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.
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.