Bunohan: Toronto Review

Toronto Film Festival
Introspective, artful Malaysian offering is only superficially about martial arts and gangsters.

Kickboxing movie focuses more on a family and social environment than violence.

Much closer to the realm of arthouse meditation than that of the martial arts film, Dain Said's Bunohan revolves around a Malaysian kickboxing star but pays more attention to the murky family and social environment that makes his home village's name, Bunohan -- that is, "murder" -- poetically fitting. The picture will be a marketing challenge in the States, but may find support from some critics in a niche run.

The small village, bordered by a beach and dense swamps, sees the return of three prodigal sons as the story opens. Adli, the kickboxer, who was more or less kidnapped in the middle of a bout in Thailand; his half-brother Bakar, who has been living in the city and hopes to sell the family's land to resort developers; and a professional killer named Ilham, hired to kill Adli but also finding it necessary to redress family grievances now that he's in town after many years.

One of writer/director Said's first scenes is set on a beach, cryptically pairing businessmen, a spiritual healing ceremony, and a young boy who leaps out of frame for a minute and jumps back in covered with blood. The shot is actually a flash-forward to the story's end, but it sets the stage for a picture that occasionally offers us the inexplicable -- a talking bird, a ghost-woman with stegosaurus-like spines -- and then moves on with things as if the spirit world is just another backdrop, like the threat of monsoons, against which living men compete for leverage and property.

Those competitions are the stuff of the film, and while there is violence here -- generally thanks to Ilham, a complicated figure more interesting than anyone else onscreen -- more often we move from one windowless house to the next, listening in as two or three men in sweat-soaked shirts plan how best to position themselves.

The pace of these scenes can be trying -- and would be torture for viewers who came expecting a more conventional Asian crime film -- but it suits the movie's concern with family histories, rural isolation, and the inevitability of development. By the time Adli's big fight arrives, even the money and lives depending on it can't make it more important than the shadow-puppet plays whose secrets a father may unintentionally take to his grave.

Venue: Toronto International Film Festival

Production Company: Apparat.

Cast: Faizal Hussein, Zahril Adzim, Pekin Ibrahim, Bront Palarae, Namron, Wan Hanafisu.

Director-screenwriter: Dain Said.

Producer: Nandita Solomon.

Executive producers: Dain Said.

Director of photography: Charin Pengpanich.

Production designer: Dain Said.

Music: Tan Yan Wei.

Editor: HK Panca.

Sales: Arclight Films.

No rating, 97 minutes.