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)

Crossroads: One Two Jaga (十字路口, Nam Ron, 2018)

crossroads one two jaga posterThe world is increasingly interconnected but far from greater freedom and increased possibilities, exploitation is often all that awaits those seeking opportunities overseas. Crossroads: One Two Jaga (十字路口) places the undocumented migrant worker at its centre and uncovers a deeply entrenched system of corruption and hypocrisy in which the line between the forces of order and chaos is so thin as to be barely discernible. The migrant worker is exploited twice over – once by the employers and again by the police who blackmail and extort, pulling in anyone who seems “suspicious” whenever they find themselves short of a few pennies. With no recourse to the “law” and no route “home”, there is little hope for a brighter future for any but those who seek to profit from other people’s misery.

Beginning at the end, we open on the bruised face of a young man who has prominent stitches on his cheek. Something tells us he is a police officer, but he is in questioning over the death of a young boy, killed by a bullet from his weapon. The officer looks stunned and claims to know nothing. As it turns out he may be telling the truth, but he alone is responsible for a child’s death, on the one hand, and exposing a corrupt police chief, on the other.

Flashing back, Joko (Izuan Fitri) – the son of Indonesian migrant worker Iman (Ario Bayu), wants to go for a ride with Adi (Amerul Affendi) – the adult son of Mr. Sarip (Azman Hassan) who runs a small construction firm (among other enterprises). Iman doesn’t really want his son to go, but he ignores him and goes anyway. Iman has another problem on his hands – his sister, Sumiyati (Asmara Abigail), who has left the family she was working for as a maid and wants to go home to Indonesia. Mr. Sarip says he can help with that (for a price) but Sumiyati is stopped by Hassan (Rosdeen Suboh) and his rookie partner Hussein (Zahiril Adzim). Hassan really just wants a bribe because his wife really needs money to avoid family embarrassment, but things goes south when Iman ropes in Adi to try and help him out only to escalate the situation into a declaration of war on the “rogue” policemen.

Undocumented workers exist in a kind of grey area which makes it possible for the unscrupulous to misuse them for their own ends. Sumiyati, like many young women, has gone abroad to work as a maid but found herself kept a virtual prisoner by her employer who holds her passport as a guarantee. With job parameters unclear, she finds herself not only maid but cook, babysitter, and office assistant and all for almost no pay. Fed up she upped and left, but lost her passport in the process leaving her with no legal way back to Indonesia which is where she’s decided she’d rather go. The only way “home” is through the back door channels operated by men like Mr. Sarip who have fingers in many pies and friends in all the right places.

Ordinarily speaking, a righteous rookie cop would be our hero, but we already know Hussein is our villain. Though he wants to enforce the letter of the law and resents the casual corruption of other officers, it’s his hotheadedness and refusal to play the long game which eventually cause so much trouble. Accidentally or otherwise, he does manage to unmask the kingpin responsible for holding together a system of corruption running from the top of the force down, collaborating with the criminals and turning a blind eye to real “crime”, but it comes at a heavy price and one to which Hussein seems worryingly indifferent.

Stylishly shot, Crossroads weaves a complex picture of interconnected exploitations in which the innocent are made to pay the price for the world in which they live. Realist in essence but expressionist in intent, gritty images of children disposing of bodies mingle with a father’s nightmare as blood colours the rain soaked ground and a young woman disappears in its miasmic haze. Malaysia maybe the crossroads of Asia, but it also finds itself at something of a junction unsure in which direction to turn, unwilling to confront the darkness that lies at the heart of the modern society.   


Screened at the 20th Udine Far East Film Festival.

Official trailer (English subtitles)