Immersing the Self – Decoding Dain Said’s Cinematic Structures (part two)

Concluding his discussion, Ahmad Syazli Muhd Khiar analyses the acting, metaphors and symbolism of ‘Bunohan’, ‘Interchange’ and ‘Dukun’.

Action! The Semiotics of Acting
Let us analyse the amazingly dramatic performances of Faizal Hussein, Pekin Ibrahim, Zahiril Adzim and Wan Hanafi Su crafted by Dain Said in ‘Bunohan’, portraying the semiotics of acting. As the film communicates with the audience through subtext, symbols, metaphors and signs, the actors are heavily required to project a dimension of significant and meaningful performances. Thus, it is highly important for the audiences to decode transmitted signs by the actors, as stressed by semiotician, Félix Guattari.

The mysterious, naturalist and minimalist types of acting portrayed by characters dealing with dark personality traits in ‘Bunohan’ is beyond magic, as they had to implicitly express anger, love, pain and struggle within their limited interpersonal communication context. Therefore, the elements of semiotics of acting, including the actor’s body language, gestures, facial expressions, intonation, eye contact, postures and other vocal qualities crafted by the director in ‘Bunohan’, could link the audiences to the emotional journey of each and every single character.

Interestingly, ‘Interchange’ demands that Shaheizy Sam, Iedil Putra, Prisia Nasution, Nicholas Saputra and Nadiya Nissa deliver semiotic codes and cues as introvert characters psychologically and spiritually. I could feel how Shaheizy Sam (as Detective Man) had to use his persuasive and assertive non-verbal gestures and postures in showing his referent power to Adam at the workplace, intimately as a caring friend. In fact, just analyse the variation of oculesics skills (eye contact) used by Nadiya Nissa’s Sani in expressing her assertiveness, avoidance, interest and refusal in transmitting codes and messages to different characters in this movie. On the other hand, the monotonous tone of voice by Iva has indeed become her special instrument to convey hidden messages to Adam, as she is highly reserved and private. This example of paralinguistic codes (relying on vocal cues) in ‘Interchange’ is essential, as the characters come from different walks of cultural and social background, which they need in order to communicate beyond human language.

‘Dukun’ astonishingly explores the world of Diana Dahlan, as she becomes the cinematic representations and cultural imaginings of masculinity and manhood. Masculinity, as embodied in Diana’s character, encompasses a specific set of traits that include stoicism, strength, muscularity, aggression, heterosexuality, a hands-on approach and rationality which beautifully visualised for the audience. It helps the audience to understand how Diana visibly contributes to the mastery over the material world (power, status), political situations (support) as well as the other, unseen world (enemies), and her personal destiny (offspring). Undeniably, Dain had to define, visualise and measure their traits, as well as habitual patterns of behaviour, thought, and emotions as illustrated by semiotician, Patrice Pavis:

“Any acting is based on a codified system (even if the audience does not see it as such) of behaviour and actions that are considered to be believable and realistic, or artificial and theatrical. To advocate the natural, the spontaneous, and the instinctive is only to attempt to produce natural effects, governed by an ideological code that determines, at a particular historical time, and for a given audience, what is natural and believable and what is declamatory and theatrical.”

The ability of audience members to explore the semiotics of acting portrayed in the three films above is nevertheless driven by their level of exposure to visual adaptations, interpretational awareness and cinematic techniques. The positive reinforcement (perceptual, cognitive and emotional processes) of watching ‘Bunohan’ as first-hand experience could drive and educate the audience to embrace the similar cognitive states while watching ‘Interchange’ and ‘Dukun’, although they carry different cinematic styles and structures.

Cinematic Storytelling: The Metaphors of the Visual
It has been an amazing journey and learning experience watching these films, as ‘Bunohan’, ‘Interchange’ and ‘Dukun’ signify Dain’s solid signature in crafting a unique language of metaphors and symbols as a visual storyteller. His films positively reinforces the audience’s ability to comprehend and interpret abstract concepts, which are hardly translated into words.

In ‘Bunohan’, the communication process takes place when the audiences decode and give meanings to series of visual metaphors and symbols mapped out and established by Charin Pengpanich’s expressive cinematography; capturing the mythical and mysterious elements of the rural countryside in Kelantan. Dain’s cinematic storytelling was manifested and beautifully presented through a set of visual images embedded under the additional layer of metaphoric meanings of magical sequences of a talking bird, a ghost-woman in the shape of crocodile, and a possessed boy. Besides that, the dynamic metaphor of kelir wayang kulit and kerambit, as used by Ilham, clearly established the spectrum of struggle and hope in dealing with obstacles and hurdles.

