Here’s the thing about having ghosts and/or spirits serve as characters: unless the story goes to great lengths to humanize whatever their cause or struggle is, then there’s very little likelihood that the audience will identify with that plight. Patrick Swayze’s character in GHOST still felt the yearning’s of his Earthly but immortal love; through those emotions, viewers identified with him, and the film worked. But having an otherworldly figure essentially commenting on the familial and/or sociocultural trends in rural Malaysia? Yeah. Good luck with that.
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and characters. If you’re the kind of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last two paragraphs for my final assessment. If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
Three brothers – Adil, Bakar, and Ilham – have led very different lives. All springing from the same father (but having different mothers), one embraced life in the big city, while the other two have eeked out an existence in the Malaysian border town of their birth – one fighting in unsanctioned street matches while the other dabbles as an enforcer in the underworld. Through a unique set of circumstances, they all find themselves in Bunohan, where their destinies collide in a story equal parts violence and betrayal.
Like the better films of Martin Scorsese, BUNOHAN traffics heavily in characters who straddle both sides of an unforgiving moral code while trying to simply make ends meet. Writer/director Dain Said has crafted a kind of morality tale for the Third World wherein the sanctity of life has little shared interest. Bodies are bought and sold with tremendous ease, and fighters are forced to do combat in death matches where all that really matters in the pursuit of the mighty dollar. But into this grim and seedy world, Said injects a healthy measure of visual poetry – the pale line of an ocean beach, the rising columns of grass and plant life, etc. – that elevates what coulda/shoulda/woulda been an increasingly oppressive reality to one where cultural mysticism and personal metaphor exist almost magically hand-in-hand.
For example, all of these main characters are ‘haunted’ (texturally and literally) by a woman of their past – a mother – who’s become a bit of a local legend. She used to serve as the village healer, and, as fate would have it, it’s come to appear that multiple curses – a curiously disturbed family cemetery, a failure at requited love, the son she never quite knew, etc. – has her walking this land still. She’s presented in several guises – those depending upon what her purposes may be – while we’re led to believe that all can and will someday be well … but not after plenty of blood is shed.
Unfortunately, this eerie quality forces BUNOHAN to stumble as much as it lifts the story to new heights, and that’s because these machinations are never quite clearly spelled out. Said explores a split narrative – he presents a crucial scene one way in the opening, then presents it very differently late in the film – that smacks of visual trickery both times it’s shown. Think of it like watching a magic act while the magician is telling you how he’s accomplishing it, and you get closer toward the confusion I experienced. It isn’t that neither scene works because they do. What’s confounding is what is this all supposed to mean. I found it unclear, leaving me to question what purpose the supernatural served (except obvious atmosphere) when it was all said and done.
In the final estimation, BUNOHAN remains an impressive if not uneven story that, undoubtedly has an audience: the art-house. It becomes the kind of picture that’s highly interpretive: a learned mind could quite probably come up with hundreds of meanings behind all of its inherent symbolism. I’ve always been of a mind wherein I’d prefer to be told what I’m to think about it or, at least, pushed in a helpful direction. But BUNOHAN – despite some very successful sections – feels far more academic, almost void of any legitimate emotion, a clinically cold but well-constructed look into a world I wanted desperately to understand better but left before it all added up to something big. Real big.
BUNOHAN: RETURN TO MURDER is produced by Oscilloscope Laboratories, Easternlight Films, Convergence Entertainment, and Apparat. DVD distribution (stateside) is being handled through Oscilloscope Laboratories. For those needing it spelled out perfectly, this is a Malay spoken language film with English subtitles (there is no English dubbing available). As for the technical specifications … wow. Just wow. The film is impressively constructed visually, and Said makes increasingly clever use of dialogue and sound in ways that’ll keep him on the radar of film aficionados no doubt for years to come. He’s crafted an increasingly amazing use of frame that equally lush when brimming with flora or slim with just an expanse of sand. To his credit, the picture has played as an ‘Official Selection’ of the Los Angeles Film Festival, the Toronto International Film Festival, the Rotterdam International Film Festival, and the Tapei Golden Horse Film Festival. As well, it won the Golden Hanoman Award, Asian Feature Competition, 7th Jogja-NETPAC Asian Film Festival in 2012 and received some glorious praise for (you guessed it) its visual palate. Also, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that the disc is (thankfully) loaded with some impressive features, including a feature length commentary with director Said, a ‘making of’ short, a 30-minute conversation with Said and dramatist Huzir Sulaiman, and the theatrical trailers.
RECOMMENDED. While I’d be hard-pressed to tell you with any great certainty exactly what writer/director Dain Said intended to say about this world when he crafted this story, I’d be lying if I didn’t go on and on about his impressive visuals and his obvious ability to craft images that defy the conventional. BUNOHAN: RETURN TO MURDER is a cinematographer’s dream come true, replete with sequence after sequence of one vivid picture after another. It boasts some impressive acting by all of the principles, as well. But beyond those strengths, I felt surprisingly empty after viewing it, left with little concern for what happens to this world so lushly brought to life and nearly no driving compunction to know what happens next. Yet, boy, did it all look good!
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Oscilloscope Laboratories provided me with a DVD copy of BUNOHAN: RETURN TO MURDER by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review.