5th Singapore Short Cuts - Pontianak by Raihan Harun


Can you name one local short film of a horror genre that was actually scary to you? I can't really. There are not many local horror shorts to begin with. In the recent 48 hour film project, the 2 team assigned `horror' barely created a nanometer of goosebump on my skin. Pontianak is the first scary local short film I dare say!

Told in a non-linear fashion, Pontianak opens with the death rituals of a woman (the protagonist's wife) performed by the relatives. It turns out that was set a few years back and it is a stubborn memory that is haunting the male protagonist. And so, his untameable conscience takes him on a spooky trip that unravels his dirty secrets and misdeeds to his wife when she was still alive. What made it so scary? Let me recount it for you.
The eerie drone of the religious death ritual chants draw us straight into the grief of the situation. A woman has died and her mummified body is reposing in a room on a straw mat. A small group of ladies wrapped in their hijabs are deep in silent prayer. The camera shoots point blank at the corpse whose pasty white face is the only thing revealed in the mummified body, like a Russian doll. Against the chanting, it is a spine-tingling sight. The mother surreptitiously carries out a few superstitious practices like putting a nail in the corpse's mouth to prevent the deceased from turning into a pontianak (female ghost). This does not escape the sight of the husband who starts an argument with the mother. This is the point where we learn of his dark infidel past, an establishment of a guilt-ridden conscience that is the basis of the film.
Years later, the daughter whom his wife had risked her life giving birth to has grown up. But she is another part of the fear-factor. The combination of trained hands in make-up and cinematography together with rather sensitive directing made the diabolical state of the daughter very believable. the same applies to the Bomoh scene. Logically, this should be the scariest scene in the film, but it was also very liable to ending up like TV drama, that milks the exotic to hold your attention. Exotic it certainly was. But tacky it was not. The Bomoh, adeptly played by Gene Sha Rudyn, went from embodying the spirit of the infidel husband's wife to convulsing in a sudden state of struggle. Without excessive interference from the all-too-common horror ambience music, the scene was quite disturbing.

I am not a frequent watcher of horror. I get spooked easily. The last time my friend shared with me about `The Ring' , without actually watching the movie, I avoided watching TV sets late at night. But from the rare few horror movies I have watched, I am inclined to believe good horror is a combination of the back-story and moments (of scare). The latter is always easier to create because it is about generating a reaction. The former is a little harder beacuse it is about planting a thought that would haunt over a longer time. The penultimate scene in Pontianak dishes out the dirty secrets of the husband and makes him remember that his wife died in grief knowing of his infidelity. My only grouse is that this back-story could be even more vividly explained or dramatised. Instead, it took an convenient escape of putting it into a frenzied montage culmintaing a repeated motif - the husband's nightmare.
How do you end a horror story if you only had 15 mins to tell it and try to scare people? Well, I think Pontianak's got the answer - end it with a question. And to do justice to the film, I will speak no further about the ending.

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