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10 Malaysian-made Movies That Have Made Our Nation Proud With International Acclaim

Many of us Malaysians are huge movie buffs. And yet most of us have little confidence in our locally-made films succeeding in international box offices. This is a shame as there are many Malaysian-made films that have earned international acclaim.

The Merdeka season may have long passed but we can still celebrate these locally-made movies and their international success.

#1: Ola Bola (2016)

Perhaps no movie has made us more nostalgic and patriotic than Ola Bola.

Directed by Chiu Keng Guan, the movie retells  the life-story of the national football team, the Harimau Malaya, in their quest to  qualify for the 1980 Olympics held in Moscow, then capital of the Soviet Union[1].

Harimau Malaya was formally established in 1963, becoming  was one of Asia’s most formidable in the ’70s and ’80s, with its membership comprising legends such as Mokhtar Dahari, Soh Chin Aun, Santokh Singh, and R. Arumugam[1].

The film portrays the team’s journey towards the Olympics and all of the hardships they endured, with each team member having their obstacles to deal with. And although they sadly dropped out of the chance to join the Olympics due to Malaysia’s protest of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the story nonetheless demonstrates their perseverance and dedication to make their country proud[2].

The film even won an award at the Taipei Golden Horse Film Festival for Best Original Theme Song! Definitely the kind of movie to celebrate Merdeka with.

#2: The Journey (2014)

Malaysia’s highest-grossing film of 2014 (grossing over RM18 million[3]) is definitely one for all Malaysians to watch. An Asian twist on the “meet the parents” plot, Chiu Keng Guan tells the story of Uncle Chuan (Frankie Lee), a conservative father with a rigid set of rules. When his daughter, Bee (Joanne Yew) returns home after spending most of her formative years in England with a fiancé, Benji, an Englishman (Ben Pfeiffer) in-tow, Uncle Chuan refuses to give his blessing[3].

Source: Vincent Loy

With cultural differences and language barriers that could potentially damage the union between Benji and his loved one, he feels that something must be done quickly. Uncle Chuan reluctantly allows them to marry but on one condition — the wedding ceremony has to be in the traditional way. Embarking on a nation-wide journey to deliver the wedding invitations, both Benji and Uncle Chuan forge a surprising bond as they learn a valuable lesson about accepting each other‘s differences[3].

The Journey is a story about family and traditions, a story conceived and made with honesty and sincerity — the vital ingredients for a story full of humanism. And in the film, the entire spectrum of family is represented — from children right up to the grandparents[3].

#3: Abang Adik (2023)

Just released in December last year, Abang Adik has already scored seven nominations at Taiwan’s upcoming Golden Horse Awards, including nominations for its director and actors’ performances[4].

Director Ong Lay Jin was nominated for Best New Director while actors Wu Kang Ren and Jack Tan were nominated for the Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor category. Other nominees include Tan Kim Wang for the Best New Performer category, Kartik Vijay for Best Cinematography, Elaine Ng for Best Makeup & Costume Design, and Ryota Katayama’s A Walk to Remember for Best Original Film Song. 

Source: ScreenDaily

I was expecting three nominations at most but seven was a big surprise. I’m thankful for the recognition given by the jury. – Ong Lay Jin, film director[4]

This is simply the latest in the locally-made film’s international winning streak.

The film, which tells the story of two grown-up orphans, brothers Abang and Adi and their fight for survival in the world as Malaysians without documentation, had already won a trophy at the New York Asian Film Festival, becoming the first Malaysian film to have won the festival’s Uncaged Award for Best Feature Film[5].

Winning the Best Feature Film Award means a win for our whole team, it’s not an individual honour. I also met many Malaysians living in New York so I felt very at home. – Ong Lay Jin, film director[5]

#4: Sepet (2004)

Yasmin Ahmad’s Sepet, named after the Malaysian word for ‘slit eye’, is a film about racial and ethnic tensions but an uplifting one nonetheless[6].

