Malaysian horror cinema hit its peak in the late 1950's, when two series of films based on traditional stories took the country by storm. Cathay Keris Films's Pontianak (1957), Dendam Pontianak (1957) and Sumpah Pontianak (1958) featured a Malay female vampire; the series proved to be so popular that the Shaw Brothers' Malay Film Productions company jumped in and made their own vampire movie, Anak Pontianak (Son of the Vampire), in 1958. In the meantime, another set of movies brought orang minyak, the legendary Oily Maniac, to the screen: Cathay Keris's Orang Minyak and Serangan Orang Minyak (Attack of the Oily Man), and the Shaws' Sumpah Orang Minyak (Curse of the Oily Man), all from 1958. If this list makes it seem as though the Shaw Brothers were merely playing catch-up to Cathay Keris, it should be noticed that Malay Films put out original horror movies including Hantu Jerangkung (The Ghostly Skeleton, 1957), Hantu Kubur (Spirit of the Grave, 1958) and Gergasi (The Giant, 1958) during the same period.
These movies were shot on low budgets, and feature the kind of special effects that Western audiences would have considered old-fashioned and unconvincing ten years earlier. Still, these Malay films retain their charm today — because they were made for an audience that didn't need seamless technical trickery to fire its imagination. Though the monster masks and costumes may have been so cheap that even W. Lee Wilder or (to mix my eras) Larry Buchanan might have spurned them, it is the vividness of the stories themselves that make the films so memorable.
But something changed in Malay horror as time went by — influenced, no doubt, by the vast political and social changes that were going on in the region. Malaysia (then known as the Federation of Malaya) had gained its independence from Great Britain in 1957, which curiously enough is also the year the Malaysian horror boom began in earnest. In 1963, when three new provinces were added to the country (including, very briefly, Singapore), the Federation was officially renamed "Malaysia". Internal strife, armed conflict with Indonesia, land disputes with the Philippines and the eventual secession of Singapore ensued.
By the mid-1960's, Malaysia had become a much different country than it had been at the time of independence. While I don't know enough about the situation to tell exactly what impact this may have had on popular cinema, I do know this: after 1963, with a few, widely separated exceptions — such as the Hamid Bond Pontianak (1975) and the grisly Toyol (1981) — the wild supernatural folktales that had enthralled audiences in the fifties all but disappeared from the screens. Instead, the few films that dealt with the supernatural at all either suggested rational explanations for their horrors, or else played the supernatural elements for laughs (including the Shaws' Pusaka Pontianak , and Cathay's vehicle for the comedian Mat Sentul, Mat Toyol ).
By the late 1960's, the Malay film industry found itself broke, technically backward and unable to keep up with foreign product in sustaining local interest. The Shaw Brothers closed up shop and went back to Hong Kong, while Cathay Keris simply went out of business. By 1977 the last major Malay film studio closed its doors1.
Then, in the mid-to-late 1970's, a series of religious revivals began in Islamic countries, revivals which were further encouraged by the success of the Iranian revolution in 1979. In Malaysia, folk superstition, or tahyul, was considered un-Islamic, and was at first discouraged and then banned from popular entertainment. The same kinds of restrictions were imposed on any subjects that might be considered controversial to local religious sensibilities — kissing is still forbidden on cinema screens, and in recent years, movies as diverse as Charlotte's Web 2 and Bruce Almighty have fallen afoul of the Powers That Be.
Malay film production has picked up since the catastrophe of the late 1970's. But by the mid-90's, the Malaysian government went so far as to put its restrictions on supernaturally-themed entertainment into law. That's right: there was an actual statute that dictated what could and could not be shown in a horror movie. For instance, ghosts, monsters, vampires and such could only appear in dream sequences. There could be no on-screen gore or scenes of graphic horror. And — do I even have to mention? — the Good Guys had to win in a morally-uplifting conclusion.
