Tuesday, July 10, 2018

NYAFF ’18: Dukun

How do the powerful and privileged become ever more so? Black magic. We’re not saying it actually works, but Mona Fandey had plenty of patrons who believed so. The nightclub singer turned shaman achieved infamy when one of her rituals slightly misfired. She decapitated an up-and-coming politician. Look, we’ve all been there, but its still embarrassing when it happens to you. Yet, her fictionalized analog takes this setback in stride throughout Dain Said’s long awaited Dukun (trailer here), which screens during the 2018 New York Asian Film Festival.

Right, so Diana Dahlan’s ritual for the ambitious Dato’ Jeffri was not the smashing success they both hoped for, but things could be worse. As she sagely notes, at least he paid in advance. That attitude isn’t helpful when she is tried in the media, ahead of her courtroom trial, but her smugness is disconcerting, suggesting she knows something everyone else doesn’t, most   particularly including her counsel, Karim Osman. The last thing he needed was a case like this, but is forced to accept, in exchange for help finding his daughter Nadia from a City Hall contact.

As Osman searches high and low with Daud, a private investigator of sorts, who happens to be attuned to occult matters, he actually does a half-decent job defending Dahlan. He scores enough points to irritate Talib, the lead cop on the case, but his own client’s cryptic hints regarding Nadia’s disappearance are not exactly reassuring.

It will seem bizarre to Americans who do not live in California or on a college campus and therefore value free speech and expression that a film as benign as Dukun could be withheld from distribution for twelve years. It might be transparently inspired by the Fandey case, which was rather embarrassing to the ruling Sunni political party, but Said and screenwriter Huzir Sulaiman avoid policy and ideology, while adding plenty of their own invention—starting with Dahlan’s very real supernatural powers.

Dukun is an unusual blend of the courtroom drama and horror genres, which sounds strange, but actually works pretty well. In fact, they juggle a fairly large cast and a good number of subplots rather dexterously, even though they kill off one particularly intriguing character far too soon (alas, such are the perils of being a character in a horror movie).

As Dahlan, Uime Aida is a femme fatale, with the emphasis on the “fatal.” There is clearly supposed to be a feminist subtext to her prosecution, but she is so fabulously sinister, she undercuts the gender politics. Of course, from a horror fan’s perspective that is totally cool. On the other side of the spectrum, Adlin Aman Ramliee is completely convincing as the completely out of his depth Osman. Ramli Hassan is seriously righteous as Daud, while director-thesp Nam Ron is all kinds of hardnosed as Talib.

Weirdly enough, the film’s central legal question is legitimately debatable: was the decapitation really premeditated if Dahlan/Fandey truly thought the rite would bestow immortality on her victim? Still, the severed head is a pretty tangible piece of evidence that is tough to argue with. It very well might be anti-death penalty NGOs that ultimately object to the film, because the fictionalized Dahlan is definitely guilty of some seriously evil stuff, rather than a victim of fear and prejudice. Fascinating on many levels and also wickedly creepy, Dukun screens this Friday (7/13) at the SVA, as part of this year’s NYAFF.