It tells the love story of an ethnic Chinese shop-boy, Ah Loong, and a Malay schoolgirl, Orked and the societal pressures the couple face during their journey[2]. Delving into the complexities of interracial romance, Sepet courageously explores the challenges that the young couple face due to cultural, religious, and social barriers. It addresses issues such as racial stereotypes, discrimination, and the clash between tradition and modernity[7].

Source: MalayMail

Sepet is a subtle study of the pressures society places on individuals[6]. It was met with local and international acclaim and won many awards, including one from the Tokyo International Film Festival, and one award from France’s Créteil International Women’s Film Festival[2].

#5: The Big Durian (2003)

The first Malaysian film to ever be screened at the Sundance Film Festival. Combining documentary with fiction, The Big Durian tells the true story of a Malaysian soldier named Prebet Adam, who ran amok with an M16 in Jalan Chow Kit, Kuala Lumpur on the night of 18th October 1987. Ambitious in its scope, it allowed its director Amir Muhammad to highlight ethnic, religious, and political divisions in modern Malaysia[6].

Source: IMDB

The documentary offers a multi-perspective exploration of the incident, featuring interviews with various individuals including artists, activists, politicians, and ordinary citizens. It delves into themes of corruption, power struggles, censorship, and the impact of political upheaval on people’s lives[7].

The Big Durian was screened in over 30 film festivals, including the Sundance, Hong Kong, and Vancouver International Film Festivals and received international acclaim[2].

Watch the full film here on Youtube.

#6: The Garden of Evening Mists (2019)

Source: The Sun

Based on Tan Twan Eng’s acclaimed novel of the same name, The Garden of Evening Mists  tells the heartbreaking story of a tortured survivor of a Japanese war camp who travels to Cameron Highlands to build a garden in memory of her sister. Taking an apprenticeship under a mysterious Japanese gardener, their feelings eventually grow in spite of her hatred towards the Japanese[8].

Co-produced by HBO Asia, Garden of Evening Mists has already picked up nine Golden Horse nominations (including for best film, director, screenplay and actress for Lee Sinje)[9].

The film switches between the Japanese-occupied Malaya during WWII, the post-war Communist insurgency years and independent Malaysia in 1980 and does not shy away from the atrocities committed during the Japanese occupation[9].

#7: Puteri Gunung Ledang (2004)

Also known as A Legendary Love in English, Puteri Gunung Ledang is Malaysia’s first big budget epic fantasy film. Directed by Saw Teong Hin it is based on the legendary Malay folklore of the same name, which tells the story of a mystical princess from Mount Ledang.

Source: The Star

The film takes place in  15th century Malacca,  telling the story of the forbidden love between the legendary warrior Hang Tuah and the Princess of Mount Ledang, who first tests his loyalty and devotion by presenting  him with a series of impossible tasks as conditions for their marriage[7].

Puteri Gunung Ledang combines elements of romance, fantasy, and historical drama, showcasing the rich cultural heritage of Malaysia. From the elaborate costumes and intricate set designs to the use of traditional music, all of these elements create a visually stunning and immersive cinematic experience[7].

The film received critical acclaim for its production values, cinematography, and performances (winning awards at the Asia Pacific Film Festival and at Singapore’s Asian Festival of First Films[2]) and was one of Malaysia’s highest grossing films of all time, showcasing the enduring nature of Malaysia’s folklore and folklore-inspired storytelling, while also highlighting the cultural heritage and traditions of our country[7].

#8: Hang Tuah (1956)

The oldest movie on our list and another retelling of the Hang Tuah legend. The film depicts the rise and fall of the legendary warrior, and was the first Malay film to be shot in colour![2]

Source: Mubi

Directed by Phani Majumdar and starring the legendary P. Ramlee in the lead role, Hang Tuah takes place during the Malacca Sultanate in the 15th century and follows the exploits of the legendary hero and his four close friends, known as the Five Warriors (Pendekar Lima). Together, they protect the kingdom and its ruler, Sultan Mansur Shah, from internal and external threats[7].

The film showcases Hang Tuah’s unwavering loyalty to his king, his skills in combat, and his deep sense of honour and justice. It also touches upon themes of friendship, duty, and the struggle between good and evil[7].

