Theatre review: Tiger of Malaya's revisionist view of a WWII film balances comedic satire with historical heft

Theatre review: Tiger of Malaya's revisionist view of a WWII film balances comedic satire with historical heft

Rewind and rewrite

Text: Aravin Sandran

Image: Monospectrum Photography

Tiger of Malaya's exploration of racist depictions within historical narratives comes fittingly as Singapore gears up for its bicentennial celebrations in 2019

“What you cannot unmake, you have to remake.” It's a broad declaration on history, but it aptly describes the thinking behind Teater Ekamatra's latest production Tiger of Malaya. Written by Alfian Sa'at and directed by artistic director Mohd Fared Jainal, the play takes a comedic yet critical look at a Japanese propaganda film in 1943 that was based on the life story of Tani Yutaka, a patriotic Japanese agent who liberated the Malay natives from British imperialists and Chinese capitalists.

The play follows a local theatre group as they attempt to put on an adaption of this film. Yes, it's pretty meta. The audience follows their journey as they re-enact several scenes from the film with a mixed cast — Farez Najid, Siti Khalijah Zainal and Rei Poh from Singapore, and Rei Kitagawa and Yuya Tanaka from Japan. Farez and Siti replace the brown-faced Japanese actors in the original film. They grapple with a spectrum of problematic social issues that continue to resonate today: colour-washing (think the controversy surrounding Disney's unreleased film adaptation of Aladdin) to the primitive portrayal of brown bodies on film.

Appealingly earnest onstage presences, the gleeful cast prances about with their own individual cadence, particularly in the show’s slapstick sequences. Besides projections of historical images and the original film, the mostly unadorned stage directs all attention their way even when they are getting dressed offstage.

Grounded in language, Tiger of Malaya personifies Alfian's fresh wordsmithery and criticality. Dialogue is interspersed with Malay, English, Japanese or Mandarin, sometimes all in one scene. Historical references — anyone remembers the Manchurian incident? — are tossed into the rojak of multilingual chatter and dressed with a heavy drizzle of irreverence.
There are plenty of laugh-out-loud moments and the best two come courtesy of Rei and Siti: a pointed mockery of post-dramatic theatre, Rei imitates waves crashing upon the shore and coconut trees swaying in the sea breeze in almost childlike manner; Siti's ungainly stance as an old male cop is comedy gold when he gets pummeled to the ground by the British police for failing to snare the villain Chen Wen Ching. When the little Shizuko is shot at gunpoint by Wen Ching, however, a blanket of gravity descends momentarily before it's ripped off and the belly laughs resume again.

Race, language, World War II, the colonial gaze and fake news — Tiger of Malaya is a no-holds-barred history lesson too. As Singapore gears up for its bicentennial celebrations in 2019, Tiger of Malaya is a reminder that sometimes looking back with squinty side-eye might be the only way to move forward.

Tickets are selling fast, so head over to Sistic to get yours today.

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