Watching this film makes Fikri Jermadi want to do his head in, but not for the reasons you might think.
Recently, a friend forwarded an article for my reading and perusal. We have a tendency of sharing such articles every once in a while, especially on topics related to culture and society, given that we discuss such issues in writing and in person on a (very) semi-regular basis. Nothing different there; I suspect that’s what you do with your friends and family as well.
Two things stood out about the article. First of all…it was very long. It challenged my attention span a bit, but that’s not really much of a problem to be honest, because the second part of my assessment here is that it was a very rewarding read.
It looked at how our mind is actually corrupted by the very basic impressions formed when we see or interact with something. It cites specific examples of the writer himself, a person of colour, being stopped by a police office, who searched him based on a random check. He noted, however, that such randomness, even if it is well-intentioned, and without any obvious or conscious sense of racism, is actually a lot more dangerous, for it is the kind of discriminatory behaviour that occurs without us acknowledging it as such. You can have a read of it and check it out here. It would be interesting to discuss with you guys here what you think about it as well, but for now, I digress.
The point is how our mind, having been filled with specific forms of cultural capital, is primed and ready to think about one thing almost immediately when we have the correct trigger. I mention this because in ‘Sembunyi’, a cave plays a very significant role in the narrative. However, watching this film, I can’t help but think about Plato’s Cave. Whether it is actually intentional on the part of the filmmaker’s or not is beside the point. I am just wondering out loud whether such immediate impressions being formed can also be considered as a contamination of the mind and the self. You see black people, you think of criminals. I see a cave, I think of Plato.
The film tells the story of Aishah (Diana Danielle), a young woman who tries to escape from the oncoming Japanese army. (The story was set during occupation times, so we see here how even on this level, the presence of the foreign can contaminate the purity and the innocence of the naïve. We’ll get back to this shortly.) She is successful somewhat, but gets knocked unconscious by an explosion, and wakes up in a mysterious village. There she is cared for by Ibu Yani (Umie Aida) and her nephew, Kamal (Remy Ishak). Not helped by her apparent amnesia, she keep having nightmares about a previous life, but without the wherewithal to actually determine how much of it is real.
While she is recovering in the village, the other villagers, egged on by Atan (Sharnaaz Ahmad), starts to believe that her presence has brought back the monster they had sought to appease for many years. Atan’s apparent displeasure at her presence is not entirely apolitical, as he is in line to become the village headman should Kamal (who is not married at that time), remain single. Of course, things doesn’t always work out the way they are expected to, and discovering this film’s journey is an interesting and, at times, exciting process.
The film, then, deals with the death of innocence. As paranoia reigns, we see Aishah grow in stature, being an agent of her own change. In the beginning, being unfamiliar with her surroundings, it is interesting to see how dependent she is on others. The society in which she wakes up appears to have a vague sense of patriarchy. There is no one leader whose actions and decisions are obeyed without question, while the role of the mother is also incredibly respected. That’s not to be ignored, for I believe it showcases a more balanced portrayal of women than I have seen in many other films.
There is a scene in the film where we see the villagers placing white rice around their homes as a way of deterring the monster. The rice line is presented as the difference between the unknown and the familiar. Crossing that line means not only stepping out into the unknown, but it also puts the known and familiar at risk. A fine representation (in my mind) about the portrayal of gender.
I am not necessarily saying, however, that this film is a film that particularly promotes the rights of women or anything like that. Rather, what I think I saw is a more balanced portrayal of difference, and while the film may ultimately conform to more conventional means in many respects, I appreciate the effort by the filmmakers and the actors in challenging subtly the lines upon which such identities have been formed. In a way, Aishah crossing the line is an act as superficial as the line itself, but I enjoyed Kabir Bhatia’s challenge all the same.
That, ultimately, is the litmus test of almost any film. I greatly enjoyed this film on a number of different levels. This is a film that has been produced with the very highest of technical qualities. Every once in a while, I find myself trying to look for mistakes, but I fail to detect anything particularly obvious. This is no surprise, as Kabir Bhatia’s films always have a very strong emphasis on the small things, but even the costume design was quite alright by me. I’m sure someone more expert in that particular field would have different ideas, but quite frankly I like the portrayal of the clothes. They appear to be traditional, but are also clean and fairly pressed, almost as it they’re delivered to the set straight from one of Pressto’s branches. It may be a mistake, but I see that as a hint as to the nature of the village and its inhabitants.
Coming back to the main point I mentioned earlier in this review, a reading based on Plato’s Cave would see Aishah cast as the enlightened who manages to escape from her imprisonment to bring back the revelation for the others. However, the fun (for me at least) lies in determining what actually lies in that cave, and which side of it we are actually on. Audience identification is largely dictated by screen time, however socially malignant the representations on-screen may be, and given that we spend the majority of our time with a lot of the villagers, you can’t help but feel some empathy with them.
My final point of this write-up rests on the title. It is apparently initially called ‘Azazil’, but after the authorities got their hands on it, it was decided that the name should be switched to ‘Sembunyi: Amukan Azazil’. The politics of renaming films is not something particularly new, and in this respect I am particularly reminded of ‘Fantasia’, which was commonly shortened to just ‘Fantasi’. The poster design team for that film, however, had cleverly positioned an icon from the film at the end of the word ‘fantasi’, a move that would invoke the image of the letter ‘A’ when seen at the first glance. Thus, in a very oblique manner, the original title was preserved. Here, we see a bit of that, but though I appreciate how we have moved on from such things, I just wonder how much further we have to go in this seemingly never ending politicisation of Malaysian films.
When will we be led out of the cave?
Fikri can’t recall ever playing hide and seek.
Featured image credit: David Dewey