Losing Heads – Penanggal


Fikri Jermadi shouldn’t be surprised that a lot of people lost their head in a film called ‘Penanggal’.

I’m writing this review with thunderous roars ringing in the ear. They’re metaphorical, of course, but they might as well have been real for all the good they actually do. Recently, a dog touching event was organised in Malaysia, with the expressed purpose of helping certain segments of society, especially Muslims, to get over the apparent fear of doing so.

Predictably, in a country such as Malaysia, where Muslims are generally not usually encouraged to touch dogs (which are apparently considered to be unclean in certain schools Islam), it sparked an uproar amongst significant enough portions of society. How big this portion is remains to be truly seen, but see the first sentence of this review for this film to understand how annoying this potential minority may be.


I personally have gone beyond worrying about dogs in such ways myself, but I have no issues with those who disagree with me. I do, however, have an issue with those who wish to force an agreement of sorts by way of punishment and fear, and it is this that really nags at me more than just a bit.

For we see a bit of it in the film as well. Bear with me here.

‘Penanggal’ is set in 1930s Malaya, at a point in time where the dark arts of a dark time rule the dark days. It tells the story of Murni (Ummi Nazeera), a young woman who inherited a curse from Mak Ajeng (Normah Damanhuri), her grandmother. This turns her into the penanggal (a vampiric being whose head detaches itself) every once in a while, looking to feed on pregnant women about to give birth. In some respects, it’s a kind of Jekyll and Hyde story, with Murni doing her best to fight for her human side as well.

Syed Yusof (Azri Iskandar), however, is all human and all man. Well regarded by many in the settlement, he is the dashing knight in shining armour who comes to Murni’s rescue. After her cover was somewhat blown in daylight, Murni was castigated by some of the village men and was taken into the forest. Syed followed them and saves her life. Falling in love with her, deep suspicions remains with regards to their relationship and Murni’s status.


It is precisely that form of vigilante justice that pervades much of the screen time in the film, enough to evoke reactions to the dog touching event. A mob mentality exists in situations of heightened and extreme emotional distress, which suggests a loss of mental faculty in determining the logic of some things. It tends to occur in cases like riots, where the roar and push of the crowds can be intoxicating. Witness the pressure felt at some football matches across the world.

We see this in the very first scene of the film, when the villagers attempted to track down the original penanggal and kill her. Though they are obviously afraid, they lack a secondary tactic beyond killing by fire. This occurred more than once in the film, which may well have been a deliberate attempt to again heighten the emotion, but the end result felt more like a cheapened gathering of people rather than real fear and anger.

That is not to say that this film is unworthy of checking out. Far from it. In fact, I dare say it is one of the most accomplished Malaysian films over the past year. That is due to the great technical work did by Raja Mukhriz, the cinematographer, and his team, and the production design team led by Nazrul Asraff Mahzan.

See, for example, the scene set inside Mak Ajeng’s hut. The characters are all inside, an interior scene at night in rural Malaya. So how do you light it? Mukhriz sets it all up from outside, and lets plenty of rays peek through the holes in the walls, which made for an artistic conflation of light inside. The little things like this, I believe, plays a key role in raising films a notch or two above their station. It makes for a beautiful film.

Beauty, however, is no compensation if the acting is no good. Here, the direction of first-timer Ellie Suriaty Omar may well have been the key ingredient of the whole flick. Being an established actor in her own right, I suspect she knows more than a few hot acting buttons to push. What we got in the end was a very convincing performance from many in the film. Ummi Nazeera, for example, is a young buck who has had a few roles under her belt, but with little to break out with. Here, hers is a role requiring a range of different emotions at different times (Jekyll and Hyde, remember), but I fail to recall moments of incredulity at any point in time. I think that’s a plus.


From a gender perspective, though, the story does little to go beyond established tropes. Perhaps the safe zone of characterisation allowed for people to concentrate on what they probably know best, but in a film where a female character was driven by cursed powers (a rare conflict in its own right in Malaysian cinema) was featured front, left and centre as one of the major attractions of the story, she is still reliant on the man as a platform of comfort. It is perhaps this disparity between what the film is and what it could have been that leaves me more than a little frustrated at the best of times.

Another thing that annoys me is how the film appears to affirm the God complex faced by the locals in and of the time. Again, though I do not necessarily wish for film to be something other than a mirror of its time, its useful to whack ourselves (or someone) with that mirror once in a while. Refering once again to real life events, it seems like the biggest issues in life can be solved with “Allahuakbar!”

Of course, this is no small thing, but in the context of story (as well as life) it would have been more interesting to concentrate on the characters themselves actively trying to resolve this conflict; had Ellie got her hands on the Street Fighter video game, Ryu would be jumping around screaming that instead of “Hadoken!”

One final thing: there is a scene featuring a bunch of characters trying out their silat skills. Though there’s little wrong with this, in light of ‘The Raid’ films, the verisimilitude bar has been raised insanely high. Comparing a horror film to one from the action genre is probably not that fair, but the fact remains that through little fault of its own, it was made slightly less than what it actually is.

I suppose that’s as good a way to sum up ‘Penanggal’ as a whole. It is not a perfect movie, but overall it is an incredibly accomplished debut from Elly Suriaty Omar. I hope she pushes the envelope further in her subsequent films.

Fikri sleeps with the lights on nowadays. This film was nominated for the Best Film, Best Director (Elly Suriaty), Best Screenplay (Elly Suriaty), Best Actor (Azri Iskandar), Best Actress (Ummi Nazeera), Best Supporting Actress (Normah Damanhuri), Best Original Story (Elly Suriaty), Best Cinematography (Raja Mukhriz), Best Editing (Akashdeep Singh), Best Visual Effects, Best Costume (Nasirah Ramlan), Best Newcomer (Zul Ariffin), Best New Director (Elly Suriaty), Best Sound Design (Adzrey Abdul Kamal) and Best Art Direction (Nazrul Asraff) categories at the 26th Malaysian Film Festival.

Featured image credit: artphoto – artresin – artrecycle

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