No beauties, kung fu in 'Karaoke'

Malaysian film focuses on village life

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KUALA LUMPUR -- A Malaysian filmmaker whose first feature-length movie has been selected for the Festival de Cannes aims to prove that Asian cinema can appeal to international audiences without resorting to stereotypes.

Chris Chong's "Karaoke," which centers on village life, will be the second Malaysian film to screen at the festival, after 1995's "Kaki Bakar" ("The Arsonist").

"I think gradually people will get to know what Malaysian film is like, because it's very different from kung fu, martial arts films with beautiful Asian girls and that kind of erotic filmmaking," Chong, who was born in Sabah on Borneo Island, told Reuters.

His film's focus is villagers' way of life and the Malaysian palm oil industry. Bustling scenes of harvesting and processing during the day are contrasted against the flickering lights of the karaoke club where the workers spend their nights.

Betik, the film's central character, is a young Malaysian man who returns to his village from the city. With dreams of taking over the family karaoke business, he settles back into village life with his new love interest, Anisah.

But Betik soon finds that life isn't as simple as the scenes in karaoke videos and that home is not what it used to be.

The karaoke videos were custom-made for the film and written by Malaysian singer-songwriter Shanon Shah in order to keep them true to Malaysian karaoke culture, Chong said.

"I like using everyday elements in creating a more in-depth understanding of greater issues surrounding us. So why not use karaoke?" he said.

Chong, who has directed short films, found the inspiration for his first feature after a three-year break from filmmaking, while watching a karaoke video.

The lack of Malaysian representation on the international film scene is something Chong attributes to the fickle nature of festivals that follow global trends.

The gloomy world economic outlook might, however, provide support for homegrown independent titles.

"You can see in Bollywood and in Hollywood (that) because of the downturn in the economy the film industry has turned to its own filmmakers and has been met with great acclaim. I think in Malaysia we have to do the same thing," Chong said.