This sort of thing makes for a lousy environment for horror cinema. But two things must be taken into consideration: first, there seems to have been little or no demand for locally-produced horror cinema at the time; and second, the restrictions on horror cinema were only part of the situation facing film-makers, producers and distributors of all types who were trying to work outside the comfort zone of the local mainstream. The problems which might have faced people who wanted to make true horror films — had there been any, which is unclear — seemed trivial compared to the struggles of those who dared to attempt making movies with some sort of political or social significance. Some of those film-makers faced not only disapproval or censure, but actual imprisonment.
And the struggle continues today, as censorship issues make life miserable for Harry Potter as well as "serious" Malaysian directors like Yasmin Ahmad and Amir Muhammad. But it's heartening to think that in some small way, Malaysian horror cinema has been doing its part to overcome censorship: very gradually, by working within the system at first, some film-makers have been able to demonstrate that there is a growing public demand for scary movies with supernatural themes. Shuhaimi Baba's Pontianak Sundal Malam (2001) was made entirely according to the official rules, and was a popular success; this success allowed the same director to bend the rules somewhat in the sequel. Before long (although the censorship laws remained on the books), public officials were making statements to the effect that, as long as they did not offend the sensitivities of the public, somewhat more graphic domestic horror films would be tolerated. In 2006, Malaysia produced a highly-anticipated zombie film, Zombie Kampung Pisang (Zombies of Bananaville); and even Amir Muhammad has come out with a "hired-gun" horror film called Susuk. Susuk may be pure escapism from a director with a social conscience... yet it does deal with the forbidden subject of tahyul; and anything that stretches the boundaries of the permissible, even in mass entertainment, may contribute in some small way to the loosening of the strictures on more "serious" cinema.
There are those who disagree with me on this point, insisting that the resurgence of Malay horror is probably a bad thing for free expression in the country. The authorities may appear to be loosening their strictures, but in reality (the argument goes) all they are doing is re-inforcing and legitimizing the values of that demon of all film students, the middle class. Therefore (the argument continues), they're actually helping to stifle the creation of a truly progressive cinema.
(Ecch. Pardon me for a moment; I always get bilious when anybody uses the words "bourgeoisie" or "class struggle" while disparaging horror movies.)
Such critics know more about the cultural situation in Malaysia than I ever will. Plus, they've managed to internalize the vocabulary of French-style pseudo-political film criticism in ways that my gag reflex will never permit — and that can't have been easy.
But with all due respect: traditional ghost stories like those of the pontianak are part of every culture's heritage. In their specific details, they arise from the deepest wellsprings of a culture's identity — yet so many stories from so many disparate parts of the world have so much in common that their basic motifs have been collected, indexed and cross-referenced — and it's amazing to see how a single story can recur with so many variations all over the planet. Far from being the property of some complacent elite, ghost stories connect people from all over the world on a very basic level... because everybody knows what fear is; and everybody dies. Horror has a great deal of power, and even if it's rarely used to its best advantage, it should not be underestimated as a tool for cultural change... or for that matter, as a form of creative expression worthy of protection in its own right.
So what am I wibbling about? Of course, I've never been to Malaysia, I don't speak Malay, and I know very little about the cultural situation there. And certainly, the situation is far too complex for a neophyte like me to hope to understand. The reason I bring all this up, in spite of my very superficial grasp of the situation, is to introduce the 1964 Cathay Keris classic, Pontianak Gua Musang (The Vampire of Civet-Cat Cave, 1964).
And here's why I've gone into so much detail about the state of contemporary horror in Malaysia: as far as its approach to tahyul is concerned, Pontianak Gua Musang adheres so closely to the rules imposed thirty years later that it might almost have served as the template for that legislation. It deals with the existence of the supernatural in a very ambiguous way: a ghostly presence is implied, but a rational explanation is provided as well. There is no on-screen violence to speak of, and all the appearances of the title monster take place in dreams.
You might expect a film like this to be somehow watered-down. And yet — in spite of its modesty by comparison to the classic Pontianak films that had preceded it — Pontianak Gua Musang is a very good movie.
NOTE: As little as I know about the cultural situation in Malaysia, still less do I know the language. Since this film is unavailable on video with English subtitles, I've had to rely on guesswork and a few on-line dictionaries to figure out what's going on. In many instances, I'm sure I'm all wrong...
