Malaysian film Bunohan screened at Fantastic Fest this year to great praise. The film is a kickboxing drama with a deeper edge, and I was happy to get the chance to interview director Dain Said.
Your story unfolds in a rough village, often referred to as the Malaysian “badlands” by those familiar (Bunohan translates to “murder.”) Can you tell us a bit about why you chose this particular area despite its reputation and any personal inspiration drawn from growing up in similar surroundings?
It is always the details of a surroundings – a tree, the texture and colour and in this particular area, its white sands, its people and their habits and the characters that one meets; in short, stories and myths that turns any kind of space into place. And for me that has always been an important element in cinema.
In this film I wanted the place to play a vital role in expressing the story and characters’ inner emotional landscape. I tried as hard as I could to colour the mood and truth of the story’s turmoil, because I was aware that the film’s style in the way that I wanted to shoot it was not overly melodramatic, the emotional engagement between the characters, aside from the fights, was intense but purposely held back, distanced even.
The inspiration really was, as you rightly suggest, my own personal reality growing up near the area. Still my translating it into the story really draws, I think in this instance, from cinema that I grew up with.
But I took creative license and shot most of the film mostly in a place not too far away from the actual town of Bunohan itself. I wanted a magical place, where the elements, the sea and the land crashed into each other, like the stories of the characters themselves. I had been to this place as a child as well, when I was living near Bunohan.
Revisiting the area, as I was writing the script, took me back to the westerns I grew up with as a kid. Wide open country and vistas, which suggests a nothingness, and yet claustrophobic mangroves which hide all the dark stuff.
The relationship between bordertown dwellers and their environment, specifically nature, plays a large role in the film. Taking a step back, the actual backdrop in which you were all working was pretty harsh. You took an impressive chance shooting in swamplands during monsoon season, sure, but I also heard the words “heat seeking pit vipers” thrown around. Are there any memorable production stories you could share?
Yeah, it was crazy. You know that no amount of planning can get around a cyclone that stopped shoot for 3 days, nor the flooding that filled the “field of reeds” waist-high in water. I checked the field everyday either first thing or sent someone to report its progress.
We had to make sure the boat that the assassin Ilham lived in was dragged in at high tide in pitch darkness before dawn, with nothing but torch lights, and judge the position we wanted it in according to the surrounding shrubs and mangroves which were covered with water. Then, the crew and I had to jump in and wade in slippery mud and push it and lock it in place, holding fast and fighting against the tide pushing it out.
You also had to test the ground with your foot, because in some places you could sink into the mud up to your thighs, I was quite scared of that, not just for myself but for everyone involved because then you’d literally sink under the water and wouldn’t be able to move. It was either crazy or stupid or both; but it had to be done. I thankfully can laugh at it now.
Actually more than the vipers, it was the buffalo leeches that were scary; the size of two fingers of a big man’s hands and long. If you rip them off, which was difficult, they’d rip your flesh off with it. So we had a lot of salt on set. There were so many we soon ran out, and at one point I saw it on the back of the data wrangler’s thigh, so I asked him to turn around as I unzipped myself, but I don’t think he wanted it to get around that the director pissed on him.
My heart goes out to Tengku Azura though, Malaysia’s supermodel who acted as the mother in the swamps. The next day, she showed me the scratches and cuts from the reeds, and a couple of huge marks on her legs from buffalo leeches. I felt so bad, but all she said was, “Nothing that makeup can’t remove….and I have a catwalk tonight,” as she smiled. She really was awesome.
The thing about those vipers is that they do exist, but thankfully they’re nocturnal. During the tech recce, it was partly due to my mounting paranoia, that the DP suggested shooting day for night, which judging by the results, proved to be a good “creative” decision.
How did you come to create what feels like a dream crew of sorts: producer Nandita Solomon (Apparat), cinematographer Charin “Tong” Pengpanich (Rescue Dawn, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives) and editor Herman Panca? Had you previously seen any of Pengpanich’s stunning work?