Celebrated for its engaging storytelling, vibrant visuals, and memorable performances, Hang Tuah was even nominated for the highly-coveted Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival, receiving international acclaim[2]. If it’s available for streaming, it’s definitely a film you should check out if you’re in the mood for a good history lesson!

#9: Pendatang(2023)

A short film directed by Ng Ken Jin and produced by Kuman Pictures, Pendatang is a dystopian thriller based on a radically racially segregated Malaysia, where different races are not allowed to interact and will be jailed for doing so. The story focuses on a Chinese family who discovers a young Malay girl hiding in their house, and is consequently forced to make a tough decision: do they keep the girl safe, or do they report her to the authorities? 

Source: IMDB

Pendatang seeks to tell a thrilling and entertaining Malaysian story on the dangers of racial politics honestly and independently…we believe the themes of the film will be able to spark conversations about the direction in which we are headed, as individuals and as members of a society and nation. – Pendatang on the crowdfunding platform, Indiegogo[10]

​The film is making a buzz for a few reasons: the film budget of RM300,000 is entirely crowd-funded, thereby allowing it to be free for all to watch, and it premiers on Youtube, which allows for a sidestep from the complex film censorship issues. Its exploration of the consequences of racial politics is also equally relevant, and resonates with many Malaysians. 

We aim to share one of many perspectives on the possible impact and danger of racial politics on the lives of ordinary people. This is a story of our collective fears and what can happen if we allow these fears to shape our lives. – Pendatang on Indigegogo [10]

#10: Gadoh(2009)

Gadoh, a 2009 independent film produced by Pusat Komas, tells the story of a group of rivalling teenagers that became friends through a theatre club in school. Gadoh deftly explores themes of racial segregation, discrimination as well as politics in the Malaysian education system. 

Source: IMDB

Race remains a great taboo. All too often, racial conflicts are swept under the carpet and stay unresolved.” – Brenda Danker, Director of Gadoh[11]

Director Brenda Danker wants this film to spark conversations on race narrative in Malaysia, and how it affects the lives of Malaysians. 

Gadoh is an expression of my view of our society. With this film, I aim to spark conversations among fellow Malaysians about our perceptions, our differences, and our assumptions of the other. I hope we can learn to be better as a society, to be inclusive and not to judge others, where we choose to see ourselves as human first above our race. – Brenda Danker[11]

While the film isn’t banned, it was not approved for public screening by the Malaysian government as there were concerns on its potentiality to disturb public peace.[12] Nevertheless, the film is a worthwhile watch, as it shines light on issues that do matter to Malaysians, and is prompts us to challenge the biases and stereotypes that we hold. 

Explore our sources:

  1. S. Khor. (2016). Road To Moscow 1980: The True Story Of Malaysia’s Football Team That Inspired ‘Ola Bola’. Says. Link.
  2. T. Thiagarajan. (2017). 14 Critically Acclaimed Malaysian Films Everyone Should Watch. World of Buzz. Link.
  3. H.A. Muthalib. (2014). The Journey: A message for all Malaysians. Astro Awani. Link.
  4. J.P. Tan. (2023). Local Film Abang Adik Scores Seven Nominations At Golden Horse Awards. The Rakyat Post. Link.
  5. S. Subki. (2023). Malaysian director Jin Ong’s ‘Abang Adik’ winning streak continues with fourth international win at US film festival. Malay Mail. Link.
  6. T. Heuzé. (2016). 10 Malaysian Films You Should Definitely Watch. Culture Trip. Link.
  7. M. Crawford. (n.d.). 10 Best Malaysian Movies: A Tribute To The Cinema Of Malaysia. Filmmaking Lifestyle. Link.
  8. L.Y. Jin. (2020). Check Out These 5 Malaysian Films That Made It To International Screens. Says. Link.
  9. E. Kerr. (2019). ‘The Garden of Evening Mists’: Film Review | Busan 2019. The Hollywood Reporter. Link.
  10. Indigogo(2023). Link
  11. Eksentrika. 10 Powerful Films By Malaysian Filmmakers That Are Sadly Censored. Link
  12. Malaysiakini.‘Gadoh’ Film Not Approved for Public Screening.  Link. 

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