Review: Revenge of the Pontianak (2019)

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In a village bordering a banana plantation in 1965 Malaysia, a wedding takes place between Khalid (Remy Ishak) and Siti (Shenty Felizaina). The morning after, they find their friend Rais (Tony Eusoff) dead, pinned on a tree. Disaster falls quickly upon the village, brought about by the return of Khalid’s old lover Mina (Nur Fazura) as a pontianak. 

In Revenge of the Pontianak, directors Glen Goei and Gavin Yap redefine the vicious image of the female vampire popular in Southeast Asian folklore by making her sympathetic and reasonable. Mina is out for blood, but her gait is solid and her motivations are plain. Despite her supernatural powers, Mina’s impulses belong to a spurned lover and mother. 

Scares are few in this horror film. Mina, gliding in with a red kebaya and champa flower, is too relatable to evoke fear – Goei and Yap’s landmark project to un-demonise the pontianak comes at the expense of palpitations and chills. It also risks making Mina’s cackles and spooks superfluous. 

Yet, Mina’s rationality appears in some ways irrational. Her calm, calculated approach of the village is difficult to reconcile with the “darkness” she says she has endured since dying. Her tenderness towards Nik (Nik Harraz Danish) is not accompanied by the reasonable madness of a mother who hasn’t seen her son in years. And what drove her to leave at the very end? The subtle turns in Mina’s emotional trajectory are not revealed, making it difficult to join the dots.  

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The promise of a national allegory lurking behind the year of 1965 and a scene of the declaration of Malaysia’s independence on TV opens more possibilities for reading the film, but reading and watching at the same time also makes it taxing to imagine Mina as human. 

The rich, stylised visuals of the film paired with acting that was mainly naturalistic created some dissonance. Sometimes, the performance laboured under the dialogue. Different compositions demand on the audience different extents to which they should suspend disbelief, and I wasn’t sure how and when I should look one way or the other. 

Revenge of the Pontianak remains an innovative take on a popular folklore character. In a previous interview with SINdie, the directors shared that the film is an ode to a horror genre beloved in the region. Followers of the 1950s and 1960s Cathay-Keris and Shaw Brothers productions featuring the pontianak can relish in familiar tropes and new twists, and new audiences might be encouraged to dig into the archives for more of the tragic spirit. 

Written by Teenli Tan

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