STOP10 Sep 2017: 'Sayang Disayang' (on Blu-Ray) by Sanif Olek

Sayang Disayang, having traveled on its festival route since 2013 at the Salamindanaw Asian Film Festival, including representing Singapore in its Oscar bid in 2015, is now finally on Blu-ray. This Zubir Said musically infused film about Malay food and foreign domestic help took its time stewing away, having spent several years in production.

But with all good dishes, patience in working with all the ingredients was key. We caught up with the director, Sanif Olek on his thoughts now about his film.

Get your own copy here.


Sayang Disayang hearkens back to the golden age of Singapore cinema where the Malay-language films produced by Cathay Keris and Shaw Brothers were the bread and butter. Where do you see the film’s position among this proud legacy? 

Sayang Disayang was conceptualised as a homage to many of the iconic Malay films that were produced during that era. Like many others, I grew up watching many of these films. These films document much of the social bubble of the Malays then. Much of the dialogue was witty. They were sharp, brash and in some cases, politically-incorrect. Yet in some scenes, the screenplay used double-entendres and puns that further highlight the Malays’ fondness with non-confrontational expressions. The skits were memorable and the songs became evergreens.

Furthermore, much of the narrative style and structure of these films were influenced by the musical films of Bollywood, especially in the use of songs with lyrics that reflects the emotional arc of the respective scenes.

With regards to Sayang Disayang, even though the film was my homage to the classic Malay-language films from Cathay Keris and Shaw, I do not wish to replicate how these films were done. Cultures evolve, thus Sayang Disayang reflects this evolution to reflect the contemporary Singaporean Malays, and to some extent how Singaporeans situate itself culturally with its neighbours. 

One needs to remind ourselves that the Malay-language films produced by Cathay Keris and Shaw were done when Singapore and Malaysia were under Malaya. Singapore in 2017 is a different Singapore pre-1965. 

Additionally, with the release of Boo Junfeng’s Apprentice (2016) which is similarly albeit not entirely in the Malay language, do you see the local industry headed towards a revival of this tradition?

Perhaps many tend to overlook that Singapore is located in the middle of the Nusantara, ie the Malay Archipelago in Southeast Asia. Essentially, the Nusantara stretches from southern Philippines in the west, Indonesian island of Sumatra in the east, southern Thailand in the north and New Guinea in the south. Each of these regions itself is diverse with its own heritage and culture. With these, the Malay-language is further varied with hybrids of sounds, pathos and nuances that reflects the respective regions these languages are spoken.

Thus it will be rather unwise to overlook the rich cultural tradition that the Nusantara has to offer.  

How was your experience bringing this film around the world and more critically, around the region, in light of your expressed desire to not only make a local Malay-language film but one for the entire South-east Asian Malay archipelago?

The experience has been enriching. Told from the point of view from Singapore, Sayang Disayang was able to raise many questions about how a Singaporean see the Nusantara. I think that international audiences, who may be more familiar with Indonesia and Malaysia, studied further about what is unique about Singaporeans. 

Although many may be familiar with multicultural Singapore, many may be myopic to assume that the Malays in Singapore is similar to the Malays in Malaysia and Indonesians. On the other side of the spectrum, many non-Singaporeans in the Nusantara began to perhaps appreciate the uniqueness of the Singapore Malays. Nevertheless, despite the differences, the Malays in Singapore is “serumpun” (of the same strain) with the rest of the Malays in the region.

Bathed and luxuriated in Malay song and gastronomy, Sayang Disayang is a film that wears its cultural pride boldly front and centre with adroit success. During the film’s conception however, did you ever feel that the film had a responsibility to act as a cultural vanguard or a representation of Malay culture, for the benefit of international programmers or viewers? A pressure to stand in and represent the culture, instead of simply existing, as it were.

I started conceptualising Sayang Disayang somewhere in 2001 as a short film. I was doing research into food films from around the world. I realised there was not a single film about food from the Malay archipelago. For example, there were films like Eat Drink Man Woman (Taiwan), Babette’s Feast (Denmark), The Cook The Thief His Wife & Her Lover (British-French) and then Woman On Top (Brazil). 

