REVIEW: 'Revenge of the Pontianak' has a fresh take on the monster while paying homage to old films

PHOTO: Tiger Tiger Pictures
PHOTO: Tiger Tiger Pictures

SINGAPORE – There's no denying the appeal of the pontianak when it comes to anything horror-related — she's probably the most famous supernatural creature we have in the country besides the Merlion. So it's no surprise that horror films like Revenge of the Pontianak are highly anticipated, because it's another chance to see the monster on screen again.

Revenge of the Pontianak centres on a pair of newlyweds in a small kampung in ‘60s Malaysia. Their marital bliss is quickly interrupted by strange occurrences all around them. As they try to discover the source of their troubles, they learn that skeletons in the closet always return to haunt you — and secrets can tear a family apart.


Glen Goei humanises a monster in 'Revenge of the Pontianak', and Nur Fazura saw a pontianak on set

Singapore and Malaysia cinema's love affair with pontianaks

PHOTO: Tiger Tiger Pictures
PHOTO: Tiger Tiger Pictures

It's difficult to comment on the effectiveness of the movie's titular spirit, Mina, played by Malaysia’s Nur Fazura. You don't actually see much of the pontianak for most of the film. Sure, she does haunt the villagers — but unless she's murdering them outright, her hauntings amount to little more than indirect inconveniences. But then, the film makes it clear that you're not meant to hate the monster, so perhaps that's the reason for her lacklustre hauntings?

Co-directors Glen Goei, Singaporean theatre veteran, and Malaysia’s Gavin Yap, try their gosh darn hardest to make you sympathise with the pontianak by showing you what she was like in life and you can see where it's going with this storyline once it appears. Mina even waxes lyrical in the closing scenes as she tries to moralise to... the world in general. But can you really sympathise with an undead creature that has massacred so many people in cold blood?

Photo: Tiger Tiger Pictures
Photo: Tiger Tiger Pictures

What makes the whole sympathetic pontianak angle even more incongruous is that pontianak's big reveal also culminates in the film's big action sequence, which has her facing off against her human attackers. She first picks them off one by one using stealth and speed, but eventually just gives up on that approach and faces her attackers en masse. That's when she transforms into this jump kicking, kungfu pontianak who swats people aside left, right and centre, making her more of an MMA fighter rather than a howling banshee. It's an image that you're not likely to forget, and that's probably the most memorable aspect of the pontianak.

There is some artistic merit in the visual direction of the film, as modern stylistic choices are made to show the transformation of the kampung setting from an idyllic haven away from civilisation to a gritty shooting gallery for the pontianak. The set design and production values are on point. However, the beautiful sets do create an odd logic snarl in the film. Characters are often seen running into rooms and slamming the door shut behind them — but the design of the ground floor kampungs mean that there are often mini-balconies, with openings as large as a door, in the same shot where the character has just closed the door for safety. It negates the purpose and protection of a door, and undercuts the intended horror of the scene with unintended humour (can't the pontianak come in through the balcony?).

PHOTO: Tiger Tiger Pictures
PHOTO: Tiger Tiger Pictures

The movie does try to pay homage to its predecessors in terms of style, but some decisions, like aping the closing iris transitions (where the scene fades to black through a rapidly narrowing circle) of yore, tend to break you out of that suspension of disbelief. It also overuses some shots, like a variation of the eye zoom transition, which does bring home the point that yes, this is a reference to older films. But all this is done in the spirit of honouring older pontianak films, and it's evident in the sheer (although somewhat misguided) enthusiasm of the execution.

Thankfully, Revenge of the Pontianak has Remy Ishak to anchor the film as the protagonist Khalid, who has to deal with the pontianak's haunting him right after his wedding. As the straight man of the film, he manages to deal with the hauntings (and occasionally odd situations) with a believable realism, without taking the film too seriously. He's the one you root for, despite the Herculean attempts of the film to make you sympathise with the pontianak.

Revenge of the Pontianak makes some drastic changes to the classic pontianak, with mixed results. What's clear though, is that we really needed to see more of the pontianak in the movie. Still, it's done with heart, which is what pulls it through some strange directorial decisions.

PHOTO: Tiger Tiger Pictures
PHOTO: Tiger Tiger Pictures

Should you watch this at weekday movie ticket prices? Yes.

Should you watch this at weekend movie ticket prices? No.

Score: 2.9/5

Running time: 92 minutes

Revenge of the Pontianak is a Singaporean-Malaysian horror movie in Malay. It is also know as Dendam Pontianak.

It is directed and written by Glen Goei and Gavin Yap. It stars Nur Fazura (Mina), Remy Ishak (Khalid), Hisyam Hamid (Reza), Shenty Feliziana (Siti), Nam Ron (Su'ut Din), Tony Eusoff (Rais), Nadiah M. Din (Aisha), Wan Hanfi Su (Penghulu), Nadia Aqilah (Ida), and Nik Harraz Danish (Nik). It is rated PG-13.

Revenge of the Pontianak is out in cinemas:
- 29 August, 2019 (Singapore)
- 12 September, 2019 (Malaysia)

Marcus Goh is a television scriptwriter who writes for “Crimewatch”, as well as popular shows like “Lion Mums”, “Code of Law”, “Incredible Tales”, and “Police & Thief”. He’s also a Transformers enthusiast and avid pop culture scholar. You can find him on social media as Optimarcus and on his site. The views expressed are his own.

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