After the usual fanfare and studio credit, we start with a blank screen. A soft, soothing voice-over welcomes us to the cinema, and then tells us that this story is nothing more than entertainment... for those who do not believe in superstition. But, the voice continues calmly and quietly, for those who are superstitious...
(You can imagine what happens here. For a hint, see the screen shot at the top of this page.)
The film takes place in a rural village on the bank of a river. As the movie starts, a young boy runs into town with the news that a tiger (harimau) has been seen in the area. This distresses a young village woman named Halimah, because she knows her friend Amran, the village's most eligible bachelor, is on his way back from his trip to the city. Not to worry, though: just at that moment, Amran himself arrives in the village, bearing gifts of fabric for her.
Halimah is clearly smitten with the handsome Amran, and flattered by his attention to her. She doesn't seem to notice that Amran's conversation always tends to turn to Halimah's even prettier younger sister, Rohani.
But Rohani knows where Amran's interest lies. She sits by a pond, singing the first of the movie's many songs, and waits for him to come to her. The two sit by the water, starry-eyed, exchanging gooey endearments that really need no translation (she calls him "big brother", but that's not as creepy as it sounds. That's the usual term for a slightly older male friend). Almost offhandedly, Amran suggests they go for a little picnic up by Gua Musang, a cave down river. Equally offhandedly, Rohani agrees. She's much too interested in Amran's package — the nice bundle of fabric Amran has brought for her; what did you think I meant? — than in considering Amran's motives in getting her alone so far from home.
But Rohani's langorous tryst with Amran has kept her from her chores at home. As upset as this makes her aunt2, it irks Halimah still more... for obvious reasons. But Rohani is very young, and very naïve; the next day, she sees nothing wrong with ignoring her chores and her sister once again, and going off with Amran.
Amran's housekeeper (whose name I never caught) takes the pair out on the river, all the while singing a song about how pleasant it is to go out on a little boat like theirs. He leaves them alone at Gua Musang. Amran and Rohani sit in front of the cave, peeling rambutans and dreaming of their future together (at leat, I think that's what they're saying). At one point, Rohani in her innocence says something unfortunate: I have no idea what she says — I think Amran has been talking about how some day they'd bring their family up to this very cave for picnics just like this; and I think Rohani might be saying something about how happy they'd all be, and if only they could have that happiness now and not have to wait to get married — but whatever she says, it's sufficient to warrant a stinger on the soundtrack, and to provoke a sudden, ominous gust of wind. The moment passes, though; and then Amran gives Rohani another little present. It's a beautiful ornamented necklace. Rohani is overwhelmed: she may forget this picnic some day, she says, but she will never forget this token of Amran's love.
And then Amran does something very unfortunate.
Naturally, a Malay film of any vintage is unlikely to show anything overtly sexual; so what we do see at this point comes as more of a shock than what we might have seen. Without any kind of gentle transition, we go from the scene of Rohani putting on her pretty necklace to a shot of the poor girl running in disorder through the trees, sobbing. Behind her comes Amran, his shirt undone, his headscarf missing.
Now, it's very clear Amran is genuinely, passionately in love with Rohani; he wasn't just saying all that stuff about their life together so he could wear down her resistance. However, he's just done something terribly wrong, and Rohani knows this better than he does. Something may have been censored between these two scenes, but if the censors wanted to minimize the the sexual implications of the scene, they achieved exactly the opposite effect. Nothing's been shown on-screen, but we understand immediately everything we need to know.
Once her initial shock has passed, and she has accepted Amran's hasty endearments, Rohani goes back to the village with a completely different demeanor. She's composed and confident, and quite a bit unlike the spoiled little girl who left that morning. Halimah immediately realizes something significant has changed between Amran and her sister, though I'm not sure she understands all of what's happened. At any rate, she realizes that Rohani considers herself mutually attached to Amran, and that's enough to make Halimah sick with jealousy.
