Review: DUKUN (2018)

Malaysian director Dain Iskandar Said’s ('whose latest film was Interchange) first feature Dukun was birthed from the sensational real-life court case of a female witchdoctor, a ritual-gone-wrong and a dismembered body.

Unfortunately, the movie was stillborn before its first release date in 2007. Astro shelved the movie with no official reason given, but probably for being too controversial at the time and bound to offend public sensibilities given its portrayal of black magic.

12 years later, Dukun is finally seeing the light of day with a theatrical release in Malaysia and Singapore.

The trial involving Mona Fandey (and her husband and lackey) has been well-documented, and although the character of Diana Dahlan is obviously based on her (played by Umie Aida), the film presents itself as entirely fictional. It takes as inspiration only the basic trifecta of witchdoctor, ritual and murder. It disregards all else, and gleefully runs with it.

Diana Dahlan (Umie Aida) is a 'Dukun' (shaman) on trial for murdering a businessman. Karim (Faizal Hussein) is a retired lawyer and single father searching for his daughter, Nadia, who ran away from home. Diana and Karim meet when he agrees to represent her in court. Diana convinces a reluctant Karim to be her lawyer by promising that she can locate his daughter. For a short while their paths are entwined, seemingly by fate, but Karim is about to find out that there is a puppeteer behind the scenes, manipulating forces he cannot explain.

There is also an ongoing investigation into various murders around the city, pitting characters against one another, and allowing some of their biases and prejudices to show.

Although it was produced in 2007, it doesn’t quite look its age. There are oddly beautiful shots scattered among the mundane shot-reverse-shot of a court trial.

When it comes to the plethora of dead bodies unearthed by the investigative team, including the dismembered head of a certain businessman, the practical effects look convincingly good and shocking. There is one particularly stunning piece involving the body of a woman wrapped in white tree bark etched with ritualistic inscriptions.

The acting is stellar, bolstering a solid albeit formulaic script. While Faizal Hussein holds his own in the film as a distraught father and stern lawyer, Umie Aida completely steals the show. She inhabits a body that moves like a serpent, that writhes and undulates on the stage, seductive and repulsive all at once. While she is evil incarnate, she is also the epitome of femininity performed to an extreme, her sexuality wielded as a tool to disarm men.

There is a clear boundary set up between the sexes—in the realm of the law, the men are investigators and knowledge-seekers, the women silent victims or lacking agency. In Diana’s realm of witchcraft, however, the hierarchy is flipped. Diana dominates every room she enters, and the spotlight is literally on her when she performs in her club, but she also serves as spectacle. It’s an uneasy, slippery sort of control. 

The pace of the movie can be meandering at times, and some events don’t take on significance until much later, but be patient because everything ties together at the end. The film does show its hand a bit too late, and the stakes are high, but not realised until it’s far too late to change anything.

Overall, /Dukun/ can be viewed several ways. It is a horror movie with a sensational premise. It is about greed and the struggle for control. It is a portrayal of Muslim faith over belief in the dark arts. It is an introspective look at holding onto faith and keeping love alive.

Review by Jacqueline Lee

DUKUN opened in cinemas in Singapore on 19 April.

Here's the chilling trailer.

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