Monday, May 13, 2013


Tim Burton describes a scene to Mia Wasikowska who plays Alice

Ever since I saw Mars Attacks  I've been partial to Tim Burton's distinctive approach to filmmaking. As far as I'm concerned, his most magnificent effort to date is Big Fish  (starring Albert Finney, Ewan McGregor, Helena Bonham Carter and Jessica Lange), released in 2003. That's a movie hard to top, the wizardly way Burton mixed magical realism with sheer emotional punch, bringing out some exquisite performances from his cast.

A few days ago I got hold of a DVD of Tim Burton's latest project - a new spin on Alice in Wonderland with some of his favorite character actors (Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Anne Hathaway, Christopher Lee) and featuring a fresh and luminous Aussie face named Mia Wasikowska as Alice.

Most of us grew up watching Walt Disney's 1951 animated version of Alice in Wonderland  (I was a year old when it first came out) - so it formed the basis of (apart from John Tenniel's delightful illustrations) our visual reference for the unforgettable characters that popped up from the fertile mind of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (left) - better known by his nom de plume, Lewis Carroll - as he spun a wonderfully anarchic but mathematically coherent yarn to amuse his young muse, Alice Liddell.

Walt Disney studios contracted Tim Burton to direct a 21st century digitally sexed-up version of Alice in Wonderland sometime in 2007. It's interesting to hear what Burton has to say about his approach to remaking this greatly beloved classic: "It was always a girl wandering around from one crazy character to another, and I never really felt any real emotional connection." His goal with the new movie was to give the story "some framework of emotional grounding" and "to try and make Alice feel more like a story as opposed to a series of events." Burton focused on the Jabberwocky poem as part of his structure. [Source: Wikipedia]

I found Tim Burton's Alice enthralling - though hardly definitive. Indeed I view it as a cogent metaphor for the dysfunctional and absurd political reality we live in.

Under the Red Queen's demented and tyrannical rule, Wonderland becomes Underland - a subterranean dream/nightmare with surreal overtones, where the Jubjub Bird and the Frumious Bandersnatch and the Burbling Jabberwock serve as the Red Queen's law enforcement agencies. Meanwhile a riot squad of playing cards stands ready to quell rebellion with the Underlandish equivalent of tear gas and water cannons - and bloodhounds are blackmailed into the Knave of Hearts's secret service.

In Burton's movie, the helpful bloodhound is named Bayard - but in Malaysia he might as well be called Balasubramaniam.

It's fun trying to match each character in Alice with their symbolic equivalents in Malaysian politics. The Knave represents all the power-craving sleazebags who get off on the vicarious power and privilege of pretending to serve Evil (when, ultimately, all they care to serve is their own inflamed egos).

In the book and original Walt Disney animated film, the King of Hearts (left) is portrayed as fairly easygoing but totally henpecked by his irascible Queen. I thought the pink-lipped poltroon named Najib Razak would fit the role quite nicely - but, alas, in Tim Burton's version the King of Hearts has been despatched (actually, decapitated on the Red Queen's orders when she suspects he has the hots for her younger sister, the White Queen).

No prizes for matching the Red Queen with a notorious character in Malaysian politics - even though the big hair and big head are the only clues you get. Well, okay, she'd rather be feared than loved... having failed miserably at popularity contests.

The Mad Hatter (adeptly played by Johnny Depp) is a bit harder to match, as he is quite a protean character and cannot really be pinned down.

Part fool, part sage, part shaman, part showman, part salesman, part magician, part politician - the Hatter represents everyone who dreams of overthrowing oppressive rule and tyranny. The Mad Hatter is the voice of the artist-poet-philosopher who embodies our collective dream of freedom and joy and whose inspiring performance of the head-spinning, knee-wobbling Futterwacken dance signifies that all is well in Underland as it is in Heaven - and hopefully on Earth too.

In other words, the Mad Hatter is all of us - bloggers, blog readers, regular commenters on Malaysiakini, candlelight vigilers, anti-ISA campaigners, human rights activists, civil society movers and shakers, former political detainees, wearers of Bersih T-shirts, rabble rousers, impassioned changers of punctured tubes and replacers of blown bulbs... and if there is one person I can name who already plays the role of the Mad Hatter - and does so with flamboyant relish - it has to be Hishamuddin Rais.

The Jabberwock (given voice by Christopher Lee) is depicted as a scary manifestation of primordial evil - a ruthless and indomitable foe that can only be slain by the Vorpal Sword. You could say this nightmarish creature symbolizes a primeval will to wield power over others, to subjugate and dominate through fear and terror. It is a monster kept as a pet by the narcissistic Red Queen who rules Underland with whimsical cruelty and surrounds herself with hypocrites, sycophants and parasites.

To me the Jabberwock represents the mindless brute force of jingoistic demagoguery - the sort of chest-thumping bigotry and provincialism characteristic of so many Umno warlords who have risen to power by fanning the xenophobic flames of racial and religious fanaticism. "Beware the Jabberwock!" is constantly invoked by political shit-stirrers like Ibrahim Ali, Ahmad Ismail, Ezam Mohd Nor, Ali Rustam, Nasir Safar, and Mahathir Mohamad. In effect, Malaysia's version of the Jabberwock is called the Specter of May 13.

It was the bloody beast unleashed shortly after the general election of May 1969 and kept penned up and well-fed by each succeeding Umno regime as a warning to anyone audacious enough to even question Ketuanan Melayu  (Malay Supremacy) - or the necessity of maintaining nine royal households in obscene luxury.

