The surprise return of 'Dukun'

APRIL 14 ― “Lost films” is a term that not many Malaysians are familiar with. Even trying to correctly define what a “lost film” is will take more than the normal length of this column.

Some define them as films that have no known surviving copies anywhere (like our very own P. Ramlee’s Sitora Harimau Jadian or Hussein Haniff’s Istana Berdarah), therefore making them impossible to be seen again.

They will only remain in the memories of those who were fortunate enough to have seen them in the first place.

Some will even include films that were never finished and were therefore never shown to the public (like Josef Von Sternberg’s I, Claudius), or even films that were finished but for whatever reason were never released (like Jerry Lewis’ The Day The Clown Cried).

Some will also include a particular cut of a film in the definition, like maybe the director’s cut of a film that was butchered/altered by the studio (like the mythical director’s cut of Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons).

Whatever the definition, these films definitely have one thing in common ― they live in the memory of those who want to see them, which is why they’re called “lost”, because there are people who want to go looking for them in the first place.

And so we come to a Malaysian film long presumed “lost” by the public ― Dukun by respected auteur Dain Said. Shot 12 years ago and originally planned for release 11 years ago, the film, rumoured to be based on the high profile Mona Fandey case, to the disappointment of everyone seduced by the film’s poster and pre-release publicity, was shelved by its producers without any explanation.

Rumours abound as to the reasons behind its disappearance, with the two main theories being that it was either banned or suppressed.

Then an eight-minute clip of the film appeared on YouTube a few years back, which got people even more excited because even that looked good enough to whet our appetite for more.

About one or two months back, the movie was leaked online, prompting frantic scrambles to download it before it was taken down (it was later revealed that the leaked version did not have an ending).

Then about two weeks ago, a clip of what looked like a ghost in a red kebaya went viral, before all of a sudden, a few days later, a poster and trailer of Dukun (whose main character wears in a red kebaya, of course) dropped, announcing its release on April 5, 2018.

There were still no explanations as to why the film was never released 11 years ago, but all that anticipation, plus the ingenious marketing plan for its eventual 2018 release made Dukun the talk of the town, so much so that it has reportedly already bagged RM6.2 million in its first four days, a record high achievement for a local film in that short span of time.

What of the film itself, you ask? I’m glad I didn’t get the chance to see the leaked version, because that meant that I got the privilege of experiencing the film for the first time at its actual intended setting ― the cinema.

And what a revelation the film is, even 12 years after it was shot. As someone who grew up during the whole Mona Fandey mania, the facts of the whole case are still fresh in my mind, and watching the film now, it’s quite bold how quite a lot of the situations and facts directly mirror the Mona Fandey case.

But this being a fictional film, of course there will be plenty of creative liberties taken, especially in trying to craft a dramatic narrative out of the whole thing. Yes, the film is more or less about Diana Dahlan (an awesome Umie Aida in what is still the performance of a lifetime), a shaman/witch doctor on trial for murdering her client, who is a businessman, but as any screenwriter will tell you, that is only the film’s Story A.

Any proper (commercial) script will at least need a Story B to flesh it out and give it opportunities to create drama and conflict, and that Story B here comes in the form of Diana’s lawyer Karim and his struggle to reconcile what Diana tells and shows him, and what he and others believe.

These two stories are what made the film problematic to some people ― they were expecting a straight up horror flick but got a courtroom drama/police procedural laced with mystical elements instead, which was fine by me.

The only slight problem I have with the film is the sometimes shaky acting and awkward dialogue (which can sometime sound like it was directly translated from English).

Everything else about it is an “A” or even “A+” for me ― the narrative structure is rock solid, Dain Said’s by now trademark obsession with Asian mysticism is beautifully woven into the narrative, the framing and composition always on point and a pleasure to look at, and it plays like a proper, no-nonsense genre movie.

I’d even say that it’s my favourite Dain Said movie to date, and it’s his debut! So, dear readers, now that Dukun is unexpectedly here, please don’t waste the chance and go see it.

*This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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