Local Malay film Sayang Disayang is Singapore's Oscar entry

Sayang Disayang, picked for its portrayal of rich local culture, will represent Singapore in Best Foreign Language Film category

Local Malay movies are having their turn in the sun after a decades-long break.

Wrestling comedy Banting (Malay for slam) is currently showing in cinemas and drama Sayang Disayang has been chosen as Singapore's entry to the Oscars' Best Foreign Language Film category. They are the first Malay- language feature films made since the 1970s.

Sayang Disayang (Lover Is Loved) is about the relationship between a crotchety widower Pak Harun (Malaysian actor Rahim Razali) and Murni

(local stage actress Aidli Mosbit), his live-in nurse from Aceh.

Its director and co-writer Sanif Olek, 44, tells Life!: "I never even thought that Oscars and Sayang Disayang could be in one sentence. It's unbelievable and it's an honour to be representing Singapore."

Other films previously selected include Anthony Chen's Ilo Ilo (2013) and Eric Khoo's animated work Tatsumi (2011). None was nominated by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science.

Singapore Film Commission director Joachim Ng says Sayang Disayang was chosen for its "strong storyline, portrayal of our rich local culture and tradition and strong performance by its actors".

He adds: "Sayang Disayang reflects the relationship between the elderly and their domestic caregivers, a story which would strike an emotional chord in audiences, no matter where they are from."

While the movie has yet to secure a commercial run, those interested can watch it for free next Thursday as part of photography and film-making outfit Objectifs' rooftop screenings on its premises. This is part of the film commission's Watch Local campaign, which promotes appreciation and support for home-grown works.

Sanif drew on a wide range of influences and inspiration for his debut feature. They include the Bollywood song-and-dance extravaganzas he used to watch as a child, P. Ramlee movies and food-themed films such as Lee Ang's Eat Drink Man Woman (1994) and Peter Greenaway's The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover (1989).

He put his own distinctive spin, though, on the various elements. For example, rather than over-the-top numbers, Murni simply breaks into song without music accompaniment when she sings in the kitchen. The film's title refers to the well-loved 1969 song written by Zubir Said.

Sambal goreng plays a central role in the film, a dish that Murni is always cooking, and he settled on the dish because of its universality. "I found out that you can go anywhere in the world and mention sambal goreng and people would know that it's a food from the Nusantara region."

It was a conscious decision by Sanif to make not just a local Malay-language film, but also a film of the South-east Asian Malay archipelago. The characters speak in Malay and Bahasa Indonesia.

He laments the fact that Malay cinema tends to be insular to the extent that an Indonesian audience might not be familiar with the Malaysian scene.

"I was looking at Sayang Disayang as a Malay Southeast-Asian-embracing film," he adds.

The television producer and director was among Ngee Ann Polytechnic's pioneer batch of diploma graduates in Film, Sound & Video in 1996. He later received his degree in media and communications from Murdoch University in Perth in 2002.

While he worked in TV and also made short films such as Lost Sole (2006), making a feature- length film turned out to be a different ball game because of the sheer difference in scale.

He says: "One of the reasons it took six years to make was because the learning curve, oh my god, just shot straight up."

He has been heartened by the response to the film as it has picked up awards such as Best Asian Film (Jury Prize) at the SalaMindanaw International Film Festival (2013) in the Philippines, as well as Best Musical at the Mexico International Film Festival 2014.

Sanif muses: "In the Malay community, there's always this talk of when and whether the golden age of Malay cinema could be revived. With Sayang Disayang and Banting, we could hopefully see the renaissance of Singaporean Malay-language cinema."

bchan@sph.com.sg