Situated astride Malaysian and global film culture, the late director Yasmin Ahmad presents a fresh model of postcolonial poetics. Her films gravitated toward interracial romance melodramas set in globalized social and cultural milieus, where she stages interethnic squabbles between speakers of different languages. First, using imperfect or absent subtitles, Ahmad steers attention away from dialogue’s linguistic meaning, toward the purely acoustic pleasures of dueling cultural phonemes or prosody—what language simply sounds like. The soundscape harbors an aesthetic that transcends the hybridity paradigm associated with postcolonial culture. When overlapped to the point of cacophony, the sounds emphasize the division between meaning and its absence. Ahmad’s second predilection, for highlighting characters who speak ethnically incongruent languages, also does not require audience comprehension. The sequences offer a cinematic experience that is thoroughly aural, spatially marginalized, and yet seductively immersive. French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy’s book Listening, and its concepts of “ecouter” and “resonance,” appear to best describe the effect created by Ahmad’s multilingual soundscapes in the feature films Rabun (2003), Sepet (2005), and Gubra (2006), as well as her work in commercial advertising. By creating moments and objects that “resonate,” Ahmad fashions a cinematic subjectivity that is informed by Malaysia’s position as a newly independent nation and full participant in the neoliberal economy. Unlike the anticolonial movements of Africa, Latin America, and South Asia, Malaysia’s project was not heavily influenced by Marxism. Its postcolonial culture is thus distinct, as captured vividly in Ahmad’s film style. This essay links her departure from traditional hybridity tropes with the nation’s postcolonialglobal duality. Through Nancy’s Sense of the World and Creation of the World or Globalization, the author contends that the films evoke a phenomenology that speaks to Malaysia’s own geopolitical “sense of the world.”
Postcolonial Cacophonies:Yasmin Ahmad’s Sense of the World
Gerald Sim is associate professor of film and media studies at Florida Atlantic University, and the author of The Subject of Film and Race: Retheorizing Politics, Ideology, and Cinema (2014). He was the Lee Kong Chian NUS- Stanford Distinguished Fellow on Contemporary Southeast Asia in 2016 – 17.