'Not that cheapo China con-job': Alterity, Race and Same Sex Desire in 'Jarum Halus', a Malaysian Film Adaptation of 'Othello'

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This essay discusses Jarum Halus (dir. Mark Tan, 2008), a Malaysian film adaptation of Othello, in terms of interlinked figures of difference and alterity. In particular, the essay argues that the film “translates” Shakespeare in such a way as to understand race and same-sex desire as urgently linked thematics. As Chinese, Daniel/Othello functions as the central figure of alterity, with the film highlighting the extent to which his non-Malay status reflects back on discourses of race inside contemporary nationalism. Manifesting the animosity directed against Daniel is Iskander/Iago, who functions as the film’s spokesperson for Malay values. Complicating any neat binary of Malay-Chinese relations, however, is the homoeroticism which shapes Iskander/Iago’s interactions. While Jarum Halus hints at the Shakespearean idea of an ultimately unknowable Iskander/Iago, it combines this with a reliance on a queer aesthetic that privileges scopophilia and attempts to establish a physical rapport between men. Part of the eloquence and impact of Jarum Halus inheres in its suggestiveness. Jarum Halus mediates the institutional underpinnings of its own possibility, operating in concert with the Malaysian censorship structures that inform cinematic representation. It also embraces “difference,” both at the level of what is deemed acceptable as part of a film product and in terms of the racial and sexual investments of the contemporary Kuala Lumpur scene. In this way, the film revivifies Othello, mobilizing the play as a necessary part of Malaysia’s “cultural background” and as a stimulus for reflection, debate and critique.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)553-575
Number of pages223
JournalShakespeare Bulletin
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 01 Dec 2016


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