwan, Australia and France.

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Yasmin Ahmad was arguably Malaysia's best story-teller, filmmaker and advertiser. She was well known for her Petronas commercials and had won numerous international awards including the Golden Lion award for the 'Tan Ming Hong In Love' commercial. Her feature film Sepet not only garnered her several international awards including for Best Asian Film but also drew multi-racial audiences that rarely happens for a local film.

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