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Devil In a Kebaya

  • By Azwan Ismail
  • May 13, 2004

By Zan Azlee

U-Wei has always made daring films that force spoon-fed Malaysian audience to think. Which is always a risk; although his films are critically acclaimed (his 1995 Kaki Bakar remains the only Malaysian film to have been screened at the Cannes Film Festival), none have ever been box-office successes.

This ‘failure’ to make it big at the box-office might have been the reason why it took him five years to come out with his latest, Buai Laju-Laju. Premiered at the recent 17th Singapore International Film Festival, it is the director’s second attempt to delve into the female psyche.

The director made a mark on the industry in 1993 with the release of Perempuan, lsteri dan Jalang, in which a woman named Zaleha runs away from a forced marriage only to be found again and pimped out by her husband. She than dedicates her life to liberating herself and getting even with her husband.

Buai Laju-Laju, which is translated horribly to Swing My Swing High, My Darling, tells the story of a drifter named Amran (Eman Manan) who stumbles upon a roadside restaurant run by a married couple. He falls in love with   the beautiful and young wife, Zaitun (Betty Banafe), who eventually seduces him into murdering her elderly husband, Ibrahim (Khalid Salleh), for his money and land. It is, you realise, a very recognisable plot.

U-Wei is constantly preaching about how we should be more localised in order to be more global when it comes to story-telling, but I can’t help noticing that he has consistently taken American and European stories and adapted them to a Malaysian kampung setting.

The director admits that his new film is heavily influenced by the 1946 American classic The Postman Always Rings Twice by Tay Garnett. I suppose coveting your neighbour’s wife is not entirely a foreign concept to our kampong folks, given their communal lifestyle.

While I found the movie sluggish upon watching it, it grew on me upon hindsight. Yes, it has a very predictable storyline, but I like how U-Wei and his actors maintain a high level of sexual tension throughout the film without having as much as a single kissing scene.

The image of Zaiton in a tight kebaya walking away from Amran as if denying him his desire can only be likened to Garnett’s classic slow camera tilt taking in Lana Turner’s voluptuous body from the feet all the way up.

A decision to marry an older man for security rather than love had forced Zaiton to live out a mundane existence. The arrival of Amran makes her realise that she wants and deserves more. Thus begins her quest of seduction and deceit by using her beauty and sexuality. And the film portrays this persuasively.

Buai Laju-Laju is slated for a Malaysian theatrical release sometime at the end of the year and it would be interesting to see how U-Wei’s clever sculpting of the sexually charged visual elements fare with the censorship board.

The board might finally realise that the implicit can mean much more than the explicit and start re-evaluating their system of cutting out every single peck on the cheek, or they might just be oblivious to it all and continue the good job they have been doing all this while.

If U-Wei’s films tend to portray the cunning of women and how they rule the world through their sexuality, Shuhaimi Baba’s Pontianak Harum Sundal Malam shows us the more primal, bloody, and endless fight of the fairer sex. So endless it carries on after death.

The story begins in the 1940s. Meriam (Maya Karin), a beautiful gamelan dancer at the palace, is being courted by two friends, Marsani (Azri lskandar) and Danial (Sahronizam). Danial eventually wins her heart. But an incident later leaves a pregnant Meriam dead at the hands of Marsani and his men.

Fast forward to the present day – Marsani is a successful businessman. But he lives in constant fear that the ghost of Meriam will return to haunt him and his family.

Filmmakers of the past have always been accused of demonising women in horror movies and a classic case is the pontianak story. Shuhaimi has taken the folktale, however, and given it her own spin. According to her, a pontianak never kills for pleasure – there is always a just cause – and therein lies her feminist angle.

It is a very impressive film indeed. The performance of the actors are outstanding (there were four acting coaches on set), the cinematography and set are beautiful (shot on location at the Rimbun Dahan Arts Centre in Kuang), the special effects convincing, and the graceful gamelan dance choreography captivating.

Since this is a horror film, you can expect strict regulations courtesy of the censorship board. The script had to be re-written over a period of two years before approval was granted. One of the main criteria imposed was that all portrayals of supernatural beings must appear in a dream-like state.

This is done to avoid any conflict with Islamic religious beliefs and to protect the less pious from being influenced by the evils of the unknown. So, all the pontianak scenes in the film were essentially dreams the characters have when asleep.

This dream regulation should be abolished – I am deeply offended that the authorities think the bogeyman under my bed can scare me off my religious beliefs.

But surprisingly, Shuhaimi’s compliance to the rules did not affect my perception of this particular film. The strong script and performance allowed me to concentrate on the story of Meriam and her efforts to right the wrong that was done to her.

The closure of the story really comes once Marsani actually admits to his sin and is overwhelmed by remorse. Although pontianaks are legendary for the brutal killing of their male victims, Shuhaimi decides that all her pontianak really wants is an apology, but not before making her murderer live 50 years of his life in fear and misery.

So, it can be said that Pontianak Harum Sundal Malam is more than a horror flick. It is a portrayal of the kind of injustice inflicted on women that men think they can get away with. Back in those days, without any feminist movement to stand for their rights, perhaps our grandmothers resorted to telling the pontianak story to remind men that hell truly hath no fury like a woman scorned.

Both Shuhaimi and U-Wei have always been known for their feminist stance. One empowers women by giving them control of their sexuality while the other gives them the strength to inflict fear. More significantly, both directors are finding ways around the censorship board just to bring their stories to the world.

Shuhaimi expresses optimism that her film, being the first pontianak film since the glory days of the Jalan Ampas Studio 30 years ago, will hopefully pave the way for more local horror films.

“We have so many interesting fictional ghost stories such as the toyol, orang minyak and penanggal, passed down from our elders. I just want to play my role as a storyteller and let the world know about our heritage,” she adds.

First Published: 13.05.2004 on Kakiseni