The Big Durian Written and directed by Amir Muhammad
June 14, BAMcinématek
New Thai cinema? So 2002. As fest globe-trotters know, the Southeast Asian hot spot of the moment is Malaysia, home to a small, close-knit group of emerging filmmakers, foremost among them Amir Muhammad. A distinctive voice in Southeast Asian movies, this 32-year-old (with a law degree) is an essayist, activist, and sociologist who deploys whimsical humor and sharp analysis to hack away at the contradictions and willed amnesia endemic to his ethnically diverse (and divided) nation. His playful, probing docu-essay The Big Durian (2003), which receives its New York premiere as part of BAM's Voice poll series, revisits a 1987 shooting spree by a Malay soldier who ran amok in a predominantly Chinese area of Kuala Lumpuran incident that coincided with a spike in racial tensions and general paranoia. (Days later, the government detained a hundred or so people under the Internal Security Act, essentially a tool for silencing its critics.) Named for the thorny local fruit and unafraid to take on a variety of prickly Malaysian taboos, prejudices, and urban legends, The Big Durian ends up a sober critique of the country's "neo-feudal" politics (as one interviewee puts it) and an impertinent love letter to its people that doesn't let them off the hook for their apathy. BAM fills out the program with four of this prolific director's best shorts: Lost, an existential reverie prompted by a stolen identity card (and inspired by a Phillip Lopate essay); Friday, a not entirely reverent meditation on being a modern Muslim; Kamunting, an expedition to a prison for political detainees; and the lovely Pangyau, which considers racial and sexual difference through the fond memory of an intimate teenage friendship.