“It’s a pickle, isn’t it? Trying to remember what you don’t know you’ve forgotten.” So says the father of the hero of Nik Amir Mustapha’s touching sci-fi romance, Imaginur. It is however his son who’s trying to piece things back together while seemingly stuck in a maddening time loop chasing the ghost of lost love and searching for his “happy place”, the safest place he can imagine that will reconnect him with who he really is. 

Zahul seems to be haunted by fleeting glimpses of a woman whose face is hidden. After being involved in a traffic accident, he fetches up at the hospital but is there with his elderly father who is living with dementia. An elderly lady gives him a card for a special service called Hypnotica run by a mad scientist named Ramil who claims he can use hypnosis to cure Zahul’s panic attacks the most recent of which caused him to abandon his father in a supermarket after an awkward interaction with his ex. Ramil tells him that they’re simply going to revisist old memories with a new perspective to solve the cause of his anxiety but we can’t be sure when or if Zahul has actually left the state of hypnosis. Unable to remember or get a firm grasp on his reality he becomes panicked and short tempered, eventually paranoid and rambling about people trying to steal his brain.

Even so as someone puts it, his quest for Nur, a woman he meets at a burger stand, is also a quest for light and the path back towards himself in reclaiming his past even if it comes with the pain of loss on waking up to the reality. “This is what becomes of our lives” the sympathetic elderly woman laments of Zahul’s father, only for Zahul to reply that there’s no point resisting, but resisting is in a sense what he’s been doing trying to push through to a more concrete reality unwilling to accept the first or even second iteration of a moment in time but looking for the essential truth of it. 

What his father tells him is that the answer is what we feel in out hearts, that there’s nothing so important as feeling except perhaps the memory of it. That is in a sense what Zahul is chasing, trying to reorient himself through emotional logic while simultaneously reluctant as if avoiding something he doesn’t know that he’s forgotten. Meanwhile, he becomes increasingly paranoid about the shadiness of Ramli’s operation which even he calls a “pseudoscience” wondering if he’s caught up in some kind of conspiracy while convinced they’re trying to steal his brain or at least mess with it to drive him out of his mind. 

Yet it all seems to come back to a choice he didn’t and didn’t make watching the mysterious woman head towards a station with a suitcase but getting hit by a car before reaching her. “Remember me” she plaintively asks in the shared space of his mindscape, perhaps a phantom of his imagination but also a real woman he didn’t know he’d forgotten who holds the key to everything he is. “You live inside your head a little too much” Nur tells him, and she’s absolutely right while ironically advising him to find his happy place little knowing that perhaps he has and they’re already in it. 

Oneiric and elliptical, the film’s fragmentary dream logic in which Zahul is forced to relive a series of moments from getting a parking ticket to being at the hospital eventually builds towards a moving moment of cohesion as Zahul manages to find himself again accepting both love and loss along with memory in all of its emotional intensity. Opening with a classic hypnotic spiral, there’s a kind of charm in Nik Amir Mustapha’s retro production design in the lo-fi hypnotism headsets Ramil alarmingly claims turn off part of the brain along with the softened colour palate that lends a note of nostalgia to what we assume to be the present day. In any case there is something genuinely touching in Zahul’s determination to reclaim himself through remembering lost love and discovering the eternal in transient moments of happiness.  

Imaginur screened as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Teaser trailer (English subtitles)

Images: © 2022 Lumatic Films.

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