Review: Dukun (NYAFF 2018)

by Matthew Edward Hawkins

After being banned for 11 years, Dukun was finally released in its homeland of Malaysia this past April, and this summer’s NYAFF marks its international premiere. So why the decade plus long exile? Well, it’s (loosely) based upon Mona Fandey, a real deal shaman who brutally murdered a politician, by chopping him up into 18 different parts. And the subject of black magic is controversial stuff, primarily in a nation that primarily follows Islamic teachings, plus it was apparently deemed “too soon” for any film based upon a scandal that rocked an entire nation.

One might assume that standards have become more relaxed in recent years, but a leaded copy onto the internet that led to renewed interest in the movie is what ultimately paved thew way towards an actual release this time. The film primarily centers upon Kraim Osman, a lawyer desperate to know the whereabouts of his missing daughter, who ran away after a heated argument of some sort. When turning towards a woman… whose exact job title in Malaysia’s justice system is unclear, but it doesn’t really matter… for help, she says that she’ll help looking for the missing young woman, but if the distraught does her a favor. And that’s to represent a woman going to trail for murder who, despite facing the death penalty, the accused has refused lawyer after lawyer.

Kraim agrees and not long after meets his new client, Diana Dahlan; Kraim is clearly distracted, but immediately becomes invested in the case when Diana promises to help find his missing daughter. The trial ends up being the centerpiece of the film, and as one might expect with these kinds of movies, the focus shifts back & forth between what’s happening on the stand and depictions of events described by individuals on the stand, alongside the efforts of detectives outside of the court house, who are investigating a prime that you just know is connected. The basis of Kraim’s defense is this: you may not believe black magic is real, but it doesn’t matter. Cuz the rich & powerful guy who sought Diana’s services sure did, so when he failed to follow the rules and got killed in the process, that sure ain’t her fault.

Aside from being originally the product of the year 2007, Dukun also marks the feature directorial debut of Dain Said; it’s one of those first films in which you just know that the director is destined for greatness (as it turns out, his following movies are indeed very good). But it’s a first film nonetheless, and despite an impressive display of camerawork for a first timer, a firm grasp of both story and pacing are clearly yet to be mastered. Hence why it ends up feeling like an overly long episode of Tales From The Crypt. Which also means its quite gruesome; the blood & guts are superior to many Hollywood productions circa 2018. Though ultimately, it’s the performances that are the true stand outs here; Umie Aida has received the most praise for her portrayal of Dahlan, which is fine, but Faizal Hussein’s Kraim… alongside Namron as one of the aforementioned detectives… are the true draws. Check it out on Friday July 13, 6:15pm, at the SVA Theatre.

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