There's still time to catch The Last Communist by Malaysian director Amir Muhammad at the PictureHouse - it shows until Tuesday. A 90min documentary based loosely on the life of Malayan communist leader Chin Peng, the film traces the route Chin Peng took from birth (Perak, Malaysia) to exile (Thailand), highlighting in broad strokes the key moments in Chin Peng's journey.
But if you wanted to know more about the man, it is better that you read his autobiography Alias Chin Peng: My Side of History. Because the film's true subjects are the Malaysians instead who continue to live in the towns that Chin Peng left - be it the tin mining, rubber tapping, pomelo-growing town of Ipoh or the "Peace Village" in Thailand where the exiled Malayan communists continue to reside. In candid interviews and surprisingly effective musical interludes (great lyrics, funny in their literal-ness), Amir Muhammad tells the story of Malaysia's small towns and their economic realities.
The film begins with an interview with an Indian young man in Chin Peng's birthplace. All the while wearing a white shirt and a bow tie, we learn that the "business" he runs is just a roadside ice-kacang stall. But "I am satisfied", he declares, smilingly. This town, the home of his parents, now provides for his modest life. Then there is an elderly Malay man who recalls how, when he was 14, was "seduced" by a beautiful female guerilla communist. But he betrays his uncle and cousin in the end to the British police and receives RM1000 for participating in luring them out from the jungles. Sex and money - these promises have never changed and are independent of political ideology. There are also a series of moving interviews with the ex-guerillas who now live in the Thai "Peace Village", denied of a return to Malaysia in 1989 after the Cold War draws to a close.
There is humour abundant in this film. In fact, humour is this film's strength. It teases and diffuses tensions and whatever political sensitivities, but it also satirizes. It poses the grand historical struggles which communism dictates against the small but no less significant realities of these Malaysians' lives. And it is precisely communism's burying of the personal and the individual that is its achilles heel.
Chin Peng, himself, is ironically buried by the communism he fights for. He never appears in this film. Not even his image, a photograph. In fact, I don't think his name was ever mentioned by any of the interviewees. His absence denies his personal story, replaces it with the collective stories of his fellow-countrymen and comrades.
I wonder about Chia Thye Poh, who was released from decades of detention by Singapore's Internal Security Dept in 1989 to live on the island Sentosa. Where is he now? What of the other Singaporeans who have had associated with the Communist Party at some stage in their lives?
I've just finished reading this book - an enjoyable read, perfect for the long weekend. It made me think of my own very brief experience of communism - well, kind of.
It was my summer vacation in 1995, so together with a friend from university, we decided to backpack around Europe for a month. No itinerary, a lean budget, no prior bookings, and no expectations.
When our train arrived in Warsaw, a man approached us with a photo album. His mother lives alone. She has a spare room in her apartment. There's hot water and 2 beds, US$10 a night. We didn't have anywhere to stay, so both us Asian girls got into his Lada and he drove us to an old dreary grey block (structurally pretty much like our HDB flats!). After our first night there, his mother who spoke about 5 words of English, cornered us and demanded an extra US$5 because we had used the hot water. With her limited English, she nonetheless communicated all this -
Ever since Poland went capitalist, life has been tough. She has to earn her bread. The price of everything has gone up, and she can now only afford the bare minimum. Damn capitalism. She would have communism anytime. Life was good under the communists. So please give her her well-deserved US$5. Take pity on an old lady, denied of a peaceful retirement by those capitalists.
I was about to relent, but my friend (a tough Malaysian just a couple of inches taller than me) stood her ground and repeated several firm "no"s - US$10 was what her son had agreed, with hot water. The old Polish woman beat her chest, performed a little drama, but of course she had known this all along - these capitalists, whatever shade their skin, they were heartless. :>