Tuesday July 24, 2012
Bunohan makes a killing
Ceritalah by KARIM RASLAN
The film is Kelantanese, Malay, Malaysian yet global all at the same time. It is both intimate and epic. When the storytelling is this good, it transcends all boundaries.
BUNOHAN (murder) is a place — a small kampung — in Kelantan. It’s also an extraordinary film — a mix of Muay Thai, Shakespearean tragedy and the Coen Brothers — directed by Dain Said and released earlier this year.
Sadly, I missed the movie when it first came out, catching it recently on DVD. In fact, I was so enthralled that I watched it three times in quick succession, realising that I’d stumbled across a superb piece of visual storytelling and a powerful commentary on contemporary Malay society.
This may make it sound like a rather worthy and dull art-house movie. It isn’t. Bunohan is stunningly fast-paced (with a brutal murder every few minutes or so) and action-packed — balletic fight scenes that make you wince with every blow.
The movie is set in the lawless “badlands” between Malaysia and Thailand: a terrain of mangrove swamps, hidden creeks and dry sandy soil. It’s also the director’s extended (and very bloody) love-letter to his home state.
However, this isn’t Nik Aziz’s Kelantan. Bunohan takes us away from the state’s countless Islamic schools (sekolah pondok) and its many ustaz.
In doing so, Dain Said reminds us of what we’ve lost in our haste to become so devout and “modern”.
Instead and using Kelantanese dialect (kecek Kelate) throughout, the director celebrates the state’s rich cultural and animistic traditions —the Mak Yong and the wayang kulit — traditions that are fast disappearing.
In fact, Dain Said both captures and conveys Kelantan’s genius loci, or special atmosphere.
This is a world of goats, achingly gorgeous and empty white sandy beaches, fish-farms, isolated villages, pensioners and decrepit warungs — a world where cash is always in short supply.
As with all good movies; Bunohan is both intimate and epic at the same time.
Dain Said’s camera shifts effortlessly from the domestic – a ramshackle kampung house stuffed with family memories — to the majestic with the ravishing beauty of the landscape framing the action.
The narrative is centred on a family torn apart by the polygamous behaviour of a now ailing wayang kulit puppet-master, Pok Eng.
There are three sons and by the end of the film each has achieved some measure of reconciliation or accommodation with the distant patriarch.
The eldest, Ilham, with his perpetually sweat-drenched shirt is a hired assassin who kills with a Lawi Ayam, a short knife shaped like a rooster’s claw.
When asked what he does, he explains succinctly and in richly expressive Kelantanese: “Aku bunoh oghe” (“I kill people”).
The second, Bakar, is the proverbial Melayu Baru. Neat and always immaculately dressed, he’s a Proton-driving school-teacher turned minor property developer.
Pensive and deeply manipulative Bakar has become a latter-day dalang — usurping his father as he orchestrates events and initiates tragedy in his obsessive quest to seize his father’s land.
The third, Adil is a wiry Muay Thai prize-fighter. Blunt, immature and headstrong, his is an intensely physical presence. Indeed, Adil seems to speak through and with his body — exploding into life when he’s in the fight-ring, which somehow explains his curious fight-moniker, Bunga Lalang.
But for Dain Said, Kelantan itself — the land, the language and its culture — is as important as the dramatis personae.
In Bunohan, we are drawn into an embrace with a primordial and deeply-rooted Malay ethos.
We experience storytelling at its most basic (Pok Eng’s stock-in-trade) and there moments when the line between the real and the unreal, good and evil, the living and the dead vanishes and the imagination takes over.
Indeed, figures appear to emerge from the land itself like Pak Eng’s first wife, the former Mak Yong diva, Mak Yeh who still prowls the palm forests as a half-living wraith.
Bunohan is art-making of the highest order. It is a testament to the director’s talent and vision — something that’s been acknowledged by international operators.
As its producer, Nandita Solomon says: “The film has been picked up by solid companies such as Universal Pictures (Europe). We also managed to secure a solid, well-respected distributor in the States — Oscilloscope Labs.”
Whatever you do, make sure you watch this movie. Bunohan’s seductive cinematography will connect you to Kelantan — to the land and its people — if only for an hour or so. It’s an exhilarating ride that’s made all the more poignant by its tragic conclusion.
The film is Kelantanese, Malay, Malaysian yet global all at the same time. When the storytelling is this good, it transcends all boundaries.