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Plot: the sins of a young man’s past come back to haunt him in the present.

Revenge of the Pontianak sees yet another classic Asian horror monsters resurrected for the modern age. The movie is part of a recent and larger mini-trend in Asian horror cinema that sees young filmmakers looking nostalgically towards the past (typically the much simpler days of the 1970s/80s and sometimes even earlier) and modeling their own horror epics after established properties and beloved icons of the past. Indonesia celebrated the life and work of Suzzanna with Suzzanna: Buried Alive (2018) and Thailand resurrected its own classic horror monster with Inhuman Kiss (2019). Malaysia couldn’t possibly stay behind and Revenge of the Pontianak (or Dendem Pontianak back at home) is very much - even if it’s never officially acknowledged as such – a cordial tribute to Malay horror queen Maria Menado and a liberal remake of Revenge of the Pontianak (1957), the second in her loose Pontianak cycle. Ostensibly the name to watch here is Nur Fazura as the titular sanguineous seductress. Her performance is alternately quietly understated and searing with rabid intensity.

Maria Menado, the Queen of Malaysian horror

The twilight years of the 2010s have given way to a veritable wave of nostalgia-driven Southeast Asian revivalist horror. In this cycle young filmmakers paid tribute to the old masters and celebrated long forgotten genres and icons of yesteryear. Italy had Barbara Steele in the sixties and Edwige Fenech in the seventies, Spain had Soledad Miranda and Nieves Navarro, and in Indonesia Suzzanna was the undisputed Queen of Horror. Maria Menado was a contemporary of Suzzanna back in her home of Malaysia.

All through the fifties and sixties Menado starred in her most enduring works and was bestowed prestigious titles as “Malaya’s Most Beautiful” by Times Magazine and the “Best Dressed Woman in South East Asia” by United Press International. Her most iconic role would be that of the Pontianak in Pontianak (1957). It was so lucrative at the Cathay cinema box office that it not only spawned three sequels with Revenge of the Pontianak (1957), Curse of the Pontianak (1958) and The Vampire Returns (1963) but also launched the Pontianak subgenre of made-in-Singapore, Malay-language ghost horror in Singapore and Malaysia in the process. Its box office success inspired Hong Kong’s Shaw Bros to launch their own rival Pontianak trilogy. With their Revenge Of the Pontianak directors Glen Goei and Gavin Yap pay tribute to the ghost horror of yore now that Paranormal Activity (2008) and The Conjuring (2013) seem to have become the new international standard. Goei and Yap aim not for a direct remake but rather to capture the essence of vintage Malay fright cinema and its foremost international ambassador.

To Western eyes the Pontianak (Kuntilanak in Indonesia or the similar Tiyanak and Churel in the Philippines and India, respectively) is the halfway point between the vampire of European folklore and white ghost maiden omnipresent in Asian folk tales. As such the Pontianak typically takes the form of a beautiful woman with pale skin, red eyes, long black hair and long fingernails in a blood-splattered white dress. Hiding in banana trees during the day she typically died in childbirth and her vengeful spirit roams the material world because she was not given the proper burial rites. The arrival of the Pontianak is foretold by the barking of dogs, sudden illness among infants and a strong scent of either flowers or decay pervading the air. The Pontianak has been a staple of Malaysian horror cinema at least since the fifties and just like vampires, ghosts and slashers in Western cinema continues to inspire Malay filmmakers to this day. Perhaps the biggest innovation that Revenge Of the Pontianak offers is taking painstaking work to humanize the Pontianak and the woman in question. In doing so Goei and Yap change her from an antagonist into a victim of circumstance. Here the true villain is not the sanguineous ghost but the man condemning her to said fate. Just like how Inhuman Kiss (2019) was a coming of age story and doomed romance wrapped in Thai folklore this is a tragedy masquerading as a vintage ghost horror. What Suzzanna: Buried Alive (2019) did for Indonesian horror Revenge Of the Pontianak does a concerted effort to the bring old school sensibilities to contemporary horror cinema. It might not be exactly tense but it certainly looks and sounds the part