Incredibly, Alice succeeds in lopping off the Jabberwock's head with the Vorpal Sword she retrieves from the lair of the Frumious Bandersnatch (who succumbs to Alice's charms and transforms into an oversized pit bull on which she rides into battle against the Jabberwock).

I take this as an indication that the Royal Malaysian Police may yet be redeemable and restored to proper functioning once a bunch of oversized dickheads roll. Indeed, we the people might even discover that a large majority of the police force is only too happy to help us overthrow the absolutely rotten Umno/BN regime so they can regain their professional pride as police officers and keepers of the law.

As some film critics point out, Mia Wasikowska plays Alice as a mythic heroine in her rite of passage who faces challenges, overcomes obstacles, and emerges triumphant and victorious as a mature woman ready to step out into a larger world. Other reviewers have bemoaned the political incorrectness of Alice Kingsleigh's decision to embark on an entrepreneurial career in China (this was around the period when British business interests introduced opium to the Chinese peasantry to weaken them, before attempting to colonize the country; in the end they settled for a lucrative 99-year lease on Hong Kong).

Yet we have no idea what further adventures may have befallen Alice Kingsleigh as a young woman. Perhaps she bumped into a dashing bloke during a brief stopover in Singapore and ended up as a colonial officer's wife in Selangor; or she might have changed her mind about China and headed to Australia instead, settling in the Northern Territory as the mistress of an aboriginal chief and having a small town, Alice Springs, named in her honor.

Who do I see as Alice in the Malaysian political context? Does she represent a new generation of empowered voters, awakened from political apathy? Is Alice the voice of an assertive educated middle class that chased a white rabbit down an optic-fiber wormhole and gained mind-expanding access to hitherto suppressed information?

For sure Alice is all of this - but I would like to link Alice with a political icon who comes close to being a mythic heroine in real life - Nurul Izzah, daughter of Wan Azizah and Anwar Ibrahim. At 18 Izzah found herself up to her arched eyebrows in political intrigue when prime minister Mahathir arrested her father (the deputy PM) under the jubjubian ISA, accused him of sodomy, and tried to finish him off with a 15-year jail sentence. His daughter sprouted wings and championed her father's cause in the International Court of Public Opinion. At 27 Izzah won an important parliamentary seat on her very first attempt and now serves as the clear, intelligent, compassionate voice of Malaysia's promising future.

Few believed her father would survive this cruel and wretched political exile. However, Anwar was released after 6 years and returned to the political fray with a vengeance, leading a loose coalition of opposition parties to a stunning electoral victory on 8 March 2008 - which should have won them control of the federal government instead of just five states - were it not for massive gerrymandering, last-minute postal votes, and the habitual support of less well-informed voters in Sabah and Sarawak.

Alice Kingsleigh, we learn at the start of Burton's film, is a daughter after her father's heart. As she faces the fearsome Jabberwock alone, she recalls that her father, Charles Kingsleigh, was a visionary who made a habit of believing as many as six impossible things before breakfast. Listing the impossible things she had encountered since her arrival in Underland, Alice arrives at the sixth - "I believe I'm going to slay the Jabberwock!" - whereupon it actually happens.

The Jabberwock's hideous head tumbles down the steps and with the monster's death, the Red Queen loses control of Underland. The White Queen regains power and banishes her wicked sister to the Outlands (because her vows do not permit her to deliberately deprive anyone of life). The Mad Hatter performs his magical Futterwacken dance, initiating the restoration of joy and freedom throughout Underland - and invites Alice to stay on, but she is resolute about returning to her own world where she has unfinished business to attend to - like saying no to an upper-class twit who wishes to marry her.

Tim Burton's White Queen (enchantingly played by Anne Hathaway) is benign, eccentric and greatly beloved. With a touch of black lipstick and some face powder, we could turn Wan Azizah into a Malaysian White Queen.

Tweedledum and Tweedledee (superbly portrayed by Matt Lucas) are truly a classic pair and serve as a symbol for so many apparently dichotomous situations. For me they represent the cacophony of political pundits on both sides of the left-right divide who serve mainly as comic relief.

Nivens McTwisp, the White Rabbit who leads Alice down the rabbit-hole to Underland, reminds me of our civil service: he keeps an eye on the passage of time and performs bureaucratic service to whomsoever happens to be in power.

The Cheshire Cat and Absolem (the hookah-smoking caterpillar) represent the two most prominent aspects of Raja Petra Kamarudin (RPK) - a Houdini-like evaporizer who eludes capture and categorization with ease, as well as a pontificating pundit of hardnosed political gossip. [At the time of writing RPK was still revered as a political blogger and a potent catalyst for change; alas, the Red Queen's poison got to him and he has in recent years transformed into his own antithesis.]

Both play a very important role in the unfolding of the plot. The Mad Hatter is saved from the executioner's ax by the timely intervention of the Cheshire Cat; and Alice is forced to look within herself to find her true destiny whenever she confronts Absolem.

Her last encounter with Absolem the caterpillar occurs just before he metamorphoses into a pupa; but she recognizes him instantly when he alights momentarily on her in his glorious butterfly form.

Taking a cue from Charles Kingsleigh, Alice's visionary father, let's believe in six impossible things before breakfast - and transform our beloved Bolehland into a veritable Wonderland for all.


[First published 8 July 2010]