Malaysians widely regard nasi lemak as their national dish. It has simple foundations—put rice atop pandan leaf, pair with sambal and other flavorings—but is infinitely customizable with myriad meat and side dish variations. As an embodiment of “unity in diversity,” the dish has become an aspirational symbol for harmonious relations between Malaysia’s Malay, Chinese, and Indian ethnic communities.
Infamously irreverent Malaysian Chinese rapper-turned-filmmaker Namewee (real name Wee Meng Chee) first harnessed the narrative potential of nasi lemak in his hit 2011 comedy Nasi Lemak 2.0. More than a decade later, he’s returned with a prequel—Nasi Lemak 1.0. The film adds a time traveling twist atop its predecessor’s culinary competition storyline, and reimagines Malaysia’s history through a playfully multiethnic lens. While Malaysians will probably appreciate Nasi Lemak 1.0 the most given its linguistic diversity and preponderance of specific cultural references, international audiences can still enjoy the film as an approachable introduction to Malaysian identity.
Back in Time
Despite being billed as a prequel to Nasi Lemak 2.0, Nasi Lemak 1.0 is probably more aptly described as a reimagining. 1.0‘s story doesn’t obviously occur before 2.0. Instead, both movies share the same framing narrative: a Malaysian Chinese named Chef Huang (played by Namewee) must engage in a cooking competition with a Chinese (i.e. from the People’s Republic of China) chef named Lan Qiao, who professes to have a better understanding of Malaysian cuisine then actual Malaysians.
Whereas Nasi Lemak 2.0 saw Chef Huang preparing for competition by traveling around contemporary Malaysia to learn about different ethnicities’ contributions to nasi lemak, Nasi Lemak 1.0 sends Huang back in time. Thanks to a freak magical accident that occurs when they start battling Lan, Huang and his friends find themselves 600 years in Malaysia’s past, far before the foundation of today’s Malaysian nation-state.
In the past, Huang must learn more about the true origins of nasi lemak. Meanwhile, thanks in part to the machinations of a roving band of pirates, an unnecessary war between the Malay Sultan of Malacca and Ming Chinese treasure fleet led by famed explorer Zheng He lurks on the horizon. If Huang and his friends don’t prevent the war, they risk modern day Malaysia not existing.
In interviews, Namewee shared that he was inspired to make Nasi Lemak 1.0 after discovering that accounts of Malaysian history on the internet “were different from those in textbooks.” Indeed, the film advances a fictionalized historical narrative in which ethnic Chinese and Indians have always had as much of a role as ethnic Malays in forming the Malaysian nation.
This pluralistic vision of history runs counter to orthodoxy in the country’s ethnic Malay establishment—which, among other measures, maintains an affirmative action system called the New Economic Policy that disadvantages Chinese and Indians in favor of “native” Malays (despite Chinese and Indians having been in Malaysia for centuries). Such policies were meant to “rectify” the fact that Malaysian Chinese and Indians hold disproportionate amounts of the country’s wealth, but have instead contributed to interethnic tensions, brain drain and capital flight.
Nasi Lemak 1.0 deftly deploys a variety of techniques in its advocacy for a more pluralistic Malaysian national history, all of which should be familiar to Namewee fans.
Its cast is unabashedly multiethnic, a rarity in most non-Namewee Malaysian movies (which often center on individual ethnic groups). The dialog switches fluently across English, Malay, Mandarin, Hokkien, and more—reflecting Malaysia’s linguistic diversity. With plaudits to Namewee’s multilingual writing prowess, there are countless puns and verbal jokes across all these languages; some of which might not be apparent in subtitles. For instance, a portly Zheng He speaks Mandarin in a cutesy manner by repeating certain words as doubles. There are probably more examples in the other languages that an actual Malaysian would be able to pick up.
The film also leans into specific historical references that should be familiar to many Malaysians. As one example, it weaves in the legend of Hang Li Poh, a Chinese princess who supposedly married a Malay sultan, and is a symbol of harmony between Malays and Chinese. Zheng He and the Sultan of Malacca should also be figures that many Malaysians are already acquainted with.
Culturally Specific, Universally Accessible
With this skillful blend of culturally specific humor and historical references, Nasi Lemak 1.0 certainty mixes together the right ingredients to remind audiences that national histories are figments of the popular imagination, and therefore open to change—for better or worse. Of course, the film has just released in Malaysia, so its true effects have yet to be seen.
From an international perspective though, non-Malaysians need not worry about Nasi Lemak 1.0 being too inaccessible—it isn’t. The film stands on its own as a simple comedy. It has plenty of sex jokes, physical gags, silly dance numbers, and numerous other forms of humor that transcend cultural and linguistic boundaries. While those looking for extensive character development might be slightly disappointed—the film seems to assume most audiences will know about Chef Huang and his friends’ backgrounds from Nasi Lemak 2.0— Nasi Lemak 1.0 should provide an entertaining entry point into Malaysia’s ethno-political landscape.
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Nasi Lemak 1.0—Malaysia. Dialog in Bahasa Melayu, Mandarin Chinese, Hokkien, English. Directed by Namewee. Running time 1hr 50min. First released January 27, 2022. Starring Namewee, Karen Kong, Saiful Apek, David Arumugam.