Expect the Unexpected – Sisa Binasa

Fikri Jermadi is happy to rediscover the delights of Ridhwan Saidi.

The name Ridhwan Saidi is one that is quite significant, at least in the context of Malaysian shorts cinema. He’s been around for a while, with his first films making a mark near the end of the noughties. In a previous review, I noted how Adam Taufiq Suharto is someone who’s confident enough in playing around with the tropes of filmmaking. If we are to connect this to that, much of this can be seen as fruits reaped from the seeds sown by Ridhwan.

In the past, at least, his films have veered more towards a willingness to push cinematic boundaries. Thought this doesn’t necessarily situate him as an experimental filmmaker, it does mean that when you watch a Ridhwan Saidi film, you should tailor your expectations away from, say, a film by James Lee. What kind of standards, then, are we speaking of here? Certainly not something particularly mainstream, even when they interact with that discourse in a critical way.

For instance, in looking back at his filmography, films like ‘Perempuan, Hantu dan Skandal’ stand out. This has much to do with the bigger picture context of the time, in which discussions about the murder of Altantuya Shaariibuu were proceeding apace. The sensationalism came from probable connections with the high office of Malaysia government at the time; more recently, the issue has come back into public consciousness, as the convicted killer admitted he acted upon orders from the former prime minister, Najib Tun Razak.

How is Ridhwan linked to that? Fragments of her body were found at Puncak Alam, relatively close to Puncak Perdana, where Ridhwan was studying as a film student at the time. I will stop short from saying that he went out there, in bushes, to scout for the actual location of the deed, but such an opportunity for verisimilitude is one not to be passed up. I don’t actually know where he shot the film, but visually, both Puncaks are identical. ‘Perempuan, Hantu dan Skandal’ played as a kind of satire of real life, tackling a very serious issue off screen in a more comical manner on it.

I also remember a film called ‘Kaki Lima’, a one-take odyssey through the heart of Kuala Lumpur. That now appears to be de riguer for filmmakers to have such a film on their resume (see Inarritu, Alejandro and Chew, Vikster), but the background of Ridhwan’s film means that we can’t quite ignore the socio-political contextualisation with which to analyse it. For my part, I am delighted to discover that he has uploaded it unto his YouTube channel.

Of course, neither of the films above is the aim of this particular piece. Rather, this is meant to be a review of ‘Sisa Binasa’, a silent film which draws upon much of the tropes of that genre. The first words we see on screen is Binfilem, a moniker Ridhwan has utilised for more than a decade. It proclaims him to be an offspring of cinema, and we see traces of this from the film itself. With foreboding music in the background, a shaman (Jasad Bersiong) is healing a man (Ali Aiman Mazwin) by removing a spirit (Adam Taufiq Suharto) from his body. This is trapped in a pot, and we are told that it must be rid of. The man then seeks to do precisely that, aided by his slaves (Rashid Akhmal and Fariq Khir), but they encounter a spirit of the forest (Tasha K), an 18th century Greta before Thunberg, warning them against doing so.

Again, much of the pre-analysis I speak of above is applicable here. I mentioned, for instance, that this film works as a silent film, but there are a few moments where an audible diegesis is heard. It subverts our expectation, itself a foundation that could be formed by those familiar with old Malaysian films strongly featuring ideas related to spirituality (a fact which remains true of more recent entries). Such discourses are utilised as a form of social discipline, with fear as the whip with which such acts are done. I feel that on some level, Ridhwan is keen to suggest how outdated ideas should be reconsidered in light of progress and modernity. This sense, that he is reconfiguring the old with the new, is enhanced with the utility of pantun and superimpositions, key tropes of local films from yesteryears.

Sudden cuts of close ups, zooming in on the bodies on screen, also breaks the expectations we had, as long shots are punctuated with these sudden bursts of energy. His relatively minimalist approach means that Amirul Rahman’s camera does not move around all that much, stuck on its sticks to let us take in the landscape and the atmosphere. Continuing the points made in paragraphs above, it is also shot in Puncak Perdana, extending not only Ridhwan’s cinematic love affair with it, but also how such places are wide open to interpretation, flitting back and forth between the contemporary and the past.

I had wanted to finish with a Christina Aguilera pun (genie in a bottle and all that), yet that sentence above feels more apt, describing not only the film itself, but also Ridhwan’s filmography as a whole. It might not be everyone’s kettle of fish (or pot of spirit, for that matter), but ‘Sisa Binasa’ certainly rubbed me the right way, and I hope it does the same for you too.

Featured image credit: Mochammad Algi / Pexels

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