My producer Nandita Solomon really is the unsung hero of the production of Bunohan. I work very closely with her, and I keep her close, because when I cannot trust my judgment, which does happen, I always turn to her and know that I can trust hers.
My problem is when I’m in the midst of something or locked into an idea, and if she or someone suggests something, I can be more reactive rather than productive. So of course we have our fights, and she leaves me some distance, and I need time to think it through, and invariably, I realize the points and ideas she brings to the film adds another dimension that perhaps I had not seen, so it is a good fight for the right reasons. She definitely guided the whole production through the storm, in every sense of the word, and I can tell you there were a few.
It was Nandita who drew my attention to Charin Pengpanich (Tong)’s and Panca’s work, as she had worked with both of them on other productions.
Panca fills up the room, a ball of energy and a large character, always laughing and smiling, but when he’s editing he becomes sharp and narrow. We flew to Jakarta and met up with him, and we hit it off. I talked about the film and as I described the opening sequences, he came over on the floor, where I was sitting, and began telling me his thoughts on the scene, and it was like he had written it himself. That sealed it really. That, and a couple of bottles of liquid gold from the Scottish highlands. Then he whispered, “You know Dain, I don’t really edit, I let the story tell me when to cut.”
Tong is a strange man, always calm and unfazed, who uses humour as a distancing mechanism, which at first is hard to penetrate. Not an Asian thing at all, if I can put it that way. But once we got going with the work, especially on set, it was a joy working with him. He really understood the story and what I wanted to achieve. I had my references, but for the most part he really focused on the story and its characters, and it’s emotional colour. That’s what he wanted to know most. I had seen his work on Chris Chong Chan Fui’s Karaoke, and I loved the way he worked with natural light as the basis from which he builds or not as the case may be.
And under the condition of the shoot, he was adaptable, fast and responded always with creative solutions to the changing weather, because he knew that I wanted to shoot at the monsoon because of the quality of light.
Yes we did have a core of some amazing people on the shoot .
Your writing/directing style exudes a warm, maverick-like quality and it’s no secret that we’re huge supporters of that approach around these parts. Would you say there’s a collaborative effort taking place during production between your right hand men/women and the actors bringing the characters to life?
I think that I was fortunate that the actors loved the script and the story.
I must thank you because your appreciation of the efforts brought about by the actors, is testament to the kinds of commitment that can only be produced by the love, passion and openness that they brought to the film, which can only be achieved by the kinds of support that was given by the people around me.
I am glad that you have brought out a point, which audiences rarely see perhaps, that it is this which makes for a happy place that can be conducive for a true collaborative effort. I know that what I have just written might sound wanky, but it’s not always easy to find the way and just as hard to express the words to do them justice. It truly was an honour, and I love the actors I worked with.
What was your method for casting, namely for the lead roles in the film? Because I’m sure it was no easy feat to discover an actor with a background in Tomoi/Muy Thai that could also execute the Kelantanese Malay dialect, for instance, to portray Adil.
I don’t know if you can call it a method. For the most part, at least for quite a few of the actors, I had worked with them before. A lot of the times I really just rely on gut feel, and then call them in, talk about ideas and the characters and then have a reading from a scene.
Faizal Hussein (Ilham), the assassin character, is one of them and so we knew each other, and in fact, when I wrote the character, I always knew it would be him.
The second brother Bakar, played by Pekin Ibrahim, was for me an amazing discovery. He had in fact come in for a smaller part. I remember that he just really grabbed me as he walked in for casting and did his lines. But through a scheduling problem, with the original actor, I immediately knew that he would be the right person for the part of Bakar, and as it turned out he was Kelantanese, so language wasn’t a problem.
Zahiril Adzim, (Adil) the kickboxer brother, I had seen in a play with Amerul Affendi (Muski) his best friend who rescues him from the illegal fight, in the opening scene of the film. They both belong to this wonderful experimental theatre company headed by Namron, who plays Pok Wah, Adil’s mentor in the film. I knew that for the Adil character I wanted someone who could exude a quiet intensity but who was physically and facially a little vulnerable, to set of against his violent profession.
