Stunningly Vibrant, REVENGE OF THE PONTIANAK Reminisces about the Past and its Accompanying Horrors
Marriages in the village are supposed to be blessings of good luck and endless joy for everyone. But strange things start to happen after the happy union of Khalid and Siti. An eerie shadow flitters in the dark and rumours begin to spread. Who is that and why has bad luck befallen them?
Directors: Glen Goei, Gavin Yap
Cast: Nur Fazura, Remy Ishak, Hisyam Hamid, Shenty Felizaina
Runtime: 93 minutes
“Sayang…” There is a majestic shot of a sun setting, its rays splashing an entire forest golden yellow. Running in the background is the melodious voice of a mother preaching to her child about the boundless capacity of loving others. Then, her words are cut mid-way and the title of Revenge of the Pontianak jumps out. Alongside climactic orchestral music, blood-red splatters appear, closing in and haunting.
The real show is about to begin.
A little confession: I don’t do horror films. The last full-length horror movie I watched was maybe 10 years ago and the last time I’ve watched a horror show in the cinema was… never. Naturally, I was terrified. But with a recent revival of pontianaks in the Southeast Asian creative world, such as Sharlene Teo’s debut novel Ponti and Eric Khoo’s episode Nobody in the HBO Folklore series, my curiosity was piqued.
The pontianak figure is a familiar monster to the baby boomer generation of not just Singapore, but Malaysia, Indonesia, and all around Asia. But in 2019? Why are people suddenly interested in this blood-thirsty, vampire-like creature?
In a post-screening dialogue organised by the Singapore Film Society, Glen Goei shared, “All my life I’ve been told to be afraid of this beautiful woman. And she’s being demonised. And I said, you know, why is she demonised? What has she done wrong?” It is precisely because it is 2019 that we no longer mindlessly absorb folklore told to scare little children in kampungs.
Giving depth to the backstory of the villain? Want! Humanising the female ghost? My feminist heart screamed, “Sign me up!”
Revenge of the Pontianak is no head-turner tale for the local audience who is intimately aware of how the pontianak comes to be. But for the uninformed, the film sets its premise right at the start with no frills: in this part of the world, a woman who dies upon giving birth is said to rise again as the pontianak.
Let’s admit it: Revenge of the Pontianak is not the scariest of scary movies. Paul Seares’ music composition (he admitted to have always wanted to do something Hermann-esque, who was a frequent collaborator of Hitchcock) takes the lion’s share in providing the necessary tension and suspense in the film. It is full-fledged anxiety and nervousness encapsulated in a fanfare of amplified and well-timed sound design.
While that may come as a disappointment to horror-seekers, I wonder if it is fair to classify Revenge of the Pontianak as horror in the first place. Aside from the occasional shadow lurking in the background – usually cued by disembodied giggling or screechy ripping sounds – and the ghastly long nails reaching for our frightened victims, the bulk of the film deals with how Khalid and his extended family react to the inexplicable happenings around the kampung.
With our own knowledge of the pontianak and the brief storyline marketed, there aren’t many twists and turns to expect from the movie. But that may be it. Using iconic P. Ramlee songs representative of 1960s Singapore/Malaysia and even the outdated (but classic “nod to Hitchcock”, Goei confesses) iris shot, Revenge of the Pontianak is a tribute to the past.
It is a technicolour and beautiful version of the old pontianak films that has nostalgic value for the older generation. It is a current take on the same pontianak tales that pays homage to kampung life through rose-coloured lens. It allows the form-fitting and delicate sarong kebaya to shine in all its glory.
Initially, when Mina (the enigmatic Nur Fazura) is introduced, I thought it a blunder. Even I knew that Rule Number 1 for creating terror is to make sure that the object is not seen in full view. Things are more frightening when we never know how they look like, nor when they appear. To see Mina’s face, we know that the pontianak is just a lady.
However, that may be exactly what Goei seeks to tell: she is just a lady. A lady who is wrongfully separated from her baby. A lady who has her reasons for returning. As much as Revenge of the Pontianak should be seen as a tribute to the past of local cinematic history, it should also be a tribute to the literal past of the pontianak figure, an acknowledgement of her personal history as a mother and a wife.
And while such intentions should be applauded, there is still something left to be desired about the presentation of the female protagonist here. Mina’s agency is unfortunately reduced to an undying and foolish loyalty to her husband. She also fluctuates between senseless killings and sensible awareness, which can be quite unconvincing.
Regardless, Goei said that he wanted to make a beautiful film, and a beautiful film it is. Revenge of the Pontianak presents a romanticised view of both the pontianak story and the kampung environment she appears in. Even the forest that the characters and the movie keep going back to is as alluring as it is threatening, having been painstakingly shot from different angles to give full attention to an environment long gone from our cityscape.
Look out for a breathtaking tracking shot of the iconic long wooden house that was specially built for the movie. Cinematographer Jon Keng, who was then working on a feature film for the first time, does an exceptional job capturing the ins and outs of kampung life, which Revenge of the Pontianak revolves around.
In its first week, Revenge of the Pontianak already raked in the highest-grossing sales for a movie shot in the Malay language. Whether to take a trip down memory lane with your childhood fears or the natural surroundings of rural kampung life, the movie promises lush colours and sentimental music that will transport you back in time.
Revenge of the Pontianak is available in cinemas now. Have a look at the trailer: