The success of Geran, a 2019 Malaysian martial arts movie, should be an opening for action films from Southeast Asia, says film director Areel Abu Bakar. The award-winning, albeit first-time director was interviewed Friday, April 9 via Zoom from Malaysia along with one of the film’s actors, Megat Sharizal.
The late-evening discussion was sponsored by Columbia University’s Asian Pacific American Heritage Month organization and co-moderated by students from the university, which is based in New York City. Malaysia is 12 hours ahead of NYC — so it was already Saturday morning for the director, actor, translator, and what seemed to be a live audience there.
Called Silat Warriors: Deed of Death for the international film market, the movie premiered virtually for American audiences in 2020 at the 19th New York Asian Film Festival, where it won the Daniel A. Craft Award for Excellence in Action Cinema.
Director Abu Bakar, who spoke courtesy of the translator, said he was initially derided for deciding on a martial arts film. Most Malaysian films tend to be romances or family dramas, which are less expensive to make. Also serving as the movie’s cinematographer, Abu Bakar had a lot riding on this endeavor. He cast many first-time actors, 90 percent of whom are practicing martial artists who were trained in silat. But his risk seems to have paid off. He recounted the warm reception to the film in Malaysia itself, with citizens coming to theaters wearing more traditional Malaysian garb — and remembering their silat heritage.
Silat is the traditional martial art of Southeast Asia, but is often overshadowed by powerhouse — and internationally practiced — sports like Japanese karate, Chinese kung fu, or Korean taekwondo. This same tendency to overlook silat is mirrored in Southeast Asian film, decried both Abu Bakar and Sharizal.
Abu Bakar’s love for his heritage was part of the creation of the film, he explained. Love of family and respecting tradition are at the heart of the film’s theme, although it’s not a refusal of anything modern. When asked about advice he would give to young Southeast Asians, whether at home or abroad, Abu Bakar said to “always take your heritage with you.” Change is inevitable, but remembering the history of one’s heritage and traditions keep people “humanized.” It’s not about blending in 100%, he said. It’s about staying strong in your identity.
The theme of Southeast Asian identity was the ribbon that ran through the entire evening, perhaps being brought into light most clearly by Sharizal, who remarked on the success of Raya and the Last Dragon, the 2021 Disney animated film which centers on a fictional and fantastical Southeast Asian female warrior who is searching for the titular beast. Sharizal pointed out that while the majority of voice actors were indeed Asian (“At least they didn’t white wash it”), the majority of the actors who were cast were those of East Asian heritage, rather than Southeast. He opined that the lack of international focus on Southeast Asian arts may have led to filmmakers not even knowing they could have cast the film more accurately. The star power of well-known actors with Asian heritage like Awkwafina, Daniel Dae Kim, and Sandra Oh may have been another factor in casting the film, rather than actors unknown to Western movie makers. Kelly Marie Tran, who voices Raya, is the lone main actor of Southeast Asian heritage.
Another interesting point made by both Abu Bakar and Sharizal was that of the film’s character Fatimah, played by Feiyna Tajudin. Tajudin, also an accomplished martial artist, made her film debut in Silat Warriors: Deed of Death. Her portrayal of a daughter helping to defend her family’s heritage and land should also speak volumes about women in Southeast Asian cinema, Abu Bakar said. Women in media tend to be seen as weak or simply homemakers in the kitchen. The character of Fatimah, much like so many real Malaysian women, is a real woman and more representative of women in the country.
Silat Warriors: Deed of Death will debut on the martial arts streaming service Hi-YAH! on June 4, and will be released via Digital, Blu-ray™ and DVD July 6 from Well Go USA Entertainment.