MARCH 4 — The first few months of 2023 have been pretty unexpected in terms of the sheer number of interesting and must-see Malaysian films that have arrived in local cinemas.
With Sabri Yunus’ Duan Nago Bogho arriving in January and Coast Guard Malaysia: Ops Helang winning lots of hearts with its honest-to-goodness 80s/early 90s action movie approach, which was then followed up by Harum Malam, the latest film from highly respected auteur Dain Said (whose every new film I will automatically be excited to go see in the cinema, just because it’s a new Dain Said film), it has been an exciting start of the year for Malaysian cinema so far.
With Imam arriving this week and the controversial Pulau next week, it looks like the excitement is not about to die down yet this month, and I wonder what kind of movies will be awaiting us during the Hari Raya Aidilfitri season in April, as these slots are usually reserved for potential box-office hits, which sometimes even sees two high profile local films competing against each other during the Hari Raya holidays.
Still, the real excitement, and the year’s biggest surprise for me so far, is the arrival of Imaginur, the latest film from director Nik Amir Mustapha, of KIL and Terbaik Dari Langit fame.
I had seen the very promising trailer, and I also knew that it was screened at the New York Asian Film Festival last year, but nothing prepared me for how great this film is.
But first, let’s get this out of this way; this is a film with a non-linear narrative structure, and when you couple that with things like taking care of people with Alzheimer’s, which means that the concept of an unreliable narrator is pretty much the very fabric of this film’s existence (although there’s really no narration here, but I think you’ll get what I mean once you watch the film), things are bound to get a little bit tricky and seemingly confusing.
For some people, this might not be your cup of coffee, and that’s fine.
For those willing to give this a try, just go with it, pay full attention, open your heart to what the film’s trying to convey to you, and you’ll be in for a very rewarding experience.
Best experienced when coming in knowing as little as possible, the story revolves around a guy named Zuhal (a terrific Beto Kusyairi), who is taking care of his father (Mior Hashim Manap, also terrific) who’s suffering from Alzheimer’s.
Even when setting this up, Nik Amir and his co-writer Redza Minhat have been playing games with the audience from the start, as we see Zuhal getting disoriented by what’s happening around him and seemingly important events blur together to mimic what it must feel like inside the head of a person with Alzheimer’s, even if he’s only taking care of someone with Alzheimer’s, hence making the film itself the unreliable narrator here.
Along the way we meet his sister Isma (a gently sympathetic Nadiya Nisaa), a nameless auntie gently played by Fatimah Abu Bakar and the mysterious Nur of the film’s title, played by Diana Danielle at her fetching best.
While at first playing like a variation of Groundhog Day with the film’s many recurring events repeated with slight variations, the Alzheimer’s angle also made me think of Florian Zeller’s exceptional The Father, in the way the film tries to disorient the audience by putting them inside the head of someone possibly suffering from Alzheimer’s.
But things get even more offbeat when it introduces another disorienting element in the form of Hypnotica, a company that specialises in hypnotising their clients to help solve whatever problems they might have, and for Zuhal it’s what he thinks are panic attacks.
And this hypnotising process is performed by a character named Ramli (an entertainingly quirky Afdlin Shauki) by utilising the sort of charmingly retro headgear and computer setup that will remind people of Michel Gondry.
This is where the many comparisons to Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind that you can find on social media comes from, although I’d like to add the name of Mike Cahill (the brilliant director behind the glorious I Origins and Another Earth) into the mix.
These are all cosmetics actually – the mysterious company is a callback to KIL (which had an outfit that helps to assassinate suicidal people), the charmingly lo-fi gadgets is a nod to the sci-fi elements of Terbaik Dari Langit – and some might even think of these as a form of MacGuffin (a phrase popularised by Hitchcock to describe a plot device that is actually a red herring that compels audiences to dive into a story), but it’s the film’s real meat that makes watching it such a worthwhile experience.
When all is said and done, the film is ultimately about the people we love and our memories of them, and how hard some of us have to fight to hold on to those memories.
It’s a heartbreaking and touching romance made even more entertaining by the quirky cosmetics, the bait and switch tactics of its tight screenplay, and the wonderful performances of everyone in the cast.
A lo-fi sci-fi wonder that plays like Mike Cahill making his own version of The Father, channeled through Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, this is not only Nik Amir’s best film to date, but it’s also one of the best Malaysian films ever, period.
And unlike most praises for local films, which usually need a qualifier like “this is good... for a local film” or “this is great... for an action flick”, this one doesn’t need any qualifiers because Imaginur is, straight up, a great movie.
* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.