For ‘Interchange’, the visual metaphors used required a specific contextual understanding in order to decode and appreciate the messages. As a dark fantasy noir, it has given me the cinematic experience in creating, organising and constructing all the metaphorical signs conveyed by Dain Said. The reflection of drenched streets, flowing river, feathers of hornbill, or even the glass negative captured visually by Jordan Chiam, carry an implied meaning in the journey of non-linear narrative.

On that same note, ‘Dukun’, through Yuk Hoy Cheong’s eyes, encodes the colour of human psychology metaphorically, evoking emotions of sadness, struggle, and fear through the mastery of a cinematic syntax. This pushes the audiences to immerse in and deeply associate with Diana and Karim’s point of view. From a communication perspective, these visual metaphors could drive us into the means of understanding and signification: how a film can express itself metaphorically, allowing us to perceive a discourse, sequence, situation or character in the film. It is useful not just to explore ‘Dukun’ merely from its decorative linguistic expressions, but also through its associations with its contextual interpretation, too.

Playing with Images: Symbolic Interactionism
The communicative experience in ‘Bunohan’, ‘Interchange’ and ‘Dukun’ has also been shaped by Dain’s injection of symbolic interactionism as the basis of human communication. As this communication theory strongly believes that society and individuals are created based upon interactions between each other with the ongoing use of language and gestures in anticipation of how the other will react, the characters in these films are brilliantly driven and shaped by their human communication and interactions.

In ‘Bunohan’, the political, social and cultural context of the society strongly influence Ilham, Adil and Bakar to define their understanding of lives, based on power, dignity and struggle. How wealth, power and authority is defined in the film carry dominant masculine traits, including courage, independence and assertiveness. The way Bakar interacts with his father, using his diplomatic communication skills, is different from Adil’s, who opts for persuasive styles of getting definite explanations of his background. Indeed, these traits vary by location and context, and are influenced by their social and cultural background respectively; Adil is a kickboxer, who was more or less kidnapped in the middle of a bout in Thailand, while his half-brother Bakar (having lived in the city) hopes to sell the family’s land to resort developers. Meanwhile, Ilham is a professional killer, hired to kill Adil, but also finding it necessary to redress family grievances.

Symbolic interactionism in ‘Interchange’ is heavily reflected by language, symbols and images of both the supernatural and reality worlds. As Sani, Iva and Belian undergo the process of identity exploration in contemporary cultural and social settings, in contrast, Adam and Man are assigned to understand and communicate with the huge range of cultural symbols and ethnic identity of the Tingang tribe, while searching for clues of unsolved murder cases. This association shapes how the characters communicate as a collective entity, building the perceptual and cognitive processes of one another. Man becomes more heedful towards Belian and Sani, as he interprets all the communication codes from the perspective of a detective, while Adam progressively builds empathy towards Iva and her mystical journey, given how he could relate all the codes and cues to his personal experience.

There are three core principles of symbolic interactionism as visualised in ‘Dukun’, namely meaning, language and thinking. These are shaped based on our perspective of creating shared symbols in our society. If the film is perceived from Diana’s villainous and complicated character, we can break these codes by catching her dimension of relationships, fears, concerns and struggles as an example of an iron-willed and strong woman. Diana and Nadia, in fact, expose their complex, emotional journey that involved sub personalities or “inner characters.” through ‘Merana Jiwa’:

Aduh Mengapa
Hatiku kau lukakan
Merana jiwa
Hatiku sengsara
Menenung Jauh
Ke dalam Suasana
Menanggung nasib
Perasaan hiba
Bayu bawalah hasratku kepadanya
Agarkan dengarkan panggilan nyawa

In conclusion, Dain Said has brilliantly applied and infused distinctive communication styles in his three acclaimed movies, ‘Bunohan’, ‘Interchange’ and ‘Dukun’. Visual, verbal and non-verbal communication styles in those movies could be explicitly and implicitly manifested through some areas, namely proxemics, semiotics of acting, visual metaphors and symbolic interactionism. The exciting journey of understanding these films from the communication spectrum can bridge our understanding of the different perspective of this award-winning filmmaker, coming home to tell us his idea of our Malaysian stories.

Read part one here. Syazli is the Director of Research and Strategic Policy of FINAS, and contributed to this article in his personal capacity. The views expressed are his own and do not necessarily represent the views of the National Film Development Corporation Malaysia. It was originally published here, and you may contact him at

Featured image credit: Centre for Public Impact


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s