After 4 days of screening, Dukun has managed to gather RM6.2 million in ticket sales. It seems like 12 years* of waiting paid off. But how does Dukun really hold up as a film?
Adlin Aman Ramlie
Chew Kin Wah
There is something slightly surreal about watching a movie from the 2007 finally come to live in 2018. Although it wasn’t the initial intention, Dukun is first and foremost a peek into a Kuala Lumpur that is so familiar, yet so different (e.g. Pudu Prison was not demolished yet); like an inadvertent period film, a mirror into the not-so-distant past. This creates a slight complication in reviewing it; Even when assessing it objectively as a film released in 2018, there’ll always be a tendency to say, “This film was ahead of its time”. Nevertheless, our review will consider both context.
Dukun’s tale about an allegedly murderous shaman Diana Dahlan (played by Umie Aida) tries to distant itself from the incident of Mona Fandey, emphasizing that all of its characters were fictional. There was some worry that the only major appeal to this story was its biopic nature of a tumultuous time for Malaysian media in the ’80s. But everyone involved in this film ensured that it didn’t need this association to be a memorable piece of cinema.
First and foremost is the cinematography of Dain Said. In the span of 12 years, Dain Said has made many films each with its own cinematic style like Bunohan and Interchange– but always with the tendency to humanize the camera as an observer-character in the film, especially in pivotal moments. An example of this scene is already in the introductory montage of Dukun, as we’re taken on a cinematic trip from the story of the dukuns (shaman/witch-doctor/bomoh) from Indonesia all the way to Kuala Lumpur. It’s artistic decisions like this that shows Dain Said’s sense of cinematographic suspense, with the help of Yuk Hoy Cheong’s keen eye (Bunohan).
For a horror thriller, decisions like this add weight. With disconcerting close-ups that make you feel like Diana Dahlan is watching you, long shots exploring the room that make you feel like you’re there, peeking over the morbid rituals. Dukun is not a film that seeks to shock with you cheap jump-scares, it’s a film that makes you feel uneasy and disturbed – capturing the aura of a demented witch with haunting realism.
There are other interesting things to look for that can only be spotted because Dukun was released this year. You can see very familiar scenes or shots that seem like it could be a scene in Interchange (both films are also about Southeast Asian mysticism), showing the sort of signature style or relics that were eventually brought forward by Dain Said.
Awkward shots are sparsely scattered and the special effects can be a bit jarring (even if we evaluate it as an early 2000s movie), but ever so slightly, without destroying the overall beauty of the film-making.
Trading jump-scares for the disturbing
Besides the camera work, Dukun boasts a solid ensemble of actors. Umie Aida’s ‘evil seductress’ performance brings shivers to the bone. In every scene she’s in, Umie Aida draws you in while you desperately try to keep your guard up. Her performance holds a wonderful contrast to Faizal Hussein‘s character, Karim – who, like the viewer, attempts to maintain a stoic, emotionless demeanour while restraining his inner turmoil. Diana Dahlan is always in control, and Umie Aida portrays that with finesse.
Umie Aida’s prowess shines even more in scenes where Dukun brings you into the mystical and the psychotic. Her presence in this film ranks her as one of the top villains in Malaysian cinema.
Although his performance in Bunohan was better, Faizal Hussein holds his own as a lawyer and a distressed father. His executi0n as a quick-witted lawyer stumbles upon the realm of cheesiness at times, but overall Faizal Hussein exhibits admirable emotional range. Other notable cast presence in Dukun is Elyana. When this film was initially supposed to be released, Elyana was only 20 years old but in the little screen time she has, she exhibits surprising maturity in her acting. Speaking of little screen time, Soffi Jikan also stands out in his creepiness as Diana Dahlan’s helper.
Nam Ron‘s characterization in this film is hit-and-miss. The fact that he’s an asthmatic cop with an inhaler dwelt in our minds for a long time since it seems like foreshadowing, but what it ended up doing was putting his character in that awkward state between ‘vulnerable’ and ‘badass’. His chemistry with Bront Palarae also leaves a lot for wanting (although some of the exchanges them are pretty amusing). It is intriguing to see how much these actors have grown over the course of a decade. (SIDE NOTE: There is a scene in the film that looks like it could have been Bront’s audition tape for a film in 2016 *wink, wink*)
The flaws that do exist are usually minor and doesn’t do anything to disrupt the story. I mean, the true star that this film puts it weight on is Umie Aida, and since her performance is stunning, everything else seems impervious to it. Except for the extras. The mystery of why the early 2000s was filled with extras that like to overreact to things, has yet to be solved.
The plot mainly progresses through a series of flashbacks and moments of investigation and realizations. Huzir Sulaiman‘s writing does a good job in heightening the tension at a decent pace, as it reveals more and more about the truth behind Diana Dahlan’s case. The writing might be vaguely mirroring the trial of Mona Fandey, but the story unfolds way differently. The proudest testimony to Huzir’s writing are his abilities to use Melayu baku, novel-esque dialogue to depict such organic human interactions. There are some really good gems, like when Ramli Hassan says to Nam Ron, “People to pray to so many different corners of the world right now – money, fame – that they forget to pray facing Mecca”. (I might have botched this quote because I don’t have the exact transcript, but that moment was pretty cool). Another one is Diana Dahlan arguing that she’s a dukun and not a bomoh, highlighting the hierarchy of prestige in the world of sorcery.
However, in spite of Dukun‘s refreshing efforts at showcasing the digsusting gore of shamanic rituals or breaking the taboos of violence in Malay cinema, the writing still suffers from an almost-forced preachy ending – that good prevails, and that evil is not allowed to linger at the end of the cinema as an everlasting threat. It kills the mood when a movie sneaks in another taubat scene; or a scene that doesn’t work well at all in the general scheme of things but is there simply to teach the viewers a lesson. Movies CAN work well with good messages to convey, but it has to be integral to the story – not an unsolicited lecture. It’s condescending and frustrating; and sometimes it feels like the movie genuinely believes that if they show ‘evil’ triumph, people might actually be hypnotized into doing stupid things.
Choppiness aside, Dukun is far from being derivative. It’s attention to creating atmosphere rather than just throwing scary things in your field of vision is laudable. Luka Kuncevic’s score adds to the richness of the film with creeping ambient sounds. Merana Jiwa is a stupendous song that actually contributes to the film’s sense of uneasiness and bloody vengeance, unlike most promotional songs for Malay films that is as deep or significant as a puddle.
If Dukun was actually released in 2007, the Malay horror genre might have been- maybe even for the better. A horror genre that actually cares about developing its characters in a way that YOU, the audience, cares for them when they get hurt or die. A horror genre that cares about finessing details in cinematography, sound editing and other visual nuggets that intends to leave a memorable experience.
Dukun is still out in the cinemas. Go watch it and tell us what you think!
CORRECTION: In the initial article, we wrote 2 years instead of 12 years. It’s actually 12 years of waiting. Apologies for the typo!