Killing Fields – Bunohan

Like buses, then, these reviews come along. The enjoyment of the films may have been some weeks or months in between, but as ever, outside responsibilities takes its tolls. For the record, I have seen ‘Bunohan’ at least twice, and in fact hosted a dialogue session with the film’s director, Dain Said. As such, while my opinions and words here should never be taken as gospel, the context within which they are made differs from other reviews on this site thus far.

First, the story.

Adil (Zahril Adzim), a young Muay Thai kick-boxer, was losing a fight-to-the-death bout when his friends stepped in to save his ass. Upset at the turn of events, the promoter hires Ilham (Faizal Hussein) to track Adil down and do the business. What business? Why, Ilham’s speciality of killing people, of course. He is a gun for hire, and he has been hired…even if the tracks lead all the way back to his hometown of Bunohan, Kelantan.

At the same time, a school teacher, Bakar (Pekin Ibrahim), returns home to help his ailing father. Well, help him sign over the lease for the land, that is. Bakar, clean shaven and bespectacled, clearly intends for the land to be further developed, making himself a nice little stack of cash along the way. However, his father, Pok Eng (Wan Hanafi Su), has other plans. He intends to pass it over to Adil, Bakar’s step-brother and the son he had neglected all this while. It doesn’t help that Ilham is also revealed to have strong familial connections to this messed up family.

The fights from ‘Gadoh’ continued after school.

I find it interesting how, in the wake of watching ‘Songlap’, a film once again featured conflicts between brothers as the main offering. Perhaps it is a reflection of our society at large, where we tend to place a bigger sense of importance on the family in relation to other things. Here, then, the relationships are far more complex, as they are literally brothers from other mothers. This complexity, in addition to already being fairly estranged from one another, accurately mirrors (in my opinion) the depth of complexity one might expect to find in such families in real life. To that end, at least, a deep portrayal of this is well-received by me.

One should also not forget our brothers from the north, and the cinematography work of Jarin Pengpanitch is a very welcome and pleasant addition to the film. Shooting what appears to be day for night is a tricky concept to conjure, but here it fits seamlessly into the other scenes; you don’t necessarily question the fact that there are clear disparities between the different day and night scenes, which can only be a good sign. Many of the shots are also fairly well-composed, using the most economical of movements to slowly reveal, rather than expose everything all at once. One of the opening shots, for example, is a very long take executed on the beach, moving from one end of the sky all the way through to a cut in the wayang screen, kelir.

The cut in the kelir offers a swath of different meanings and interpretations to be made. Truth be told, the first time I watched this film I had done so with a mindset that everything we see here is representative of something else. In that sense, I failed to truly register the story of the film, the object that was, as my mother would eloquently put it, “betul betul kat depan batang hidung”: it is basically a land grab attempt played out by the three brothers and their father. Of course, there is more, and indeed further readings should be made on a a deeper level, but ultimately the signs served as a distraction for me: what did the cut in the kelir mean? Could it be an interpretation of how the projected stories are mere stories, nothing more? That the truth of the screen, film or otherwise, is no longer to be trusted? If so, is it an indication that the film is actually set in purgatory, with ‘Bunohan’ and Bunohan serving as mere nomenclature?

GPS not required.

Going beyond that, there also appears to be links drawn between the film and our own reality. The land grab attempt reflects a situation where what many perceive as modernisation is coming to town. Could this be read as a critique against the onset of such projects, trampling on traditions and histories in their path? The film’s final shot provide a clue as to how the story should be further considered, but this is also mere speculation.

Then we have the issue of the boy, who seems to appears almost out of nowhere every once in a while. At times he appears to be a part of the story, but at other times we see him being somewhat answerable and notable (as in, only able to be noted) by some of the characters, though not all. We also have a scene where the boy appears to speak with the father’s younger wife…with the voice of the older man. Could this be a representation of the Pok Eng’s subconscious, then? A reflection of Lacan’s mirror stage, perhaps?

I don’t know, and quite frankly, a deeper reading as such cannot be offered as an objective opinion. I do, however, revel in the experience of watching this film. Rarely have I seen a film that engages with its audiences as much as ‘Bunohan’ did. Our brains and minds are constantly invited, challenged even, to make our own answers. It is a film that lingers, one that sticks in the mind, as you try to answer the subtle and subconscious answers raised. To that end, Dain Said has utilised a wide array of arsenal as his disposal; I especially like the sound design of the film. It helped to create further meaning in scenes that would have been dealt with in a more straightforward manner by others. The proof is in the pudding of the silent scenes and moments. As much as they matter in longer dialogue sequences and fight scenes, the arrangement of these scenes in tandem with others (whereby a noisy scene would almost immediately be followed by a quieter one) is a lesson learnt.

“Get off my front porch, you bloody kids!”

One final note to make before I end this review. Faizal Hussein was one of my idols when I was younger. Perhaps ‘idol’ is too strong a word, and I certainly wouldn’t be the first in line to get his autograph or scream my head off or anything like that, but I remembered making an effort to watch the films he was in. I had enjoyed his turn in ‘XX-Ray’, and his performance in the old ‘Pendekar’ TV series remains one of the highlights of my youth. To that end, I can’t believe that this eternally/suspiciously young-looking man has now developed to become such a charismatic actor. As he stalked the screen, his brooding personality and charisma reminded me of Chigurh, Javier Bardem’s legendary character in ‘No Country For Old Men’, and the impact is very much the same.

Going beyond the two of them, there is a suspiciously high number of graduates from the film ‘Gadoh’, including that film’s director, Namron. Bront Palarae also put in a good shift, but the key character/actor/character actor amongst them all is Pok Eng’s Wan Hanafi Su/Wan Hanafi Su’s Pok Eng. I wrote in such a manner because though I am somewhat familiar with these actors, they appear to have sunk without a trace in their characters for this film, with especial regards to Wan Hanafi Su. In addition to the Pok Eng character ultimately (in my opinion) holding the key to all the questions here, it is a pleasant discovery to make.

Watch it, if nothing else, for that. Failing that, then watch it for an offering that is both Malaysian and unique at the same time, and have fun trying to answer the questions.

Fikri wonders whether Ho Yuhang’s character in the film can be taken as the stance/fate for independent films in Malaysia. Read Norman Yusoff’s thoughts on the film here.

Featured image credit: Popular Science

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