What’s in a Pontianak?
With the recent opening of Glen Goei and Gavin Yap’s Revenge of the Pontianak (2019), there’s a lot of buzz around the pontianak monster who had notoriously haunted local screens back in the 1960s. (We have a review for it!) Used as a common tactic to scare children from being lured away by attractive women, the pontianak was pretty much a popular superstition known to all who grew up in a rural kampung.
So that excludes me, and also everyone else who knows only of concrete buildings and high-rise skyscrapers. Especially in Singapore, in all our modernity and bright night lights, the banana tree plantations and stilted wooden houses are so far removed from our lives. Maybe, the closest to the pontianak that millennials of today would be exposed to would be NS guys staying in forests during their service.
Nowadays, the horror movies that flood our cinemas for this age’s ghost hunters are of creepy clowns and unnerving dolls. Horror films have long been known to reflect the social anxieties of the audience it addresses (Clowns and dolls… We must have had rather traumatising childhoods). So with that in mind, where does the pontianak stand now?
She is both elegant and chilling, charming and terrifying. She is the 1960s Southeast Asian version of the Demogorgon, the Nun, the Pennywise who has taken the shape of an alluring woman dressed in a sarong kebaya. Goei wanted Revenge of the Pontianak to be an introduction to the younger generation who may not have encountered this traditional horror story that has plagued the hearts of Singaporeans and Malaysians in our nations’ heydays.
And in keeping true to some classic pontianak film elements that dominated the Golden Era of Singapore cinema in the 1960s, Revenge of the Pontianak is determined to keep alive an iconic aspect of our parents’ generation.
Before proceeding, in case the pontianak is something completely unheard of foryou, Revenge of the Pontianak has a short explanation at the start. But here’s the brief summary from Voodoo Nightmare: Return to Pontianak (2001):
Most pontianak films run loosely along the same lines, as does Revenge of the Pontianak. Here, I will be looking at Anak Pontianak (1958), Sumpah Pontianak (1958), Voodoo Nightmare: Return to Pontianak (2001), and Pontianak Harum Sundal Malam (2004). Unfortunately, most of these classic films are in Malay and I really wished I could understand them. But as a self-proclaimed youngster, it was fun diving in without much knowledge beforehand and scouring through these films, looking at how far motion pictures have come. (Think wonky graphic effects and less-than-believable makeup!)
But, with these films being almost a genre of their own, there were some recognizable sights that you are sure to find. Mention to the baby boomer generation the telling title of the 2019 movie and they are sure to point out some of the must-have elements that make a pontianak film, a pontianak film. Have fun spotting these tropes in the 2019 version!
- Long black hair and plain white dress
The pontianak is said to have shape-shifting abilities, usually alternating between that of a posh, refined lady and a dishevelled, gritty phantom. To Goei’s credit, he had decided that his version of the pontianak would not be in a white bedsheet, even though he does still play with the recognisable costume that has endured the test of time.
- Banana Plantation
Of course, how can one talk about the pontianak without the essential, large, green banana leaves hiding her from full view?
Densely packed, banana tree plantations were pretty much ubiquitous in long-ago Singapore. Just reflecting on how many types of food were traditionally wrapped or served with banana leaves, it is safe to assume that banana trees were very close to the hearts of those who stayed in rural kampungs. Hey, what if the banana leaf you were eating from came from a tree that had harboured the pontianak?
The high-density planting of the fruit makes for the perfect setting for the pontianak to play hide-and-seek as she scurries through the plantation that she is so well-acquainted with, awaiting the arrival of an ill-fated trespasser.
- Wooden Houses on Stilts
Just like banana trees, there’s another unforgettable representation of the typical village life. Whether you’ve stayed in kampungs in present-day Newton like Goei did, or any of the other villages that have existed in Singapore in its early days, this elevated house with a triangular roof is sure to be a familiar sight. Completely made out of wood, these houses were built on stilts to avoid excess moisture that may cause the house to rot, to be prepared in case of floods in the tropical environment, and to allow better air circulation. Though, one has to admit that the necessary flight of steps up to the house makes for a suspenseful and imposing entry.
Louvred windows that open out wide, another familiar architectural component, are also given their due screentime in Revenge of the Pontianak. Whether for frightened aunties to slam them shut to keep the incoming monster out, or for a faulty door to creak in the wind when it was surely kept closed just a minute before, the kampung house is heavily and aptly utilised in Goei’s pontianak film as she flits from room to room.
- Full Moon
Not only just an unmistakable symbol for female lunacy, a full moon signals the height of pitch-darkness in the still night, the perfect time for any scary creature to appear. Known to be a time when supernatural dwellers of the underground are at the peak of their powers, the pontianak too becomes the most active at night. Indistinguishable from shadows, she beckons you to come closer and closer, squinting in the dark, until it is too late.
- Angry Villagers with Fire Torches
The pontianak never just comes for one person, but is said to plague the entire village once targeted. While a classic case of mass hysteria, there is something to be mentioned about the strong communal spirit of the kampung. Tell me that you haven’t heard an old person (sorry) reminisce, “Ah, I remember the good ol’ kampung days when everyone knew everyone!”
Either in celebrating a happy marriage or in facing the impending doom that is to strike the village, everyone is in it together. Family and friends stay but a short walk away from one another, and the shared space of the market is – like it still is now – a place for gossip and rumours to thrive. Nothing says “kampung spirit” more than a group of angry villagers waving their lit torches and hunting the pontianak down together, does it?
- High-Pitched Giggling, Baby Crying, and Barking Dogs
Her presence is usually signalled by piercing giggles that can be heard coming from all directions, and the occasional sounds of a baby wailing to lure a concerned passer-by into the banana tree plantations where she resides. In a simpering manner, the pontianak’s form as an elegant and refined lady is maintained as she teases one into a game of no escape, a pseudo-kindness before her brutal murder.
We are familiar with animals being more attuned to abnormal occurrences. Frantic barks and howls from dogs or aggressive chirping birds are ominous cues to stay away. Or at least, be prepared for her coming. So as the wise elderly say, if stray cats or dogs in your neighbourhood are staring intently up a tree, don’t look. (Thanks Kessa for the fair warning!)
One last superstition: one shouldn’t say the name of the pontianak out loud too many times because that’s equivalent to calling for her. Sort of an olden days Bloody Mary, if you like. But… considering how many times we’ve used the word (and in our review too!), perhaps you and I should avoid banana plantations for a while.
Instead, visit them in Revenge of the Pontianak, which is screening in cinemas now. Check out the trailer here: