Culture Editor Ally Azyan on the Malaysian short film “Kantoi” and its representation of the stigma of teen pregnancies in Malaysia.
As much as I hate to say it, Malaysia’s film industry is in dire need of improvement. With soap operas that try to (poorly) imitate the behaviours and aesthetics of a Korean drama, alongside the badly written plots lacking in direction or significance: we’re a lost cause. Or maybe not.
Perhaps the universe heard my complaints and led me towards a short film entitled “Kantoi“, directed by Adam Zainal and produced by Ashley Tong as their final year university project in 2018. “Kantoi” is also a Malaysian slang term used for when someone is caught red-handed doing something they shouldn’t be doing. This film is about high school girl Alia, who finds out that she is pregnant and is at a crossroad on whether she should tell her judgemental and big-mouth best friend Raihan about it. Before I continue, it must be noted that most of the characters, including the four main characters (Alia, Raihan, Sabrina and Nazatul), are Malay and, by default, are Muslims.
The movie begins with Alia staring at her positive pregnancy test in the school washroom, and as she is about to leave, Raihan walks in and sees the test. Alia, in a moment of panic, claims that someone else in the school is pregnant. And so begins the witch-hunting and accusations, in search of juicy gossip and shaming of the unfortunate being. The first suspect is a liberal, ‘promiscuous’ girl, Sabrina, who is known for stealing boyfriends and skipping out on religious meetings, but she denies being pregnant as she is on her period. The next suspect is, ironically, a deeply pious girl, Nazatul, who immediately debunks the rumour and instead claims that she heard someone crying in the bathroom calling out for a ‘Farhan’, and that they could be pregnant with Farhan’s child.
Though the subject matter of this movie is supposed to evoke emotions of worry and dread, the plot is somehow able to put a comedic twist to it through the constant bickering and sharp-tongued comments between Nazatul and Sabrina, who personify Heaven and Hell, respectively. This is supported by the light pink filter and slight saturation of the setting, which contrasts with the expression of dread and lack of enthusiasm on Alia’s face throughout the film. The contrast becomes more evident as the accusations land on Farhan’s current girlfriend, Sandy, who is upset by this as it implied that her boyfriend had cheated on her and impregnated someone else. Gone are the light-heartedness and comedic nature of the story as the group turns desperate to find out who the pregnant girl is, causing Sabrina and Nazatul to spread the rumour to their own group of friends.
Alia realises the consequences of her lies and becomes nervous when Raihan tells her that the police could be involved if the pregnancy was suspected to be from rape. The level-headed, calm Alia gradually grows overwhelmed and short-tempered, more so as she learns that everyone in school is aware of the rumour. It doesn’t help that Raihan shows no signs of empathy towards the unknown pregnant girl and keeps making fun of her for being careless and stupid. The situation worsens as she hears other students condemn the teen pregnancy, criticising the victim for not using protection and saying that it’s what they deserve for engaging in sexual acts.
In Malaysia, sexual education is taboo and extramarital sex is heavily frowned upon. Because of this stigma, many teens are uneducated about the consequences of sex and act impulsively on their curiosity, causing a high number of teen pregnancies. This is especially prominent among Malays, most of whom attend state schools that do not provide sex-ed, and after-school Islamic studies which further suppress conversations about sex. To rub more salt in the wound, abortions are highly inaccessible and only permitted in cases where a mother’s life is in danger; this is mostly due to the dual legal system where Muslims (Malays) have to follow the Sharia law, rendering it difficult to establish a legislation over abortions. The reactions towards teen pregnancy in “Kantoi” are not surprising, and they demonstrate the effect that the lack of sexual education has on society. The feeling of helplessness that Alia experiences reflects the lack of help women receive when faced with an unwanted pregnancy, further subjecting them to suppression by ignorance.
Succumbing to her internal pressure, Alia publicly confesses that the pregnancy test is hers and that she is pregnant. She is immediately isolated by the whole school and she actively avoids Raihan until one day when they encounter each other in the bathroom and make up with a hug. The ending is rather anticlimactic and feels like an interrupted cadence as we are left with so much incertitude. At the same time, this vagueness makes room for interpretation, unleashing a sense of creativity for the audience. This is what makes “Kantoi” memorable, as you keep mulling over the possible paths that Alia could follow.
Aside from the simple yet revealing plot, I enjoyed the fact that the writers embraced the Malaysian culture by using a mix of English, Malay and Mandarin, representing the multicultural aspect of our country. Complementing this authenticity are the actresses’ portrayals of their characters, making them so unique yet familiar to the average Malaysian viewer. The rawness of this work beats so many other full-length, high budget movies in the Malaysian film industry.
This review is long overdue, but better late than never, right? “Kantoi” is the glimmer of hope for our generation to produce better Malaysian films with real meaning.