Review: DUKUN (2018) – New York Asian Film Festival
After sitting in limbo for twelve years the controversial Malaysian thriller DUKUN was finally released in 2018. Inspired by a sensational murder trial Dain Said’s first feature was promptly shelved in a storm of controversy. After footage from it eventually leaked to the internet it was finally released and proved popular in its homeland.
Diana Dahlan (Umie Aida), a popular singer who also claims to be a dukun (shaman) is sentenced to hang for the murder of a prominent businessman. She’s unconcerned by her fate, more concerned with her appearance. The film flashes back and we meet Karim (Faizal Hussein) a lawyer searching for his missing daughter Nadia (Elyana).
He hopes to get help from a friend on the police force but instead finds himself agreeing to represent Diana. As he digs into the case he finds himself caught between his religion and black magic. He also discovers his client may be connected to the fate of his daughter.
Structured as much as a legal thriller as it is a horror film DUKUN is a fascinating film that held my interest despite giving away much of the ending at the start. In some ways reminiscent of Peter Weir’s THE LAST WAVE with its story of a man of law and reason forced to confront ancient mysticism while defending a client. Both also share the realization that all involved may be part of something much bigger than mere human affairs.
There’s been lots of speculation that was what got the film shelved as Malaysia is a very religious country. But it’s more likely the fear of lawsuits from families of those involved in the Mona Fandey case. That trial was so sensational it led to the abolition of juries in Malaysian trials. Not being familiar with the case didn’t really hurt my understanding or enjoyment of the film, but I’m sure it added to them for local viewers.
Using this case as the film’s base, DUKUN moves back and forth between courtroom scenes and black magic rituals. This contrast, especially when we see the sometimes gruesome results, keeps the tension building. It also highlights one of Karim’s dilemmas. As a lawyer he’s bound to defend Diana, as a human being he’s repulsed by what she’s done. All complicated further by her possible involvement with his daughter, and possibly his wife.
Making its international debut at this year’s New York Asian Film Festival DUKUN is a tale of horrors both supernatural and the all too human ones of greed for both money and power. All set in a society that is both very different and very similar to our own.