Time passes in the village. As an interlude, we get to see something of the rivalry between Ali the village satay vendor (Walid Satay, as usual), and his rival, the local noodle-seller (played by the popular comedian Mat Sentul). These two are our singing comic relief. They spend most of their time advancing the plot by trying to put one over on Amran's hapless housekeeper... though the other man usually comes out ahead3.
When we return to the main story, we find Rohani has developed a taste for odd foods. This strikes a suspicious chord in her sister, who pulls her aside and starts asking her some innocent-sounding questions. I'm not sure exactly what Rohani says in reply, but it's probably something about how her clothes don't seem to fit properly, or about how she's been feeling a little peaked in the mornings (the fact that Asa's Death from Grieg's Peer Gynt is playing on the soundtrack doesn't bode well). Her suspicions confirmed, Halimah confronts Rohani with the terrible truth: she's carrying Amran's child inside her.
(Now, readers, I'd like you to consider this: we're in the middle of a film from a conservative Islamic country, made during the late 1950's. Here we have a reasonably frank and certainly sympathetic portrayal of a young girl who's been taken advantage of [and knocked up] by her older boyfriend, and who faces the prospect of having a child out of wedlock in a rural village. And Amran, for his part, never fully loses our sympathy, in spite of the fact that he's all but raped a girl barely out of her teens. All this, at a time when the word "pregnant" could not be used in Western entertainment; when such things as double beds for married couples could not be shown on American screens; when even some exploitation flicks that sold themselves on sex had to twist themselves into knots to downplay the subjects of pregnancy and childbirth. It may seem like a small thing today, but in its attitude to sex Pontianak Gua Musang seems startlingly modern, and in many respects more mature than similar films of today.)
Obviously something must be done to protect Rohani and her family from the shame of her pregnancy. Halimah knows of an old woman who lives alone, deep in the jungle, far enough away from the village that Rohani can hide there until after the child is born. Halimah takes her sister down the river by boat, and then into the deepest, eeriest part of the tropical forest. There is something disconcerting about the clarinet-like hooting of the monkeys in the undergrowth, and the sinister music on the soundtrack doesn't improve the mood very much.
Back at the village, Amran becomes very upset over Rohani's sudden disappearance. He doesn't know about the, ahem, consequences of his date-rape; and Halimah, for her part, isn't inclined to tell him. I'm not sure what she says or doesn't say to him, but it seems as though she encourages him to believe Rohani has run off with someone else.
More time passes, and eventually Rohani goes into labor. Lonely and in pain, Rohani has decided she would rather go back to the village and face humiliation than spend another moment in the jungle, away from Amran. Halimah comes to her while the old woman is out in the jungle (apparently gathering herbs for her, or something)... Halimah suddenly realizes she and her sister are all alone. A strange look crosses her face; then she agrees to help Rohani get back to the village.
Halimah supports her nearly-helpless sister as the two women go down to the boat on the river. But once Halimah has put Rohani on the boat, she pulls out the drain plug and pushes the boat into the middle of the river. Then she stands gloating on the river bank as the boat sinks. Rather than stay and watch her sister drown, Halimah runs off into the forest.
But Rohani doesn't drown, and doesn't die immediately. Somehow she manages to crawl the eighteen feet or so to the river bank. Collapsing behind a patch of trees, she gives birth to her baby and expires. Fortuntely, a woodcutter happens to be nearby. When the woodcutter hears the sound of a baby's screams, he rushes for the riverbank...
Back at the village, an ecstatic Halimah goes to see Amran. There is now no rival for his affection, and nothing to hold her back from pursuing the man she wants. Amran, for his part, looks up to see who is calling from his garden gate... and at first, he sees Rohani. Halimah seems to misunderstand the warmth of his first gaze; but with the confidence borne of the knowledge that Rohani will never return, she turns on the charm and starts to work seducing Amran. It's actually a little shocking to see her flirting with Amran so soon after she's murdered her sister. And yet, Halimah too manages to remain a surprisingly sympathetic character.
