Inspired by a notorious real life crime, Dain Iskandar Said’s Dukun proved too controversial Malaysia’s censors and is only now reaching cinema screens after languishing on a studio shelf for the last twelve years. It arrives, however, alongside a number of similarly themed East Asian horror films which pit ancient “superstitions” against “respectable” religions and, unlike many, broadly comes down on the side of Islam which perhaps makes the fact that it was banned a little surprising. Then again, as a lawyer points out midway through the unconventional femme fatale’s murder trial, there are many who believe in “black magic” and perhaps faith is not enough to hold off the overwhelming supernatural dread of incomprehensible otherworldly forces.
Said opens with the conclusion as Diana (Umie Aida), the “gifted” shamaness and glamorous nightclub singer, dolls up in a beautiful ballgown to be sure of making an impression at her own hanging. Dialling back a little, the dismembered body of a businessman is discovered with evidence that suggests a ritualised killing. Meanwhile, veteran lawyer Karim (Faizal Hussein) is desperately searching for his 17-year-old daughter Nadia (Elyana) who ran away from home after an argument. Fearing Nadia has gotten herself mixed up with drugs, Karim hopes to get an old police contact to help him keep tabs on new arrests but in return he finds himself agreeing to defend a difficult client who has already rejected all 23 public defenders put in front of her. Diana argues that the businessman died as a result of a ritual intended to make him invincible because he didn’t listen to her instructions and the spells didn’t work – his death, therefore, is not her “fault” but the unfortunate consequence of improper respect for shamanistic practices.
Dukun’s banning is apparently not so much down to a direct confrontation of Islam and shamanism, but the sensitivity surrounding the real life case which inspired it. In 1993, former pop-singer Mona Fandey, who had rebranded herself as a top shaman catering to the rich and famous, was arrested for the murder of a politician whose dismembered body was eventually discovered in her storehouse. As the investigation progressed, more bodies were discovered as was a lengthly paper trail detailing a shopping spree which even included a face lift. Unsurprisingly given all the grizzly details and celebrity connections, the trial was a media sensation which Fandey milked for all it was worth.
Though the narrative and facts of the case have obviously been fictionalised, the comparisons are obvious – the accused shamanesss is even called “Diana” which was the title of one of Fandey’s unsuccessful albums. Actress Umie Aida perfectly mimics Fandey’s deluded fame hungry creepiness but also adds the oddly alluring quality of a film noir femme fatale as she shifts between elegant nightclub singer and all powerful practitioner of black magic. Diana plays to the gallery, attempts to charm the court, and acts as if her trial is just another show conducted in front of her adoring fans while preparing herself for the grand “finale” which, unbeknownst to the legal system, may all be a part of her greatest work of ritual magic.
Meanwhile, Karim attempts to defend her with a keen application of the law, pitting “irrational” ritual against state sponsored logic which itself is perhaps largely under the sway of conventionally religious thinking. Karim’s wife disappeared ten years previously, leaving him to raise his daughter alone only to have her disappear too. Diana seems oddly familiar with Karim’s difficult family circumstances and offers to “help” him in return for delivering makeup and a mysterious object from her apartment. Karim is desperate enough to accept, but in accepting may have already betrayed himself even if he’s careful to also consult his local Imam as to the best course of action.
As in the all best supernatural noir, darkness is coming for Karim. Engulfed in an inescapable spiral of dread and despair, Karim finds himself sinking ever deeper in his quest to rescue his daughter little knowing that they are all involved in an ancient conspiracy over which they have little or no control. You can’t play around with the supernatural, Diana counsels, but the supernatural may very well play around with you.
Dukun screens as part of the New York Asian Film Festival 2018 on 13th July 6.15pm
Official trailer (English subtitles for dialogue, contains disturbing imagery)