Saturday, January 22, 2011

Kuntilanak – review

Director: Rizal Mantovani

Release date: 2006

Contains spoilers

One of the problems I have found with films featuring kuntilanaks is the fact that the name seems to be being used by the Indonesian film industry as a catch-all for various ghosts and ghoulies.

In this case, whilst there is little in the way of blood drinking and some of the lore is embellished, I felt that the film was far enough away from a simple haunting to warrant review.

Sam's dream
The film starts off with Sam (Julie Estelle) sat before a burning chair with blood on her hands. Before her is a rock, a dish and scissors. She picks up the scissors and cuts at her hair. She awakens. She phones up her boyfriend Gung (Evan Sanders) who asks her is she has had a bad dream and if it is the same one again. She puts the phone down on him. Her step-father starts knocking at the door asking for company, its been a while since her mother died. She looks at a suitcase.

She takes herself to a boarding house. The local men explain that it is on the other side of the cemetery and she must ask permission of the tree as she walks past. She walks past the children playing round the base of the tree (and doesn’t ask permission but that is unimportant) and is met outside the boarding house by Mrs Yanti (Lita Soewardi) and is shown her room.

the mirror
The place had been a house for the factory next door, but there had been a fire. Now Yanti looks after the place for Madame Mangkujiwo (Alice Iskak). The ground floor is for men lodgers and the third floor is for the female lodgers. The middle floor is locked off and out of bounds. She should not bring boys up –its bad luck. There is a large and elaborate Mangkujiwo mirror in her room. The fact Sam likes it impresses Yanti.

Sam under the power of chanting
Sam does say that it is a pity she cannot see the haunted tree and Yanti tells her not to listen to silly talk about kuntilanak. She explains that her mother used to tell her stories of the creatures and that if you hear one laugh (a strange noise that she impersonates) then if the laughter sounds close it is far away but if it fades it is close. She also says they can be summoned with a chant, and starts to sing. She has her back to Sam but we see that the song has a weird effect on her. When she finishes she admonishes Sam for looking pale – after all she couldn’t summon it even if they were real, only those with the power of chanting can do that.

From here we see into Sam’s life. Her and Gung are not a perfect couple as she doesn’t trust him. It seems he went out with his friends one day when she said she had a bad feeling and her mum later died – thus he wasn’t there for her. Needy much. For his part Evan Sanders imbues the character with so much histrionics that we have no sympathy for him – but that’s okay as he is only a foil for Sam. His friend lwang (Ibnu Jamil) gives us a lot of our lore.

Sam gets angry
It seems that the Mangkujiwo were not a family but a satanic cult though no-one has seen hide nor hair of them for a while. The film follows Sam as, when someone threatens her, she begins to chant the song to summon the Kuntilanak. In the first instance this causes the one who threatened her to suffer a nosebleed, see faces in a distorted way and makes Sam throw up maggots.

The kuntilanak is then summoned from the tree – through one of four mirrors placed around the boarding house. It hunts down the one that Sam chants at and the deaths are all things that might look accidental – a fan blade flying off, a car crash or slipping in the shower – if it wasn’t for the fact that the head is twisted back to front in each case. When she is upset at Gung he is, for reasons that seem to be more plot related than lore related, abducted and tortured rather than killed.

Kuntilanak crawls
I said that the kuntilanak lore was unusual and the main reason for suggesting this is that the creature is described as having the legs of a horse. We do actually see hooves at one point and I can see no reference to this in the literature pertaining to kuntilanaks (though I stand to be corrected). We do see brain at the crown of the head and I suspect this is representative of the hole where a nail can be put to tame the creature and turn it into a beautiful woman.

Sam's scars
Another strange affectation of the film was the fact that glowing scars seemed to be appearing on Sam’s neck with each summoning. This almost seemed a karmic reaction – much like the throwing up of maggots. The kuntilanak reveals itself to have a couple of kuntilanak children at one point and can be dominated by a chanter with inner strength. The film is very much based around that issue.

The film itself works. Despite my comment about the Gung character, the obvious plot devices and the fact that, whilst pretty, Julie Estelle looks somewhat bewildered but then again her character is meant to be bewildered, so that actually works. I liked the photography used in the film, there was an overexposed feel to the daylight shots that worked and the kuntilanak was suitably creepy.

The film kept me interested, the annoying qualities of the principle characters never distracted from the film itself and all in all I enjoyed myself. It wasn’t the greatest film in the world but it was worthwhile. 5.5 out of 10.

The imdb page is here.

No comments: