This is a hybrid documentary, not because it combines fact and fiction, but because it combines testimony with song. Chin Peng (real name: Ong Boon Hua) was born in 1924 and is the last leader of the banned Communist Party of Malaya. He now lives in Thailand because the Malaysian government does not allow him to return, despite his repeated attempts to go through the courts.
The Communist Party of Malaya was set up in 1930 (in a ceremony attended by Ho Chi Minh) and recruited from the working class (mainly ethnic Chinese) exploited by colonial British economic interests. The CPM played an active role in the anti-Japanese resistance movement during World War Two, and cooperated with the British. But once the Japanese surrendered, the communists wanted to take over the country for themselves. This is when they and the British became enemies once again. 1948-60 is the era known as the Emergency, the longest and bloodiest undeclared war in Commonwealth history. Driven to operate from secret jungle hideouts, the communists carried out several attacks against British economic and security targets. While still in his 20s, Chin Peng became the most wanted man in the British empire.
The British curtailed the communist influence by keeping the public in heavily-guarded, racially segregated villages, so that the people could no longer supply food and medicine to the guerillas. The propaganda war was stepped up too. Many of the documentaries of that era (made by the propaganda arm of the British Army in Malaya) featured songs to keep the target audience entertained. “The Last Communist” pays ironic tribute to this root of Malaysian documentary by also inserting specially-composed songs.
After Malaya achieved independence in 1957, the new government kept to the British model of governance and priorities. In the Cold War, Malaysia was firmly allied with the West, and Communism became the ultimate bogey right up to the 1980s. No positive mention of the communists’ role in history would ever be allowed.
“The Last Communist” uses this historical data as backdrop, but is more interested in seeing how the country has changed (or not) from the time of Chin Peng’s youth to now. The director and his crew travel to the towns Chin Peng lived in from birth to national independence. Most of these towns are still not very developed as the modern highways bypass them.
Interviews with various people in these towns are sought. They will talk about their jobs and their beliefs in various languages, reflecting the multilingual and polymorphous reality of contemporary Malaysia. Some of these have a direct connection to some aspect of Chin Peng’s life. (For example, a bicycle seller, after we find out Chin Peng’s family was in the bicycle trade). In other instances, the interviews are meant to form a telling view of how present-day Malaysians view themselves in the economic, social and political order.
The longest sequence takes place in Betong, Thailand, home of many exiled members of the Communist Party of Malaya. They too will take about their jobs and beliefs, and the audience is meant to reflect on how similar or different they are from the Malaysians we had met earlier. For starters, they too enjoy singing.
Of course I’d heard of communists when I was growing up; they were the repository of all that was mad, bad and dangerous to know. My interest was piqued to do something on Chin Peng when his memoirs “My Side of History” came out in 2003. It was also the logical continuation of my two previous documentaries, “The Big Durian” (2003) which was about the prickly issue of Malaysian politics, and “The Year of Living Vicariously” (2005), which featured Indonesians talking about, inter alia, the communist era in the 1960s.
The question asked most before I made it was “Why Chin Peng?” to which the answer would be “Why not?” The question I will be asked most when it’s finished will be, I suspect, “Why is Chin Peng not in it?” This will be more difficult to answer. Chin Peng’s absence makes him an active void, furthers the enigma. Besides, I’ve never liked interviewing politicians. If I were to sum up this documentary in one word, it is about landscape. If I were to sum it up in two words, it is about contested terrains.
Amir Muhammad. Born 5 December 1972 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
A writer and independent filmmaker based in Kuala Lumpur. He has been writing for the Malaysian print media since the age of 14. In 2000 he wrote and directed Malaysia’s first DV feature, and his works have been featured in many international film festivals including Sundance and Berlin. He has also helped produce several other Malaysian DV movies. Up next is a co-directed horror film “Susuk.”
- LIPS TO LIPS (2000) (fiction)
- 6HORTS (2002) (shorts)
- THE BIG DURIAN (2003) (semi-documentary)
- TOKYO MAGIC HOUR (2005) (experimental)
- THE YEAR OF LIVING VICARIOUSLY (2005) (documentary)
- THE LAST COMMUNIST (2006) (documentary)
- SUSUK (2006) (fiction) (co-director)