Thus I took it upon myself to make one – a film about the quintessential Nusantara dish, the Sambal Goreng. Most interestingly, much of the Malay dishes do not adhere to quantifiable ingredients. Much of them is based on the Malay phrase, “air tangan”, ie the essence of the hand. Thus there are a thousand and one ways to cook the Sambal Goreng. A few years later, the short film evolved to become a feature film.

Before Sayang Disayang, there was my first short film Lost Sole (2005). I was attending many film events in Singapore. I was frustrated that in many of these events, it was very rare to the point of non-existent, to see local Malay films being programmed. Thus I took it upon myself to make one, taking advantage of my experience in television dramas. Lost Sole was produced 10 years after I graduated from film school at Ngee Ann Polytechnic in 1996.

I do not set out to make films as a vanguard of contemporary Malay films in Singapore. Neither it be the voice of Singapore Malays. Another part of why I find my niche in making Singapore films seen from the contemporary Malay perspective is a form of catharsis, an outlet to express my thoughts about things that concern my community that I cannot express explicitly in my other professional capacity as a commercial television producer and director.

“Responsibilty” is a huge word. Like many filmmakers, I make films on subjects and pertinent issues that I am emotionally engaged with. I make films with universal values. I am grateful that the things I care about represented in my films resonate with audiences.

Releasing in 2017, 4 years on from the initial release of the film, the DVD will be received by a world that is very different, culturally and politically, from what it was 4 years ago. What changes do you foresee in the reception for the film in this, if I can say so myself, increasingly grim and sobering reality, given especially since the film carries a dreamy and nostalgic charm.

Sayang Disayang is about the fractured relationship between Murni, a housekeeper from Indonesia, and Harun, her Singaporean, wheelchair-bound elderly boss. Murni loves to sing while cooking, while Harun complains much about her cooking. Harun lives in his big house all by himself, left behind by his son, Roslan.

In my opinion, music and food are timeless. Caring for the elderly, ie filial piety in Asian families is timeless. However, the issue of the elderly in the Asian household being looked after by someone other than the immediate family is somewhat a contemporary phenomena. In fact, this issue is something that Asia is finding resonance to communities in the West. 

It has been 17 years since the film was conceptualised in 2001. Other than political upheavals in Asia, the topics mentioned in the Sayang Disayang ie music, food and filial piety have not diverged much.

To make a feature film is a task Herculean on its own, to take a film from birth all the way to a home release must surely be Sisyphean. Can you walk us through your journey of bringing and securing a home release for the film?

The feature screenplay for Sayang Disayang was completed in 2006. However, it was set back due to lack of funding. A couple of effort were done to crowd source. There was an appeal for private funding but these fell through nearing the production date. There were efforts by the local Malay music fraternity who organised a fundraising day-concert called Konsert Ramuan. Although this concert was successful in getting the plight of the film’s production to the masses, the funds collected were insufficient.

Nevertheless, the film was fortunate to have the support of the community, including the filming production and artistes communities. Sayang Disayang has a legit story to tell. It was filmed in two phases in 2007. The film was assembled in 2013 from the footages that filmed. I was grateful that I had much training in television, because the sensibilities I gained from television contributed much of the assembly process, especially in telling a story differently without compromising the essence of the original concept.

It took another 4 years before the bluray is released. The honest truth is that I was too busy with my television productions to oversee the new colour-grading (among others) that I had intended for the bluray format release.

Now that Sayang Disayang has a stable home in the DVD release, what’s next on the horizon for you?

I see myself making more Singapore films from the contemporary Malay perspective in the long term. Like many filmmakers in Singapore, I feel I tell the story better with a language that I am familiar with. However I will not discount any opportunity to accept a big-budget offer to direct a film with commercial sensibilities with topics that I resonate with. 

In April 2017 my film, The Manifest, part of anthology of film for the MCI-produced Project Lapis Sagu was released. The Manifest was a total departure from the typical films that I have done. Until more of such offers comes along, I do not wish to replicate the work that I have done on television. 

Commercial television has been very kind to me with diverse, creative opportunities. I am thankful with the multiple industry awards I received for my work in television since 1996.

Interview by Koh Zhi Hao

For the full list of September 2017's 10 films under STOP10, click here.
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