Dain Iskandar Said’s Dukun might be confusing at first, due to its choice of narrative style. The film presents itself in a non-linear way as it strives to bridge genres. At first, the narrative seems to pivot on Karim (Faizal Hussein), who’s looking for his missing daughter. The narrative structure becomes rambling as he meets Diana Dahlan (Umie Aida). Dukun sways back and forth from detective-procedural to horror-thriller, which at times are balanced unevenly. But this treatment makes the film more compelling than one would expect.
Said’s ‘lost’ debut feature presents two interesting aspects of historicity in the film. First, is the film’s history itself. Its controversial theme caused its release to be delayed for more than a decade. Aside from the religious debate, it was also based on an actual murder case involving an influential politician and a pop singer turned witch doctor. From this angle, the film becomes an introduction for anyone who’s interested in looking at an alternative side of contemporary Malaysia’s history.
The other interesting aspect is the depiction of the history of shamans in the film. Dukun opens with a sequence of what seems to be a massacre that occurred in Sumatra back in 1962. To start with this scene is to give the history of the titular character, the dukun Diana Dahlan (Umie Aida), more nuance and not just to dismiss her shamanic practice due to religious reasons. It also creates a parallelism with the present that the film presents. Dukun emphasizes a conflict between early religious practices in the Southeast Asian region and the Islamic culture in Malaysia. The peculiar style choices make a strong case for the film being on the side of Diana.
The film’s editing presented an illusion of linearity between filmic past and present sequences. Being a legal-thriller, dramatization of past events as re-enactments of the statements of the witnesses and the accused are being depicted in the flashbacks, but the way it was treated was not different with the present scenes. Unlike popular depiction of flashbacks on legal thrillers, the flashbacks don’t have any differing code such as color effects or voice over narration. What made this treatment working for Diana’s side of story was that this also depicted an extension of the witch-hunt against dukuns to the present. The film, not being firm on differentiating past and present, blurs the division and presented a continuation of history of religious suppression.
This conflict isn’t unique. It is more of a recurring religious discourse in the Islamic region in the Southeast Asia. The Indonesian horror film, Satan’s Slaves (1982), which was remade by Joko Anwar in 2017, shares the same theme. Dukun and Anwar’s Satan’s Slaves also share the same cynicism towards the mystical effectiveness of Islam, and both depict folk shamanism as being not just evil, but also manifesting physically.
This choice of depiction presents another layer of reading the mystical. In both films, the devil do not present itself to the authorities of organized institutions, whether to the imam or to the judge. This non-presence seems to be deliberate as the choice of Diana reveals in the end. This persistence towards irrationality of the supernatural elements contributes to the fear that surrounds it. The devil that Diana serves prefers to be treated as a ridiculous triviality by the population, which uses it as a source of ghost stories. Being dismissed by institutions means that it can thrive in darkness.
Dukun, read from a distance, seems to be a subversion of the societal roles of organized institutions for the benefit of a remembrance of what seems to be a history of violence against women of power. The film extracted great acting from both, especially Aida whose performance never failed to depict not just Dahlan’s vanity but also her otherworldliness. Aida portrays Diana strongly, especially during her first confrontation with Karim when she warns him of the two things to fear about her – the unknown and her beauty. These two aspects of her character become a depiction of the woman-shaman in their times as a product of the history of suppression of the other.
What saves Dukun from this cynicism is its insistence of faith for organized religion. This reversion to faith is also what undermines the supposed hidden history it tries to present. Dahlan’s character as a dukun and a woman is seemingly resistant, but this resistant is presented in the end as an evil which is needed to be repelled and exterminated. Dukun’s potential as a highly discursive material is undermined by the imposition of the conservative beliefs of the genres deployed as Dahlan remains as a criminal in the detective-procedural side, and a demon in the horror side.
Dukun is showing on July 13 at the New York Asian Film Festival.