FROM PONTIANAK TO KONPAKU

April 17, 2019 – 3:41 am

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Remi M Sali was one of the pioneers of the modern $ingapore Malay independent film scene, together with his long-time collaborator, Dzul Sungit (Konpaku’s cinematographer). Their short film, eddy, was Special Jury Prize co-winner at the $ingapore International Film Festival 1994. Their short, INfluence, won the Best Director Award at the same festival in 1995. In 1998, they made their debut feature, OffCentre, an adaptation of an acclaimed $ingapore play. Remi went on to direct popular dramas, telemovies and arts series for local television. Konpaku (Soul, 2018) marks his return to filmmaking after 20 years. By Philip Cheah.

Truth is always stranger than fiction and Remi M Sali’s Konpaku is thrilling in its bid to get you frighteningly close to the social reality of being Malay in $ingapore. Not only that, Konpaku refuses the established genre of the Malay pontianak (female vampire) films that have permeated our horrified dreams since 1957.

Instead, the film brings you to millennial $ingapore where history isn’t baggage but only a state-sponsored enterprise. Here, young Malays enter the global village and fall in love. And it’s just your luck if you end up with a foreign ghost.

Haqim (played by Junaidi Sali) loses his sweetheart to his best friend but quickly falls in love again with the sensual and mysterious Japanese vamp, Midori (played by Lizzie V). To him, Midori is his perfect companion, his soulmate, hence the film’s title which means soul in Japanese. But this attractive vamp also happens to be a Japanese succubus.

Midori provides Haqim with a much-needed respite from his heartache, rekindling his faith in love. He grows increasingly dependent on her while becoming distant from everyone else, including his beloved mother. But Midori wants his complete devotion, and is willing to eliminate any interference. Their growing passion takes on a sinister twist, when strange incidents befall those close to Haqim.

Says Remi M Sali: “We took a huge leap of faith to make a movie with such sexually-suggestive content and coarse language, mindful of potential backlash from our largely conservative Malay-Muslim community. While Konpaku has a supernatural element in its story, its main focus is about being Malay in $ingapore, its implications and concerns.

“I consciously referred to some old Malay beliefs/superstitions in the movie. For example, the significance of feet: Haqim’s mum nags when she sees him wearing his shoes inside the house. This actually stems from the belief that he might unintentionally bring something spiritually undesirable home.

“Spirits are believed to find entry through a person’s feet, which is why Haqim’s mum insists that he washes his feet instead of his shoes when she senses something amiss in one scene. Midori is also shown to ‘enter’ Haqim’s body through his feet, and the Ustaz (religious teacher) tries forcing her to leave by the same way during the exorcism.

“In mid-2012, my family and I participated in an exorcism ritual for a close relative. Apparently, he was ‘attached’ to a supernatural entity that progressively affected him physically and spiritually. I was sceptical of course.

“I’ve watched countless English and regional horror movies with exorcism scenes, but always regarded them as pure fiction (even movies that claim to be inspired from actual events). And not being religiously inclined, I wasn’t enthusiastic to be involved in an Islamic exorcism. Konpaku was inspired from my journey of making sense with what I witnessed that night.”

The cultural resonance of Konpaku makes it a visceral viewing experience. The director also notes that “there is a Malay saying: ‘Saperti ular lidah bercabang’ (‘Just like a snake’s forked tongue’), referring to a person who cannot be trusted. This is where I explore the sanctity of a promise for the Malay. ‘Janji Melayu’ (or a ‘Malay’s promise’) has an uncomfortably negative connotation that promises made by Malays are worthless.

This is reflected in the film when Midori, literally shown to have a forked tongue, keeps questioning Haqim if he can truly keep his promise for them to be together. But not all references to snakes are bad. If a Malay woman dreams of being bitten by a snake, it means that someone is coming to ask for her hand in marriage. Hence, Haqim’s mum is furious when he tries to joke that she may have dreamt of the snake in the room.”

The film is a rare example of modern $ingapore Malay cinema in two other ways. One is the liberal use of everyday spoken Malay, which is considered coarse and uncouth. Perhaps for this and the raunchy scenes, the censors rated Konpaku NC16 (No Children under 16). The other is the obsessive (and honestly quite hilarious) dialogue when Haqim keeps trying to persuade Midori to convert to Islam to sanction their marriage.

To get married, all Midori needs to do is embrace Islam by pretence, not by practice. Even when Haqim is delirious, he never loses sight that she must convert. This obsessive emphasis anchors the film in the ordinary world of $ingapore Malays. (Oh well, anything for a succulent Japanese succubus I suppose.)

Footnote: This film had only one screening in $ingapore in 2018 and its European Premiere is at the Udine Far East Film Festival, Italy in late April 2019. However, it is currently showing in an art house circuit in Brunei now. An abbreviated version of this review is also in the programme catalogue of the Udine Far East Film Festival.

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