Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Namewee and Nasi Lemak 2.0

Rapper Wee Meng Chee, who is better known as Namewee, never expected to become a household name.

But controversy after controversy and the unexpected box-office success of his first movie “Nasi Lemak 2.0”, which the government refused to support, has just about sealed his stature as a celebrity.

Talking to FMT about himself and his movie, Wee, in not so many words, said his “anger” was an inspiration.

A newcomer to film-making, Wee said he needed RM2 million to produce his movie and finding the money and producing it was an “impossible” feat.

In 2010, he turned to the National Film Development Corporation (Finas) for a loan. But the government agency was of little help.

Wee was told that his Mandarin-based film did not have the minimum requirement of 60% Bahasa Malaysia dialogue in it.

In short, his script was deemed not Malaysian enough.

Turned away, Wee had to look to private investors, and found one who agreed to let him make the film at half the price.

“The average cost of a Malaysian film is between RM1.5 million and RM2.5 million.

“I had to work with under RM1 million.”

“We just had to shoot it,” he said, adding that the shoestring budget was only enough for 23 days of shooting.

“It was my first time as a director. I had to spend more time (on it), so I slept less.

“Everybody (on the set) had to sleep less, and almost everyone got sick.”

“We couldn’t re-shoot many times, so that’s why you could see many problems in my film,” he said.

Gamble that paid off

Filming was also round-the-clock, with much of his cast and crew agreeing to work at half-pay.

Some even offered their services for free. It was a gamble. But one that seems to have paid off.

On Sept 8, the star-studded “Nasi Lemak 2.0” opened to packed cinemas all over the country, garnering public support and rave reviews.

The reception to Wee’s film surprised even his manager, Fred Chong.

“The box office has been very good. We’re surprised. It’s better than what we expected,” he said.

“With Namewee’s work, either you love it or you absolutely hate it.

“But this time, 80% (of our audience) loved it. Very few said that it was the dumbest film they ever saw.”

Rise to fame

Wee’s rise to fame first came in 2007 through his “Negarakuku” piece – a rap number that criticised the government and elements of Malaysian society.

The song which was based on the national anthem was an instant hit.

Many in the country applauded the Muar native, who was at the time studying in Taiwan, for his candour and style.

Others wanted his head on a plate. They wanted the Sedition Act and court actions to be taken against him.

The Home Ministry issued a gag order, preventing mainstream newspapers from talking about him.

He returned to Malaysia the following year, with police subsequently grilling him. No further action was taken. By then, the damage was already done.

Outspoken critic

Wee had become a household name, and earned a reputation as an outspoken government critic.

“I never wanted to be a political singer,” Wee laughed.

“You see, whenever I read the newspaper, I skip politics. Many people say that I’m an anti-government and a controversial singer.

“I never said that. I think that is a name the media gave me.”

“(But) I don’t understand the system. If I see something I don’t like, I write it into my songs.

“This is where my inspiration comes from,” he said.

This drive, he said, spurred him to compose more hard-hitting pieces.

In October 2009, he released a video clip scolding Tenaga Nasional Bhd.

One year later, he made a music video condemning a Kulaijaya headmistress for her alleged racist remarks made during a school assembly.

More freedom of speech

Although he attributed his popularity to YouTube (where his works are released), Wee observed that Malaysia was getting better in terms of free speech.

“People were afraid of speaking up because during (former Prime Minister) Dr Mahathir’s (Mohamad) generation, there were too many prohibitions.”

“But what I can see today is that freedom of speech in Malaysia is improving.

“(It’s) very clear, very fast and the freedom of the Internet is very good.”

“If Malaysia doesn’t have freedom of speech, why is Ibrahim Ali still there?” he laughed.

Even so, Wee remains a punching bag for many of his critics, with some promising violence after disagreeing with his views.

In one instance, a blogger known only as RBF (Ruang Bicara Faisal) Online was incensed at Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak agreeing to meet with Wee this week.

“…anyone who wants to meet the PM has to be as evil as Namewee,” the blogger wrote, adding that a parang (machete) was to be used against Wee.

“I will use this parang to cut Namewee’s legs as soon as he comes out of meeting with the PM.”

In Ipoh, a demonstration was held calling for the boycott of Wee’s film.

The protesters pointed out that “Nasi Lemak 2.0” has a yellow background, apparently linking to the Bersih 2.0 (Coalition for Free and Fair Elections) protests.

‘Anger is more interesting’

These threats did not faze Wee. Instead, he found the threats amusing, saying that his work was misunderstood.

“I wrote the script two years before Bersih. The 2.0 means ‘new generation’,” he said.

“A plate of nasi lemak is created by different ethnicities. The curry rendang is Indian, sambal is Baba Nyonya, and the nasi is Malay.”

“But we localise the food, so that when you eat it, you’re not going to guess: ‘Where is this rice from?’ This is not important anymore.

“So my story is (about) combination and localisation,” he said.

But it is easy to see why Wee’s work is celebrated or reviled. His pieces are both confrontational and unapologetic.

This, he admitted, was one of the reasons why people tended to view him negatively.

“I use my way, (which is) a very geram (angry) rap. But if you watch all my videos, I have some love songs and sad or happy songs.”

“Namewee is an ordinary person. When he feels angry, he’s angry. When he feels sad, he’s sad.”

“But people love my angry parts, so you can only see the angry part. This is what I agree (with).

“Because anger is more interesting,” he laughed.

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