Most of them were sent for dialect training. And Zahiril and Amerul, had to be sent to Muay Thai training. Most of the extras and featured extras were real fighters from Muay Thai clubs, just to immerse them in the mix as it were.
The score by the sadly late Tan Yan Wei is nothing short of resplendent and plays a crucial part of the tale you’re weaving - whether it’s to delicately build upon drama between characters or opponents per tradition during a Muay Kelate/Tomoi match. How did you begin working with the composer and was it your intention to produce a contemporary take on ancient songs and sounds? How difficult was that to master?
When I first met Tan, or Yuan as he is called, I thought what’s wrong with this guy? He had a stillness, which trembled, ever so slightly – like a wound up rooster on a weather vane turning against a strong wind. A beautiful creature. And clearly a very talented man.
I said to him, I want a modern sound. I want you to take the sound from a traditional instrument, and then I want you to fuck it up. I knew that the last thing I wanted was to exoticise the film, I wanted it modern but at the same time with an underlying hint at the sense of place and the context of the culture without the ‘ethnic’ shout. You know, pandering to the exotic. It would have been too easy. It would have cloaked the whole visual feel and choked it, with it’s own ethnic colouring.
I mean it wasn’t easy, and I wouldn’t want to take anything away from him and the beauty of what he finally produced. But I did work quite closely with him as I did with the overall sound design. It was a very important process and expression of the film for me. (As part of the expression of the oral culture, and its character, stories and folklore.)
I wanted a soundscape where music and sound could merge, to express sounds as music and music as sound. Because of the oral culture and the whole oral storytelling traditions of the shadow puppets, the folklore and the myths, so tiny things like room sounds and breathing, even in the quiet moments needed to be part of the rhythm.
We tried at first with several different instruments, namely violin and cello. But I found it sharp, too precise a sound and didn’t connect. Finally, it came down back to the traditional instrument, and so back with the rebab that I had initially and purposely moved away from.
But I knew that what I liked about the rebab, this three-stringed instrument is that, the sounds that come out from it, (the local shamans feel that it’s an instrument closest to the human voice) always sounds like the guy playing it doesn’t really know how to play it properly, or like a child playing it for the first time. I think that’s because the strings on the bow are loose, not taut and set, like a violin bow and the only way that one can coax any sound from it is by pulling the bow strings tight around the same fingers as you draw the bow across the main 3 strings; so it’s not precise. There’s a wobbly quality to the sound that I like.
I love Tom Waits, Kronos Quartet, and I kind of kept the listening options to Sigur Ros and Godspeed You Black Emperor for the electronic reference.
Once we got the sound we wanted, then the electronic stuff around it was a question of sensibility, which he managed to get and he really came up with some incredible stuff for me. So you can imagine, the news of his sudden demise was a real shock.
At first glance, your audiences might mistake Bunohan for a rough-and tumble martial arts/action film, but I was surprised to learn the layers constructed here go beyond macho violence and into a more intellectual/spiritual realm. Was this a result of the banning of your first film Dukun for its depiction of black magic and the like and do you foresee any issues with the marketing of this particular offering?
Some have called it as genre defying or crossing. I quite like that. The Koreans do it very well.
But you know, I guess again it goes back to films of my childhood or youth, when the films that have inspired me and the best of them will always have stories that are not just uni-dimensional. In fact the best American films still have this, where the layers and subtext, have always been the mainstay that adds a larger, and deeper dimension to their films. I guess it’s always a question of how much of the stitchings are shown, and how obviously, goes from style to style, and possibly, even what is favourable from generation to generation.
I had been working on Bunohan even before I started on Dukun. You will find in Southeast Asia that people seemingly live/accept multi-dimensional realities without missing a beat. I think there’s an increasing diversity of films being produced in Malaysia over the last few years, and it’s growing, especially with the younger generation getting into the flow. Because of the release system for local films in Malaysia, Bunohan will only release at home next March, and we didn’t have any issues with censorship.