Malaysia, 1965. In a small kampong young aristocrats Khalid (Remy Ishak) and Siti (Shenty Felizaina) are preparing for their wedding. On the day of the ceremony his brother Reza (Hisyam Hamid) and his wife Aisha (Nadiah m Din) welcome Siti to the family. Also present is Khalid’s 9-year-old son Nik (Nik Harraz Danish) as well as his old friend Rais (Tony Eusoff). At the party Rais courts wedding singer Ida (Nadia Aqilah) and before long the two are in each other’s arms. On the way home Rais and Ida encounter the silhouette of a woman standing in the distance. Back in the kampong Nik claims he caught the glimpse of a ghost in the jungle around the house. Khalid brushes it off as childish imagination and retreats to the bedroom with Siti. He has a rude awakening the next morning when he sees the mutilated corpse of Rais strung up in a banana tree. “Darkness has descended upon this village,” dukun/bomoh (shaman) Su’ut Din (Shahili Abdan, as Namron) ominously intones striking mortal dread into the hearts of the superstitious villagers. Village elder Penghulu (Wan Hanafi Su) encourages the villagers to remain calm until the perpetrator is brought to justice.

At night Khalid is haunted by recurring nightmares and Nik is drawn to a comforting, familiar voice emanating from the nearby jungle. When small infants suddenly fall into inexplicable sickness, dogs devolve into fits of barking and a foul smell starts to permeate the air Su’ut Din fears the worst. It is not until Reza shows signs of possession and briefly speaks in tongues that it dawns upon Khalid that his sordid past has finally caught up with the blissful present. His erratic behavior forces Siti and Reza to corner him to come clean about his youthful indiscretions. The Pontianak is a maiden by the name of Mina (Nur Fazura) who Khalid was arranged to marry some nine years earlier in 1956. At the dawn of Malay Independence he reneged his vows and send her packing to Singapore. When she returned a year later she not only expected him to marry her but also to sire the child she was carrying in her womb. He’s soon to learn that Nik (to paraphrase Shakespeare in the Merchant Of Venice) “for the sins of (his) father, though guiltless, must suffer" and that ghosts of the past sometimes are indeed quite literal ghosts. Who or what will be able to repel the fury of an undead woman scorned?

If anything Revenge Of the Pontianak is custodian to some absolutely idyllic cinematography and locations on top of being masterfully scripted and tightly-paced. Each of the six main characters has a classic Arabic, Persian or Egyptian name corresponding with their designated archetype or function. The women are uniformly and universally beautiful. Nur Fazura gets to wear some beautiful pastel-colored robes and in each of her scenes she wears a different color reflecting her state of mind. In that capacity she can be seen in shades of green and yellow. Later when she’s turned into a Pontianak her red sari turns white as her hair loosens and fingernails grow. Some might recognize the Chinese sleep chant that Siti sings to Nik as Coldplay used it as a coda to ‘Yes’ on their “Viva la Vida! Or Death and All his Friends” album. Wicked tongues might claim that Revenge Of the Pontianak is hardly ever scary (and they would be right) but at no point does it ever promise anything else. This is a drama first and foremost – and any and all horror elements are secondary at best. The fact that Revenge Of the Pontianak goes to such incredible lengths to humanize its monster is just what makes it so interesting than any run off the mill Asian ghost horror. At heart Revenge Of the Pontianak is a human interest drama about a dysfunctional family – and that it just so happens to pay tribute to the life and work of Maria Menado is a neat bonus.

Glen Goei and Gavin Yap’s maiden foray into horror is one of unexpected surprises and benefits. Coming to the genre from the realm of comedy and drama the two bring that human touch to a genre usually bereft of such finesse and subtlety. Perhaps that is why Revenge of the Pontianak focuses so much on the romance and places the concept of the scorned woman up, front and center. After all what else was the parable of the Pontianak in Malay folklore than a dire warning to all men to keep their spiel in their pants and stay faithful to their wives? It’s also refreshing that for once the Pontianak is portrayed as the victim and that the woman for whence she came is not vilified for her alleged wrongdoings. Mina is by far the most sympathetic character and Khalid - no matter how you spin it - is an egocentric, opportunistic, entitled douche canoe of the highest order that so richly deserves the royal, infernal comeuppance he’s given. As the obedient, subservient wife Shenty Felizaina is pretty much an enchantingly robed nonentity until the third act when she suddenly becomes a key component in the resolution; and as the voice of reason Hisyam Hamid portrays the only male character worth rooting for. The uncontested star of Revenge Of the Pontianak is Nur Fazura. Fazura is able to convey so much with what for all intents and purposes is very little. Her final scene alone is the ideal showcase of her incredible range as an actress. That she’s barely known in the Western world says enough about our collective ignorance.

