A village called murder ~ That Movie Blogger Fella

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

A village called murder

My rating:

To be honest, I've always been skeptical about local films that supposedly "make it big" at film festivals in foreign shores. As the excellent Bill Martell puts it, film festivals are mostly scams, aimed primarily at making money for their organisers; showcasing cinematic excellence from around the world is only a secondary objective. So while I'm certainly happy for James Lee, Ho Yuhang, Woo Ming Jin and other homegrown indie filmmakers who got to exhibit their works overseas and earn the accolades (or even just attention) that they'd never get from local audiences, whatever they achieved there seems fleeting and small; who still remembers their films, years after? Which is why Bunohan looks like it might finally make a real impact - if only because it was selected for the Toronto International Film Festival. Now that's a persada dunia with real prestige, second only to the Cannes Film Festival. And with reviews in Variety and Hollywood Reporter fueling the good ol' Malaysia Boleh! spirit, no surprise it's become the most highly-anticipated local film in a long while.

And damn, it certainly lives up to it. But damn - this is the kind of film in which saying "it's good" doesn't begin to describe it.

Ilham (Faizal Hussein), Bakar (Pekin Ibrahim) and Adil (Zahiril Adzim) are three estranged half-brothers, sons of the old wayang kulit puppetmaster Pok Eng (Wan Hanafi Su). Ilham is a hitman for a Thai crime syndicate, charged by his keeper Deng (Bront Palarae) with finding a tomoi kickboxer who fled his fight and doesn't necessarily have to bring him back alive. Adil is that kickboxer, reluctantly rescued by his friend Muski (Amerul Affendi) and brought back to his old mentor Pok Wah (Namron). Bakar is scheming to obtain his father's ancestral lands in order to sell it to developers, and has his henchman Jolok (Hushairy Hussein) bribing and threatening anyone who stands in his way. The fractured family converge on their home village of Bunohan, Kelantan, where the spectre of Ilham's mother Mek Yah (Tengku Azura) still haunts the swamps and beaches. Their tale will be one of corruption, betrayal, despair, violence - and yes, murder.

Oh wow. Where do I start with this one? I actually watched this weeks ago, during its gala premiere. And then I waited a week till it opened in cinemas so I could watch it again. Because I just didn't get it. But I did already know, after my first viewing, that I'd just seen something amazing. Bunohan has elements of family drama, crime thriller, fight flick, gothic noir and tragedy, and it weaves all these threads in a highly assured and terrifically compelling manner. But there's also a deeper layer of magical realism, dream-like mysticism and supernatural surreality, and these are the parts that left me scratching my head. In a good way. (I'm just glad I wasn't fooled by the trailers into thinking it would be a kickboxing action movie. Even with its kickboxing scenes and its dizzying mix of genres, this is the one it's furthest from.)

Let me talk about the parts that I did understand first, the mundane layers. ("Mundane" not meaning "boring.") The fractured family of father and three sons recalls King Lear, if there were two Cordelias and only one of Goneril and Regan. Bakar is the unequivocal villain of the story, smoothly doling out wads of cash to those he wants indebted to him, and just as smoothly following up on his threats to those who fail to do what he says. One of his victims is Awang Sonar (Soffi Jikan, in an uncharacteristically subdued role), owner of a tomoi club that Bakar wants to take over, who also runs a fish farm; Bakar's use of poison on Awang's fish is symbolically apt. It's galling how Jolok goes around the village selling his reputation as "banyak tolong orang" - and in addition, the smarmy, slimy Jolok is one of the most hateable characters I've ever seen in a local film. In a cast with not a single disappointing performance, Hushairy Hussein is the standout for me.

And of the two Cordelias, one is an assassin sent to kill the other. Here's a guy who wields a wickedly curved kerambit and kills brutally, shockingly and in an utterly matter-of-fact manner; taking human lives is just something he does and does well. But once Ilham arrives in Bunohan and hides out with his old friend Jing (Jimmy Lor), he becomes more interested in the fact that Jolok's goons have been digging up old graves from his family's lands and haphazardly burying them elsewhere, including his own mother's. Which incurs his murderous wrath, but also distracts him from his mission - and you know it ain't good news when Deng shows up to find out what's taking him so long to do his job. (More so given the fact that Deng and Ilham are close friends.) Compared to his brothers, Adil is the least complicated, but also the easiest to root for. He is the one son with whom Pok Eng wishes to reconcile, being his father's intended heir of their ancestral land on which a greater conflict between man and nature is taking place.

And it is this subplot in which most of the mystical elements appear - including talking birds, a half-woman-half-crocodile, and a little boy who occasionally speaks in Pok Eng's voice and may be either a figment of his imagination (yet Bakar can see him too!) or a supernatural creature. Yes, they sound silly, but Dain succeeds at creating a delicate, half-surreal tone in which they become significant - that the earthly struggles of the villagers are but one aspect of the clash between materialism and mysticism, greed and spirituality, the old and the new. Yet the dunia halus of the swamps and beaches isn't exactly sunshine and rainbows either, if its effects on Ilham and Adil - both touched by the otherworldly, both men of violence, both lost and tortured souls - demonstrate. It may be threatened, and dying, and plaintively pleading for its own survival, but it's also wholly alien and dangerous in its own way.

The more I write about this film (and yes, I know how long it's taken me to finish this review), the more I realize it isn't meant to be fully understood. Who was that little boy? What's with those talking birds? Whose were the sounds of lovemaking that Ilham heard when he snuck under his father's house to retrieve mementoes of his mother - or was that his father's house? Did Mek Yah really transform into a crocodile? And what was the significance of Ilham's dream, which involved slaughtered crocodiles and his mother standing in front of Egyptian pyramids? You're welcome to debate these questions and think of your own interpretations - but if you were puzzled and infuriated by them, you're meant to be. You're also meant to be immersed completely in its twisty storyline, clever dialogue, flawless acting, breathtaking cinematography, and fascinating world of a rural Kelantanese village that is probably as unfamiliar to the average KL-dweller as is the supernatural world it borders.

So yes, Bunohan deserves my highest rating to date for a local film. I have never seen one that's as ambitious, and that succeeds so well at its ambitions; even Songlap, for all that it's a terrific crime drama in its own right, doesn't match this one in its aims. And if Songlap flopped at the local box-office, I can only shudder to imagine how well this one will do. But in a film industry that struggles to even be competent at such lowbrow fare as broad comedies, cheap horror movies and trashy action flicks, Bunohan hits stellar heights. It is so far above the typical Ahmad Idham/Razak Mohaideen/Syamsul Yusof fare that their usual audiences are likely simply unable to even comprehend its startling and singularly unique vision. (I doubt even those three fellas can.) For the rest of us though - we should count ourselves lucky to have it.

NEXT REVIEW: John Carter
Expectations: of Andrew Stanton, pretty high


k0k s3n w4i said...

Andrew Stanton AND Michael fucking Chabon.

It was hell of a disappointment though considering its pedigree.

Ajami Hashim said...

niceee! :)

Farahanani Amhazali said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anwari Ashraf said...


I was kinda hoping for your interpretation / understanding of the surreal bits since I had absolutely no idea what they meant.

Though, like you. Though unable to understand, I found it beautiful and made peace with the fact that I wasn't able to understand.

fadz said...

beautiful. im happy u wrote it in english

Edmund Yeo said...

"So while I'm certainly happy for James Lee, Ho Yuhang, Woo Ming Jin and other homegrown indie filmmakers who got to exhibit their works overseas and earn the accolades (or even just attention) that they'd never get from local audiences, whatever they achieved there seems fleeting and small; who still remembers their films, years after?"

Ouch. Well, I'm going to try to object to this statement by feebly saying that Woo Ming Jin's (divisive) fleetingly small The Tiger Factory did have a handful of (yes, foreign) fans two years ago after its premiere in Cannes and having picked up an award at the Tokyo Film Festival 2 years go. But I guess it'll be futile :D

Anyway, I was very glad to catch Bunohan on the big screen during my short time in KL last month (am based in Tokyo) Was indeed a very technically accomplished film that managed to fulfill its ambitions. I was captivated by Faizal Hussein's performance is Ilham, I actually rooted for him the most in the whole film. Actually, despite its magical realist and surrealistic flourishes, I found myself thinking of No Country For Old Men. Perhaps for some of the similar elements (guy on the run, hit man chasing, unexpectedly oblique narrative etc.) Yup, it's a fine film.

Edmund Yeo
(Co-writer and producer of Woo Ming Jin's TIGER FACTORY)