But Halimah, as good as she proves to be at manipulating Amran, is not free of her own conscience. She begins to have terrible dreams — at least, we think they're dreams. In Malay legend, the pontianak was the bloodthirsty ghost of a woman who had died in childbirth... like Rohani. In a startlingly well-done sequence, Halimah dreams that the ground opens up over Rohani's body, and the dead girl sits up and crawls out of the grave. Halimah wakes up screaming. When the comic relief food vendors stop by to inquire what all the shouting is about, Halimah's aunt(?) explains to them that the poor girl has had a dream about a pontianak. This starts the two superstitious men worrying that there might be a real vampire on the loose, and they dash through the forest terrified.
Halimah isn't about to let a few bad dreams distract her from winning her man. She even has the nerve to take him for a picnic up to Gua Musang, just as Amran had taken her sister. Halimah bats her long eyelashes at him while feeding him food she cooked herself. Apparently this sort of thing (especially the cooking) has the desired effect, because shortly thereafter, Amran and Halimah announce to Amran's housekeeper and his wife that they are to be married.
But Amran's housekeepers have a surprise announcement of their own. While they were down by the river, they heard the sound of a baby crying. When they went to investigate, they found a tiny baby girl, left in a hollow tree (by, oh... I don't know; some passing woodcutter, or something). The childless couple had been overjoyed to find the baby, which they determined to raise as their own. They name her Comel (pronounced "Chomel") — "the cute one", which by an amazing coincidence is the name of the original pontianak from the Maria Menado series of the 1950's.
Eight years pass.
(No, really; eight years pass. A voice-over comes on and tells us exactly that.)
Where was I? Oh yes: several years pass, as well as a VCD disk change. Comel has grown to be a sweet and beautiful little girl, and her Uncle Amran loves her very much. One evening as they play hide and seek together, Comel runs deeper into the forest than she ought.
When Amran can't find the little girl, he calls out to Halimah to ask if she has seen her. If Amran has found joy in his housekeepers' child, Halimah has clearly found no such comfort. The secret she carries with her has been wearing at her over the years, and now she appears to be pinched and withdrawn. She's angry at Amran's attachment to the little girl, all the more so because the two have no children of their own. This makes Amran, who is trying his best to be a loving husband, very unhappy.
Little Comel returns from the forest unharmed. But she's got with her a doll she did not have when she left. She's unable to give the increasingly-shrill Halimah a good explanation of where she got it, or from whom. Halimah insists on knowing who the "beautiful lady" was that Comel got the doll from, but when Comel takes her and Pak Cik Amran into the forest, it is not a lady but a tiger they find waiting for them. All three retreat hastily back home.
A neighbor appears at Amran's gate, and warns them about the tiger in the vicinity. Amran's housekeeper's wife points out that a tiger is a tiger, and that's bad enough... but what if the tiger is actually a pontianak? After all, the pontianak is supposed to be able to change her form into that of a tiger. These were not the words the already-nervous Halimah needed to hear. Not long after, the tiger itself passes by outside the house, unnerving everyone still further.
But now it's time once again for some comic relief with our two competing food merchants. Walid Satay and Mat Sentul have another song in which they extol the virtues of village cooking. The one tries to convince the crowd that his tasty skewered meat and vegetables are the best; the other, that his fried noodles can't be beat. Walid Satay ends up with a bowl of noodles on his head, and Mat Sentul gets a bucket of satay sauce all over his face.
As Mat wends his way home through the jungle that night, he gets an idea for a trick to play on his rival. Putting a scarf over his head, he waits by the side of the road and pretends to be a woman (because, hey — the only thing funnier in-and-of-itself than a Fat Guy is a Man Dressed Up Like a Woman). When Walid Satay comes by with his cooking implements, Mat tricks him into making him a special order of satay. Then, when Walid offers his satay to the "beautiful young woman", Mat turns on him with a horrible pontianak mask. Fortunately for Walid, he catches sight of Mat's spindly legs and feet under the dress and realizes he's been had.
All at once, from behind them, a hunchbacked old woman in a white robe walks out of the forest. All she wants is a light for her fire... but when the two food vendors catch sight of her, all they can see is her resemblance to the legendary real pontianak, and they jump an improbable distnce up into a tree branch until she leaves them alone.