Revenge Of the Pontianak is neither a direct remake nor a tribute in the way Suzanna: Buried Alive (2018) was to the life and work of Suzzanna. While it captures the essence of what made the Maria Menado Pontianak horrors so timeless this never is a tribute to her specifically. Instead it touches upon a variety of human interest topics including, but not limited to, the importance of family, the place of women in society in Southeast Asia (specifically Malaysia and Singapore); the importance of religion, folklore and superstition; the Islamization of what then was still a Buddhist nation, the incursion of first world modernity upon third world nations - and what greater example of the ill effects of rampant toxic masculinity? It’s hardly a feminist manifesto or anything but the Pontianak is the central character here – and it are the women who play a pivotal role in the eventual resolution. That being as it may Revenge Of the Pontianak is not some great vanguard of innovation. Asian ghost horror is too limited in its conventions to really allow for much innovation or deconstruction. Like We Are Not Alone (2016) and Verónica (2017) before it Revenge Of the Pontianak is at its best when it focuses on the human aspect, although at least here the ghost is something different.

Plot: urbanites are haunted by strange apparitions in their luxurious villa.

Cold Pupil (冷瞳 or, alternatively, Dark Eye in some markets) is another Chinese ghost story. Not just any story. A Mainland China ghost story so inoffensive, so vanilla, so telegraphed and obvious that it might as well be a domestic drama or extremely light thriller. Well, this being a Mainland China production it is a drama, first and foremost, albeit one that flirts with surface elements of Asian ghost horror. Mediocre even by the very forgiving ghost horror standards of Mainland China Cold Pupil is enlivened only by the presence of the always enjoyable Chrissie Chau Sau-Na. If you found We Are Not Alone (2016), Verónica (2017) or the more recent Terrified (2017) “scary” and "tense", this will be right up your alley. For everyone else, this is another good example why it is best to avoid Mainland China out of principle. It truly speaks to the mediocrity of a feature when Midnight Hair (2014) becomes the better alternative.

The director of Cold Pupil is one Cheung Kwok-Kuen, an editor that took to directing. As an editor he received multiple Hong Kong Film Awards in the mid-to-late eighties. His editing credits span all the way back to 1972 and as a director he has developed a predilection towards Category II b and ghost horror features. His work runs gamut across genres with horror as the main focus. He was responsible for the absolutely deranged Snake Curse (2004) that makes Hisss (2009) sound like a good idea. He has become a better director over time even if Cold Pupil might not look like it. No. Scratch that. Cold Pupil looks exactly like a feature you’d expect from an editor. It’s slick and polished enough from a technical standpoint, except that it never develops a pulse. Even Haunted Sisters (2017) from director Mo Sa-Li was livelier than this, and he somehow managed to have a career after Ghost Story: Bride with Painted Skin (2016). While it’s pretty enough it doesn’t make for a compellng viewing. Often it feels twice as long than it actually is, and it takes forever for something nothing substantial to happen.

To celebrate their latest victory in the cutthroat corporate world elderly businessman Mr. So (Lau Sek-Ming) offers his daughter Su Yuchen (Chrissie Chau Sau-Na) a relaxing retreat in an opulent villa he has rented for the occasion. Joining Yuchen is So’s trusted associate Xu Bowen (Sam Lee Chan-Sam) and the free-spirited Kent Zhong (Calvin Sun Zu-Yang). Both vie for the attention, romantic and otherwise, of Yuchen. Their peace at the villa is disturbed when old man So suffers a heart attack for no apparent medical reason. The entire episode is enough for the three to rent the villa longer than originally scheduled. Just when peace and quiet has returned Yuchen claims she saw the apparition of a young woman. The two initially shrug it off as a figment of Yuchen’s all too vivid imagination after her father’s health scare. To take Yuchen’s mind off things the three head to the King’s Bar where they always get special attention from owner Fang Yuen (Zhang Shi-Xu). As the hauntings persist the three agree to install digital surveillance, in the form of portable digital cameras, all around the house to catch a glimpse of the red-dressed ghost. Her interest piqued Yuchen talks with the landlord (Wong You-Nam) about the building’s past and its history with previous tenants. Unbeknowst Yuchen and Kent happen upon a long-buried sordid family secret involving the Cold Pupil, one of Mr. So’s extramarital affairs (Izumi Liu Yu-Qi, as Liu Yu-Qi), and one startling revelation that Bowen is prepared to murder for to keep secret.

