Director: Glen Goei & Gavin Yap
Cast: Nur Fazura, Remy Ishak, Hisyam Hamid, Shenty Feliziana, Nam Ron, Tony Eusoff, Nadiah M.Din, Wan Hanifi Su, Nadia Aqilah, Nik Harraz Danish
Runtime: 1 hr 32 mins
Rating: PG13 (Horror and Some Violence)
Released By: Golden Village Pictures
Opening Day: 29 August 2019
Synopsis: 1965, Malaysia. A small village helps Khalid and Siti prepare for their wedding day. Soon after, a great darkness falls upon the village as a string of horrific deaths and supernatural happenings create widespread fear and paranoia amongst the villagers. The events force a confession from Khalid to a murder of a girl he made pregnant years before, now believed to have returned as a Pontianak. To kill this vengeful vampire, he rallies all the men of the village and sets out into the jungle to hunt her down. But can the village stop her?
Probably one of the most enigmatic and popular supernatural entity in this region, the pontianak is to Southeast Asia what Sadako is to Japan.
Based on popular mythology, she is the ghost of a woman who died pregnant or during childbirth, and boy is she angry! Appearing as a beautiful woman to lure victims to a quiet area before ravaging their innards and drinking their blood, her true form is a spectral white ghost with long hair, long nails, and long teeth. Like a stake to a western vampire, the blood-thirsty pontianak can only be stopped with a nail, but in the nape instead of the heart.
Glen Goei returns after a decade from his last film release (The Blue Mansion) and partners with Malaysian actor and director Gavin Yap to create a modern retelling of this horrific folklore in Revenge of the Pontianak. And it mostly works.
Says of the treatment, Glen Goei shares that he was “heavily inspired by the look and feel of film classics from the ‘50s and ‘60s”. So with cinematographer Jon Keng at the helm, the film is lush with saturated colours and gorgeously-detailed art direction. From the get-go, the film palette invokes a sensual tone. A glossy banana leaf, the misty golden hills, the scarlet kebaya of the spirit - it’s a visceral treat when coupled with the textured sets and costuming.
When not focused on colours, the camerawork and lighting is just as elegant and luscious, this time with filtered light and abundant bokeh lending their magical aura to the scenes. There’s one scene I especially loved, where Shenty Feliziana walks through the house after waking up. Every leaf and room is precisely coordinated, and the layered dimensions and storytelling in that one tracking shot is a joy to watch unfold.
The technical and visual qualities of Revenge of the Pontianak is stellar, and even the soundtrack (Kasihku Selamanya, sung by diva Dato’ Sri Siti Nurhaliza) and score is equally lux. That said, the storytelling can benefit from the same injection of bold - it is after all, supposed to be a “new and intelligent take”.
Remy Ishak is Khalid, who has just brought his new wife to his village. As soon as Siti (Shenty Feliziana) arrives, a murder and strange disease follows, making her the target of the locals. But Khalid hides a secret, and the curse is closely tied to his past, which has conjured the wrath of the pontianak upon his kampung.
Although the refocus on making the monster a little bit more humanised is a great idea, it is honestly not the new in this day and age. If we look towards motivations and plot, the secret isn’t really hard to guess as well. So when it comes to reinvention, the film doesn’t really achieve what it set out to do.
The plot is helped somewhat by some great performances - mainly thanks to Nur Fazura as the vengeful spirit. Her natural screen presence fills the scenes she’s in, and her character has better room for expression than some of the others. Another is Hisyam Hamid, who as Khalid’s brother Reza, has the chops to create a compelling persona. His possessed delivery would have seemed comical, if not for the commitment you can see from his eyes.
That said, these successful performances get bogged down by others, and sometimes, the disparity is too much to ignore. Ishak’s Khalid is extremely stiff and uncharismatic, which as the lead, takes down the entire film a notch. Feliziana is also extremely dull as his pretty wife, which directly affects the scenes of punishment she has to endure later in the movie.
Nam Ron as the witch doctor will probably be a polarising figure. I enjoyed his performance, even though he does repeat himself just a little too much. I would also have loved an actual interaction between him and the pontianak. But his manic portrayal might come across as cheesy to some others, though still by far better than the tragedy that was in a certain TV anthology with the same horror theme.
Revenge of the Pontianak remains a commendable effort despite some lack in casting and acting, but Asian folklore deserve more presence on the screens, and this serves as a worthy entry to enjoy.
What would have made it incredible would be better pacing (the long, drawn out scenes of the pontianak feels necessary at times), better acting (again, picking up on the delivery pace would make the performances less uncomfortably deliberate) and to totally unleash the supernatural force of the pontianak upon her victims for a true homage to vintage cinema.
(It suffers a little in pace and acting from some characters, but the amazing cinematography and production values bolster this and make it a worthy retelling)
Review by Morgan Awyong