This gives the two practical jokers an idea, though. Donning white dresses and horrible masks, they wait up a banana tree for Amran's housekeeper to pass. They pull the pontianak trick on him, too; and when they've all had a good laugh over it (which is probably more than we can do), the third man wonders if perhaps they have a costume for him as well.
And to be fair, all this corny comic relief leads to what I think is one of the high points of the film. The three men, in their long white dresses and hideous masks, start doing a wild pontianak dance... a dance that's exaggerated by being played backwards, so that the three seem to be leaping backwards up into the trees. The drums pound furiously; the dancers shriek and wail as though they were real monsters; and as the melodic instruments begin to play, the dancers disappear behind a huge tree trunk. When they come out the other side, they are wearing black body suits with white cartoon skeletons painted on the fronts. Against the black backdrop, they scarcely look real. Together, the three men sing a short but catchy song, warning the audience not to listen to ghost stories, because those things only encourage the ghosts to come and haunt you. I think. I have to admit I'm guessing here, based on the three or four words I actually understood. Whatever the song really means, it's a moment of pure macabre absurdity, straight out of a Max Fleischer cartoon.
Late at night, Halimah has another dream about Rohani. In this dream, Rohani approaches her bed carrying an infant, which she places at Halimah's side. Halimah awakens, terrified, and runs into the bedroom where the housekeepers are asleep. Looking down at the sleeping Comel, Halimah realizes why she has always felt so uneasy about the child: she is the very image of Rohani!
Once again, the years pass, bringing with them some bad times for practically everybody. Comel, now a teenager, is so much like Rohani that you might almost think they were played by the same actress. Amran's fondness for the child, innocent though it is (this time), brings up so many poisonous memories for Halimah that she has come to hate Comel. Her hatred makes poor Amran miserable as well.
The now visibly-aged Amran has the bizarre experience of seeing Comel sitting by a familiar pond, flirting with a suitor of her own. Of all the people in the village, Comel should be the happiest. But in the meantime, there are a spate of mysterious deaths on the outskirts of the village... deaths ostensibly caused by the prowling tiger. The villagers begin to wonder... is it really a tiger that's causing all these killings?
Halimah continues to be plagued by nightmares in which Rohani changes into a horrible monster and chases her; and as a result, she goes a little unhinged. She becomes convinced in her own mind that the killings are the work of a vampire. She also goes to great lengths to hint, to anyone who will listen, about who she thinks the vampire really is: Comel. Now, Comel is a stranger, a foundling who could be anyone or any thing, while Halimah is a known and respected member of the community. What's more, Comel looks exactly like a girl who has long been missing and is presumed dead. Could she be some sort of wandering spirit? Since nobody has any reason to suspect Halimah is harboring a terrible secret, the whispers against poor Comel begin.
Comel's young boyfriend is understandably put out by the speculation, especially when the girl's own adopted father begins wondering if Halimah might not be right. After all, the young girl's resemblance to the long-disappeared Rohani is very, very strange. While Comel's boyfriend looks for another solution to the problem, the girl's stepfather finds the old woodcutter living near Gua Musang. The old man confesses that he was the one who'd left the baby for him and his wife to find all those years ago. He also reveals how he'd found the baby's mother dying in the woods. The woodcutter agrees to take Comel with him, to keep her safe from the suspicious villagers.
Back in the village, Comel's boyfriend runs into a fat old Mandarin who is supposed to know Taoist magic. He convinces the village headman to let the bizarre Chinese stereotype perform a ritual of exorcism to get rid of the tiger — or the vampire — or whatever it is that's killing the locals. The two food-sellers come up with an idea of their own: the villagers should use sympathetic magic, by dressing dancers up in tiger costumes and having them participate in the exorcism.
So: while half the village (mostly at the instigation of Halimah) lights its torches to chase after poor Comel, the other half gathers in a remote clearing to help in the exorcism. The old Mandarin waves his incense and chants over bowls of food offerings, while villagers in tiger suits do ferocious dances. All at once, much to everyone's surprise, the bushes in the forest start rustling. Nobody is more surprised than the Chinese exorcist when out of the undergrowth steps...
