Thorny Issues – Janda Kampung Durian

Fikri Jermadi brings his parang to the table to dissect Abdul Walid Ali’s feature film debut.

‘Janda Kampung Durian’ tells the story of Peah (Syaa Nurul) who gets married to a resident of Kampung Durian. Unfortunately, before things really got going between them, he dies on the first day of their marriage, before they were even able to consummate their union. This attracted the attention of the men of the village, like the village head (Rajap Pawi) and the local politician (Felix Augustus), keen to make her theirs.

What’s interesting about the film for me is that it’s produced by Peanutzin, an independent entity more known for their book publication than film production. This is not particularly unique (Amir Muhammad’s Fixi also dabbles in similar activities, especially in collaboration with Doghouse 73 Pictures), but what makes it rare is that those behind the company are getting down and dirty in the filmmaking field.

For instance, Hary Harith, the founder of Peanutzin, is also the producer of ‘Janda Kampung Durian’, while its writer and director, Abdul Walid Ali, is a multihyphenate who has also written for the banner. A long-time figure on the local arts scene (he is also a co-founder of Rumah Filem, a film appreciation space in Sarawak), this is the whiff of that strong independent spirit, making ends meet to make the film.

All that informs the relative production value of this film. Made on a shoestring budget, it is very much a communal effort, with everyone chipping in where they can both in front of and behind the camera; some, like Daniel Dahiri, is on triple duty as an actor, photographer and best boy. As such, my focus for this review will not be on some of the more technical side of things, which has more room for improvement.

Instead, I’m keen to shed light on the film’s themes and the approaches taken in dissecting them. ‘Janda Kampung Durian’ has a tongue-in-cheek approach not unfamiliar to the fans of Mamat Khalid; in addition to the film’s title reminding us of the late director’s Kampung Durian series, there is a sharp sense of humour which satirises various aspects of Malaysian society.

One of these discourses is that of sexuality, with Walid highlighting how many make a direct connection between bedroom prowess and socio-political aptitude. This can be seen in the village head, who is keen to ‘have’ Peah despite already being married to not one but two other wives. In addition to that, the film is laced with the kind of double entendre that makes clear the commodification of both sex and politics.

For instance, the local term for crocodile (‘buaya’) is often used to describe someone with a rapacious sexual appetite. Getting back to the aforementioned village head, this can be seen in the work of the film’s editor Nisilu, who, in one scene, cut straight from the character to a Sarawak Forestry Corporation road sign, warning people to be aware of the amphibian animal.

Such layers also applies to the word ‘project’, whose more prosaic meaning is utilised by the politician. He walks around town with promises of developing the community by building a crocodile conservation area, and even randomly gives local kids money in return for their support. It echoes events during the recent Malaysian elections, where the Islamist party PAS shamefully justified such actions as ‘charity’.

Coming back to the term, ‘project’ can also mean sexual intercourse; as an aside, I am not sure where that came from, but I first became aware of that definition from an urban dictionary Amir Muhammad compiled some years ago. Put together these two words, and you can see how the sum of ‘projek buaya’ is more than its parts.

Interestingly, what Walid has cleverly done is to utilise not just the verbal and visual elements, but also silence as gaps in which the audience can project their own meaning. Such an ellipsis is evident when the politician, speaking to his assistant (Fizi Juma’at) at the eatery Peah runs, begins with “Lainlah kalau projek buaya yang…”, before abruptly falling silent as their attention shifts to her entering the frame. Once again, we can’t help but infer the desire for our protagonist.

Having said that, that term is more of a misnomer. Peah may be the eponymous widow of the village, but ‘Janda Kampung Pisang’ works more as an ensemble film, with many of the actors getting a decent amount of time to flesh out their characters. What this does is to give us a better chance of empathising with them, to see where they come from.

What is intriguing is that quite a number of them are not personally named; the politician, for instance, is referred to as YB, a generic acronym related to the honorific of ‘honourable one’. Similarly, the village head and the imam (Shahrulamyra Mohammad) are also primarily identified with their positions. It is only the female characters (like Peah and Diana) whose names are more fully accounted for, which I see as a plus.

All this add up to make ‘Janda Kampung Durian’ a more significant film than it would have been otherwise. Locally, there is a positive value it brings to the Samarahan community it was shot in in Sarawak; I’m all for the broadening of representation on our silver screens. In the bigger picture, these forms of direct satire remain far and few in between the hegemonic action and horror films of Malaysian popular cinema.

There’s more that could be written about the film itself (Walid also breaks the fourth wall at times to keep us on our guard), but as it stands, it suffices to say that ‘Janda Kampung Durian’s humourous take on certain socio-political discourses makes it a rare piece of work. It is the little film that can, doing what others could and should but does not. Much like the fruit itself, it may not be for everyone, but it certainly is for me.

‘Janda Kampung Durian’ was an official selection for Jakarta Film Week 2022.

Featured image credit: Social Sneaker


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