Monday, December 24, 2007

The Real Pontianak

This had seemed to be the year where I missed practically every local movie released in the cinemas. I'm finally doing some catching up now, gathering whatever DVDs I can find. I'd heard good things about Osman Ali's Puaka Tebing Biru, and had been eager to see it. Unfortunately, it's only available on VCD, so I had to make do with a little lack of picture resolution.

Puaka is surprisingly a fine effort for a local horror film, although it's so bizarre that I wonder if it could technically be called a horror film. Unfortunately, it kicks off in a rather rushed manner, hurrying us through scene after scene of shock and jolt, at times resorting to well-worn methods and cliches. I say "unfortunately" because as the film progresses, it starts getting better and better, especially when it slows down for some establishing backstory. By then, we're taken deep into Ratna (Nasha Aziz)'s troubled mind, and Osman cleverly alternates between reality and what could be Ratna's hallucinations, bringing things to a fever-dream pitch, deliberately disorienting the audience and aligning us with Ratna's state of mind. Allowing the audience to experience directly what the protagonist experiences is, in a way, trapping the audience in her mind. We can't help but feel for her. And I believe I've never seen a better performance from Nasha.

Broken down to its bare essentials, and discarding its more bizarre aspects, Puaka is a story about morgue worker Ratna who is troubled by apparitions of a woman and her child. It becomes even more confusing for her when the woman appears to be someone close to her.

Things start to get really creepy when Ratna and her sister decide to spend a few nights in their old house by the sea. By then, we're so captured by the mood of things that we won't really mind the conventional long-haired apparition. But Osman never really lets us in on whether it's all real or a figment of Ratna's imagination. The pontianak seems to be a manifestation of Ratna's guilt and shame. Certainly these are two prominent elements in the film, and one of the characters expressly blames all their troubles on the feeling of "malu." And the shame largely comes from cultural fears and anxieties, which are deeply entrenched in this film and serve as the backbone of the story. Ratna is the central figure who tries to break from tradition, belief and conventions. Her friendship with a female companion suggests something much more intimate, usually a taboo in these parts.

But it's because of this complexity in the storytelling that Puaka becomes slightly messy, by trying to say too many things at the same time. Apart from its wariness of cultural rules and beliefs, it's also a story of women left alone to fend for themselves, among other things. Here, a touch of the melancholy, teetering on melodrama drives the story along, adding to the mood of the unreal, the hyper-reality that Ratna doesn't seem to be able to escape. But when we're led to identify with the central character so well, the numerous branches of the backstory, complete with intertitles announcing each "chapter," is a little jarring. It's like a whole sudden change in tactic. That's why I find the film a little bizarre, but in an interesting way.

In fact, the film is never boring for one minute. It's not every day that we get such an intriguing and complex horror movie locally.

The VCD picture quality is a little too dark in some parts, but watchable overall. And of course, don't expect any subtitles.

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