... not a tiger...
... no, not a vampire, either...
... instead, none other than:
What the hell is the Oily Man doing here? Surely he's in the wrong movie! In any case, his totally unexpected appearance sends everyone running for home in a panic. The poor old Mandarin is reduced to gibbering, "It's a monster! It's a monster! Run away!" in his native language before he, too, high-tails it. The Oily Man gives a brief chuckle and moves over toward the bowls of food...
Up at Gua Musang, Comel is terrified to see Halimah and a band of torch-bearing villagers crying for her blood. She runs into the cave just as the mob arrives. But coming up fast behind them are Amran, the village datok (or headman), and the others from the town, who try to restore some calm. The datok warns Halimah that she mustn't kill someone who isn't guilty. Halimah spits back that it may be forbidden to kill a person, but it's a different matter to kill a monster. Just as she's spurring on her crowd to storm the cave, a booming male voice thunders from within. The voice accuses Halimah herself of having murdered her own sister. Halimah (not realizing the old woodcutter has discovered the wonders of cave acoustics) panics. To her, it's as though the voice of Allah were coming down from heaven to expose her guilt. By a strange coincidence, just at that moment, the roar of the harimau is heard nearby. The voice goes on with its accusations, and Halimah, unable to control herself, runs away into the underbrush...
...where she is promptly torn to pieces by the tiger. If you think about it, a tiger has been circling Halimah for the entire two hours of the film. And if you've noticed a certain phonteic similarity between the words "Halimah", and harimau, then chalk it up to Fate.
Out of the cave steps the old woodcutter, with Comel on his arm. Slowly, sadly, he relates the story of finding Rohani dying by the riverbank. To prove his story, he produces a handful of things "from the grave of Rohani" — her scarf, and the necklace Amran had given her at Gua Musang all those years ago. Amran and the others realize what must have happened; and Amran is at last able to recognize Comel for his own daughter.
So: was the harimau really only a tiger? Or were Halimah's dreams more than only dreams? Nobody can tell. The only supernatural occurance that can be explained without doubt is the appearance of the Oily Man. On their way back to town, the villagers run into the supposed "Orang Minyak", who is busy wiping the crumbs of his stolen snacks off his chin... Faced with the possibility of a real hantu, the food vendors and the others chase him into the river. When the "Orang Minyak" emerges from the water, and the minyak has washed off a bit, they all see who it really is... Amran's old housekeeper, looking for some free food. And on this peculiar moment of comedy, the movie comes to its bittersweet conclusion.
Everything about Pontianak Gua Musang shows it to be a solid and professional production. Made by the same director and many of the same actors and crew that had made the original Pontianak series, this film feels very much like a realist re-interpretation of the story of the original trilogy. After all, in both a foundling named Comel grows up to be accused of vampirism.
The actors are not credited by role, so with the exceptions of Walid Satay and Mat Sentul (whom I've come to recognize), I have been unable to match the performers to their parts. Still, the actors are uniformly good. The man who plays Amran does a fine job of showing his character's transformation from a feckless young man to the prematurely aged, terribly unhappy "Pak Cik Amran". The actress playing the spoiled young girl Rohani also manages to be convincing when she re-appears as the stern, vengeful ghost of Halimah's dreams, as well as making her "second self" Comel seem like an entirely different character. And, perhaps most importantly, the actress playing Halimah brings a curious sensitivity to the villain of the piece. We can't help but respond to the real joy that lights up her face when she goes to see Amran, even though we know that joy comes from having drowned her own sister and Amran's own unborn child only moments before. We also see in her the terrible toll her conscience takes on her after years of nightmares, as the lines of her face harden and her eyes dart back and forth with suspicion.
Pontianak Gua Musang is nearly two hours long, and in a language I don't understand; yet — in spite of the songs, the comic relief, and the numerous scenes in which people walk to their marks and talk to each other — at no time was I bored by it. The only disappointment I felt after watching it for the first time was that the jump-scare of the pre-credits introduction was completely out of synch with the tone of the movie itself.