Even at an economic 90 minutes Cold Pupil fails to leave much, if any, impression – even after multiple viewings. As a ghost horror, or even as a thriller, there’s never any suspense and the lack of tension is exceeded only by the thinness of the proceedings. It’s incredible how it is simultaneously immensely belabored and convoluted as well as unbashedly shallow at the same time. For one the screenplay from Zhang Er and Yan Sufang is a staggering mess that does nobody any favors. The cinematography from Chen You-Liang is decent enough but is dull for the most part. The individual performances are tolerable enough, but these features are hardly the right place to look for emerging new talent. Lift to Hell (2013), however futilely, at least attempted to keep up the façade of horror. Suffice to say, Cold Pupil is anything but riveting. In fact Cold Pupil is so unengaging, stilted and superficial that you might as well start paying attention to other things. The cast, for one, has its share of familiar webmovie faces.

The most famous of the cast is Chrissie Chau Sau-Na (周秀娜). By 2012 Chau had paid her dues after years and years of starring in Category II fodder of various stripe. Cold Pupil was indicative that she was commencing an upward trajectory in her career. In 2013 alone sweet Chrissie did 11 (!!) movies, among them Lift to Hell (2013), Kick Ass Girls (2013), and The Extreme Fox (2013). Ghost horrors and fantasy wuxia have been something of a staple in Chrissie Chau’s filmography since debuting in 2006. It’s hard to imagine that Chrissie would star in the critically savaged Jing Wong comedy iGirl (2016) and a year later would win the Hong Kong Film Award for Best Actress for 29+1 (2017). iGirl (2016) elevated Chrissie Chau Sau-Na to the mainstream and with Master Z: Ip Man Legacy (2018) from director Yuen Wo-Ping she landed her most prestigious project. Since then sweet Chrissie’s star continues to rise and it’s about time some brave Western director casts her in an English-language production. If Ni Ni (倪妮) can survive The Warriors Gate (2016) and Yu Nan (余男) was one of the reasons to stay awake for The Expendables 2 (2012) the world is ready for our girl Chrissie.

The other star, although more nominal compared to Chau Sau-Na, is Liu Yu-Qi (刘羽琦) or Izumi as the Japanese know her. Chinese netizens have dubbed her "Small Heavenly Queen of Adverts" or the "Most Beautiful Chinese Woman on the Web", depending on where you look. Liu Yu-Qi rose to fame in 2006 after winning the National Football Babe Competition and went on to star in numerous real estate - and beverage magazine adverts. After Cold Pupil she went on to star in the wuxia comedy Da Song Fei Wen Lu (大宋緋聞錄) (2017) as a rite of passage of sorts that virtually every up-and-coming Chinese actress has to go through at some point. That feature, of course, made extensive usage of Yu-Qi’s famous curvy 34D figure. Chrissie Chau isn’t given a whole lot to do, besides walking around in her nightie, taking a shower or a bath, and occasionally looking at herself in the mirror and (very badly) screaming her head off. Liu Yu-Qi is just there to look pretty and is killed off almost immediately after she’s introduced. Nothing is as Chinese as a pretty girl in a flowervase role. At least things have gotten better in recent years.

As much as Cold Pupil focuses on the romantic permutations of its fairly attractive cast, there isn’t nary any chemistry, or sexual tension, between any of them. Chrissie Chau Sau-Na and Calvin Sun Zu-Yang are supposedly longtime lovers, or at least romantically entangled for quite some time. Yet they play it as if they are brother and sister and thus are not in the least sexually or romantically interested in each other. In a flashback scene Liu Yu-Qi briefly is able to raise the temperature but with this being a Mainland China feature approved by the Film Bureau the scene is ended before something, anything, happens. There’s enough shower scenes for everybody, but none of them ever amount to anything.

Daniella Wang Li Danni in Midnight Hair (2014) and Zhang Lan-Yi in Haunted Sisters (2017) both had far more daring shower scenes in their respective movies, and the comparisons that have been made to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) are far-fetched, to say the least. Cold Pupil isn’t going to win anybody over with its originality and what little scares there are are completely telegraphed. Hong Kong, Korea, and Thailand do the ghost horror far better than China, by far. Also, who in their right mind casts Chrissia Chau Sau-Na and Liu Yu-Qi and does proceeds to do completely nothing with them? Talk of a waste of talent. There’s a case to be made that by 2013 sweet Chrissie was too good for inconsequential drivel like this. For years she had been working her way up from the muck of Mainland China webmovie exploitation – and if Cold Pupil is indicative of anything, it’s that Chrissie was on her way to bigger and better things. Mainland China ghost movies, sadly, remain as turgid (not to mention pointless) as ever.