Review on University of Hawaii campus paper Ka Leo O Hawaii during The Big Durian's screening run at the 2003 Hawaii International Film Festival. Link to review on Ka Leo website here.

'The BIG Durian' mucks up history

By Christopher Johns
Ka Leo Columnist
October 30, 2003

There are only two Malay words prominent in English, the first is "orangutan." The second Malay word is "amok": it, too, refers to something uniquely Malaysian.

In Malaysia, when a man builds up too much stress and tension, it is sometimes released in a violent rampage. He runs amok until he releases all of the bitter energy built up inside of him.

In "The BIG Durian" writer and director Amir Muhammad uses the 1987 amok of Private Prebet Adam to examine contemporary Malaysian politics. On Oct. 18, 1987, Pvt. Adam ran amok with an M16 through the prominently Chinese neighborhood of Kuala Lumpur's Chow Kit. Adam's Malay background, combined with the contemporary political climate, created a fearful atmosphere.

Adam's actions created much speculation and rumor in the public's attempt to comprehend them. Muhammad uses this idea of rumor as an element of historical memory, organizing the film's narrative structure around it. Muhammad mixes actual interviews of people recollecting the event with scripted interviews. This free mixture of "fact" and "fiction" captures the atmosphere of uncertainty that surround Adam's amok.

"The BIG Durian" is a documentary that attempts to not only deconstruct a potentially explosive event in Malaysian contemporary history, but also addresses the very notion of what history is comprised of. What is history? What is memory? Is there a "Truth" floating out in the ether, awaiting discovery, or is it already tainted (or possibly even fabricated)? These are questions that many scholars are facing as our level of knowledge grows daily and our investigative methods often reveal "troublesome" information. In the struggle to uncover history, it is equally important to consider the construction of an event as well as the actual event itself.

In "The BIG Durian" Muhammad accomplishes what many scholars find themselves struggling with in contemporary academia.

It is almost impossible for someone unfamiliar with Malaysian pop culture, political activism, or history to separate out scenes that Muhammad constructed from the "legitimate" interviews. The Web site,, is a good source to help the viewer distinguish between the two. However, my recommendation is to view the film twice, once before going to the Web site and then again afterwards. This is the best way to fully appreciate the sheer artistry of Muhammad's treatment of history and memory. One does not need to know anything about Malaysian history in order to understand "The BIG Durian." Muhammad provides sufficient background information varying between interviews conducted sometime in 2002, and historical accounts of 1957, 1969, and 1987. The big question that Muhammad asks in "The BIG Durian" is not why Adam ran amok, but rather why his actions caused such a response.

In response to his amok, tour companies halted all tours, students did not show up for school, teachers contemplated whether or not to show up, and people hoarded food in preparation for an intense period or race rioting between the Malay and Chinese.

Reveling in its ambivalence "The BIG Durian" introduces the viewer to this uncertainty right from the start. Muhammad uses an establishing shot to show Kuala Lumpur's two towers. He uses arrows to show tower two and then tower one. Afterward, he promptly tells us that it might be the other way around. He does the same thing with the two rivers that meet in Kuala Lumpur. As far as the film reveals Muhammad is not quite sure which tower or river is which, and its not really that important, the viewer knows what is important, there are two towers that are the tallest in the world situated in KL and there are two rivers that merge...does it truly matter which is which? No, the same with historical fact and memory, one is just as important (and possibly as unimportant) as the other.

"The BIG Durian" is a highly enjoyable foray into the world of Malaysian politics and culture. Muhammad demonstrates his mastery of both historical theory and filmmaking. He uses the document's construction as a commentary. This is one film that you do not want to miss at this year's HIFF.

"The BIG Durian" is playing at the Hawai'i International Film Festival at Dole Cannery Theaters on Saturday, Nov. 1 at noon and again on Tuesday, Nov. 4 at 9:30 p.m.

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