And yet, in spite of how much I enjoyed the movie, I would hate to see it used as the template by which all Malaysian horror films would be made.
Sure, Pontianak Gua Musang works well within the sort of restrictions that are now mandatory. But this is a single film, which adopts those restrictions at its outset and proceeds to an organic conclusion. It makes a very interesting companion-piece to, say, Sumpah Pontianak (the only surviving film of the original, genuinely supernaturally-themed Pontianak trilogy); but I would hate to see it serve as the earlier film's replacement.
What censors all over the world apparently misunderstand is that most supernaturally-themed fiction, whether literature or cinema or anything else, does not insist that its audience believe in the things it shows. The "supernatural" is by its definition something outside of normal human experience. Most halfway-competent fiction uses the supernatural only as a device, by which it explores aspects of human behavior that would otherwise be more difficult to illuminate. Well... either that, or it gives us some cheap thrills. But in any case, it's rare that a horror movie expects us to take our suspension of disbelief back with us, out of the theater and into the real world (and those that do are often religiously-themed, using the threat of supernatural evil to instill in their viewers a respect for supernatural good).
The censors also fail to understand that "moral uplift" can be derived from tragedy. Few of the movies that suggest Evil has triumphed in the end actually want the audience to cheer at the fact. There is a genuine value to portraying the Forces of Evil (in whatever form they may take) as strong, dangerous enemies, fully capable of defeating the Good Guys even if the Good Guys deserve to win. There's far more value in this approach than in having the Good Guys defeat the Bad Guys solely by virtue of being the Good Guys — which is what happens in a depressing number of films.
The respect by which I think Pontianak Gua Musang should be used as a template is this: it treats all its characters with respect. No matter how much the supernatural may seem to intrude on the action, we never forget that all the characters are believeable human beings, capable of doing great good and great evil (sometimes in the same action). Rohani and Amran are good-natured fools who each put their trust in the wrong people; they invite their fates, but do not really deserve them. As for Halimah, it is she and not the pontianak who is the true monster of the film... but even she is always recognizeably human. But the film's emphasis on character is on no way caused by its relative realism: the same sense of proportion, which places the weight of the interest on the relationships between people and not on the mere existence of the monsters, can also be found in the hantu-ridden Sumpah Pontianak — just as it can also be found in some of the best horror movies from any country in any era.
I got my copy of Pontianak Gua Musang on VCD from CinemaShops in Malaysia. Ignore the monsters on the VCD cover: they don't appear anywhere in the film. I hope my readers will forgive my spoiler-laden review... I figure this review is the only way many of my readers will ever experience this movie; I worked hard to try to understand what was going on in the film, so that any non-Malay speakers like myself who did want to track it down might have an easier time with it. I think it's very unlikely that Pontianak Gua Musang will be receiving a U.S. release any time soon, in spite of the recent surge in interest for obscure South Asian horror films. This particular movie's relatively slow pace, its abundance of songs and comic interludes, and, umm, well... its lack of cheap thrills make it one of the less obvious choices for a commercial release.
1. The deterioration of Malay cinema and the complete collapse of classic Malay horror has been parodied by a popular Malay R&B group called Innuendo, in their video, Nanti ("Later"): the video pretends to show the production of a movie called Sumpah!! Orang Minyak Kembali ("Curse of the Oily Man Returns"), using clips from classic films mixed with new action. As the video progresses, the underpaid, overworked cast and crew receive word that the studio is going bankrupt... so they revolt by dismantling the sets and stealing anything that isn't nailed down. The treacly-sweet love song the group is singing contrasts with the complete chaos that's going on around them.
2. I think it's her aunt; Rohani refers to her as "Mak Cik", which I understand is a familiar term of respect for an older woman.
3. Maybe it's the fact that I can't understand a word they're saying, but I found myself actually liking the comic relief in these movies. I'm amazed to realize that Mat Sentul has been growing on me, and I've even considered looking up the movie parodies he did throughout the 60's and 70's, such as the spy movie parody Mat Bond, or the previously-mentioned horror spoof, Mat Toyol.