Dukun (Dain Iskandar Said, 2018)

Dukun posterInspired 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)

Satan’s Slaves (Pengabdi Setan, Joko Anwar, 2017)

Satan's Slaves posterBad things happen in houses where they don’t pray. So says a kindly Imam in Joko Anwar’s chilling horror remake Satan’s Slaves (Pengabdi Setan). Taking inspiration from a 1982 classic, Anwar updates the tale of supernatural dread and familial breakdown for the new century while maintaining the early ‘80s setting and pushing back still further into the superstitious, gothic past. The family, threatened by financial, social, and spiritual pressures is stretched to breaking point by supernatural unease. Advised that the cure for their ills is religion, they begin to conform but, unlike the original, godliness cannot save them from a greater evil and if the family chooses to save itself, it will be through acts of selfless love rather than brutal adherence to a set of outdated social codes.

As the film begins, eldest daughter Rini (Tara Basro) – a 22-year-old former college student, has given up her studies and become the defacto maternal figure to her small family while her mother, Mawarni (Ayu Laksmi ), remains bedridden after a long illness. Mawarni was once a famous singer and the family’s breadwinner, but having been out of the spotlight so long her music has begun to go out of fashion. Royalties have dried up and there is little prospect of any further income. Lacking the funds to pay for ongoing hospital care, the family have brought Mawarni home to care for her themselves though the father (Bront Palarae), worrying about feeding his children, secretly urges his wife to be on her way to a better place, as a disturbed Rini hears him say from outside the door. Soon enough, Mawarni is gone, but not forgotten. Strange noises fill the old mansion as Mawarni’s bell continues to tinkle in the night, her records play without warning, and radios reset themselves to play her song. When dad leaves the siblings – 16-year-old Tony (Endy Arfian), 10-year-old Bondi (Nasar Annus), and 7-year-old Ian (M. Adhiyat) who is deaf and mute, in Rini’s care to head into the city in search of money, the kids are left to deal with the legacy of his moral cowardice all alone.

Adopting the trappings of the classic European gothic chiller, Satan’s Slaves sets itself in an old fashioned villa located in a forest some distance outside of the city. If the house were not creepy enough on its own, it is also conveniently located next to the local graveyard where Mawarni has now been laid to rest (in theory, at least). Moving in “next door”, a kindly Imam and his spiritually open minded son Hendra (Dimas Aditya) promise to provide pastoral care to the bereaved children but find themselves engulfed by the house’s increasing power to isolate and terrorise.

Tipped off by Hendra, Rini discovers a dark and disturbing secret regarding her mother’s former life and her own origins. Devolving into a vast conspiracy involving satanic fertility cults and their apparently omnipresent spy networks, Satan’s Slaves revels in its oppressive atmosphere of supernatural dread and human impotence as the children find themselves surrounded on all sides by faceless, umbrella wielding zombies lying in wait to tear their home apart.

Rini is told, by an old friend (Egy Fedly) of their grandmother’s (Elly D. Luthan), that the fertility cult requires child sacrifice but that the cult cannot take the child unless the family gives it up. She is being asked, quite literally, to put her life (and those of her siblings) on the line in order to save “the family”, yet “the family” or more particularly hers already has its problematic elements. Rini’s grandmother, recently deceased in mysterious circumstances, was not originally accepting of her daughter-in-law because of a class difference and also because of her occupation as an “entertainer” which was not considered respectable at the time. She only warmed to Mawarni once the children were born which was already some years into the marriage as Mawarni, finding it difficult to conceive, became desperate for a child and for her mother-in-law’s acceptance.

Rather than the lack of spiritual rigour which the Imam blames for the increasing demonic presence, it is these social taboos which seem to have opened the door to evil. The kids try the religious solution, but unsurprisingly it doesn’t help them. Literally haunted by their late mother who feels herself “abandoned” by her family, her loving husband hastening her death now that she is no longer economically useful and has become an unbearable burden, the only way to defeat this curse is to reverse it through unconditional familial love and solidarity even given what Rini now knows about her history. Oppressive in atmosphere yet filled with an eerie beauty as shadowy figures slowly colonise the misty Indonesian forest, Satan’s Slaves challenges the idea of “the family” in the face of strict patriarchal social codes and finds that in order to survive it must salvage itself through acts of defiance and self identification.


Screened at the 20th Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)