Interchange (Malaysia/Indonesia, 2016)

For his third feature, the Malaysia-Indonesia co-production Interchange, Malaysian filmmaker Dain Iskandar Said presents a story revolving around serial killings whose victims’ bloodless bodies are found suspended in an elaborate and decorative pose, underneath which lie shards of a glass plate negative and bird feathers. Man (Shaheizy Sam) and Jason (Alvin Wong) are the detectives on the case, with Man eagerly reaching out to his ace forensic photographer Adam (Iedil Putra) for help. However, Adam has recently removed himself from the workplace due to a spell that he experienced while photographing a scene of the crime that is connected to the more recent spate of killings. Nevertheless, he spends his time ensconced in his high-rise apartment, which is surrounded by other high-rises, and incessantly photographs scenes of his neighbours through their windows. Man manages to draw him out of his apartment anyway, as more killings occur. Seemingly connecting the killings and Adam’s photography is one of the women he photographs who lives in a high-rise across from his, Iva (Prisia Nasution). As Adam becomes more and more involved in the case as well as with Iva – thus pulling him in a direction opposite to that of his detective colleagues – the lines between past and present, physical reality and a more spiritual realm, and pre- and post-colonial begin to crack.

With such story elements, gradually connected by photography processes and image-making/-taking, Interchange has all the makings of an intriguing mystery crime noir. But due to an overcomplicated narrative unfolding, which makes the already complex case and all of the characters’ involvement in it more muddled than mesmerising, the film leaves one more emotionally uninvolved than engaged. The attempt to generate mystery, suspense, and fear becomes all too transparent after a certain point and is thus only partially convincing.

Much more convincing and compelling is the film’s visual ambience of the old, colonial world clashing with a modern glittering post-colonial city, particularly embodied by Adam’s glass-built high-rise setting and the photo store where he has the glass plate negatives processed by an old acquaintance Heng (Chew Kin-wah). Also compelling is the connecting and elaborating of the narrative’s disparate events and figures on the level of imagery, generating a visual motif of reflection, via photographs, glass plate negatives, and/or mirrors. For example, every time Adam has a spell, the shot features a mirror that doubles his image. Such a recurring shot composition certainly speaks to Iva’s earlier revelation to Adam that she is a dayong, or shaman, who releases trapped spirits and additional comment that he is perhaps a trapped spirit himself. Be it Adam’s gallery of photographs of his high-rise neighbours on his living room wall; the shards of glass plate negatives found at each scene of the crime, which turn out to have been photographed by a Norwegian explorer in Borneo in the previous century and are also the subject of a hunt in the highly competitive antique world; Adam having the glass plate negatives processed at Heng’s photo store – who just happens to know Iva as well; or the book on Borneo found in an antique store that contains photographs of Iva’s tribe, one of which is a spitting image of her, the film is littered with literal and metaphoric manifestations of reflection. Together, these moments highly draw out the fantastical, alchemical, and philosophical aspects related to the strange process of photographing people or being photographed, such as embalming time or a life or even capturing/stealing one’s soul.

Understandably, the sequence of Iva taking an old-style photograph of Adam at Heng’s photo store (which her family had in fact established) is arguably the film’s centerpiece. The process transports him to an Edenic river with Iva (though the symbolism of their names is rendered more droll than meaningful) and a group of others in the water, like a photographic baptismal. Adam then gradually understands Iva’s mission with the help of the enigmatic Belian (Nicholas Saputra), who possesses extraordinary strength and whose hands recall the talons of a bird of prey. Adam’s understanding, set against detectives Man and Jason’s misunderstanding, crystallises when he (and thus also the spectator) witnesses first-hand the ritual that leads to yet another killing and helps Iva flee from his former police colleagues.

For a film so much about photography and its mysterious process of imaging people’s faces, bodies, and/or personalities, even souls, it is indeed beautifully photographed by Jordan Wei Meng Chiam. The film has a very pristine and striking noir look, especially in scenes of sudden rain, chases through the rain, and fight scenes set against the night lit up by the city skyline, courtesy of Man and Belian’s antagonistic encounters at two different points in the film.

Ultimately, while for Adam connecting the different points that he experiences throughout the film adds up to a mental picture with emotional clarity and meaning, the same is not the case for the film’s own disparate moments, which are more memorable and impactful separately than collectively.