With a list of ancestors that includes Shakespeare, Tran Anh Hung, “The Godfather” and the Bible, “Bunohan” serves up a feast of archetypes and violence amid a story that twines like a basketful of cobras to deliver a movie that’s ripe as a mango for a U.S. remake. The border-hopping Malaysian plotline defies pigeonholing — it’s a fight film with echoes of “King Lear,” and a ghost story about living people who occupy the edge of existence. Specialty bookers could well be turned off by the brutal violence, but a dose of visceral horror is well worth the trip to “Bunohan.”
Helmer Dain Said mixes together magical realism, the kind of shocking mayhem reminiscent of Tran’s “Cyclo” and philosophical digressions that might throw another movie off course. But “Bunohan” (both a village in backwater Malaysia and a word for “murder”) never loses the fluid momentum Said achieves right from the opening moments, featuring a vicious Muay Thai fight-to-the-death in Thailand, in which the badly outclassed Adil (Zahril Adzim) is rescued by his best friend Muski (Amerul Affendi). This sets in motion a labyrinthine series of narrative connections which again, thanks to Said’s command of his story and medium, only tighten the film’s grip on viewers.
Because he’s betrayed the terms of the match, Adil has to flee Thailand, but hot on his heels is hired killer Ilham (Faizal Hussein, the Jack Palance of Malaysia), who’s been hired by the crooked promoter Jokol (Hushairy Hussin) to kill Adil. Ilham left home as a youth, so he doesn’t realize that he and Adil are half-brothers. The pic’s themes of patriarchy, familial betrayal, adultery and despair are served up amid myriad plot twists: Jokol, who’s trying to get control of a local fight club, is in cahoots with Ilham’s other brother, Bakar (Pekin Ibrahim), who is trying to get possession of one remaining piece of their father’s land, the one connecting his own acreage to the sea. This will allow him to build a development that has already led to the relocation of graves — including that of Ilham’s mother. Ilham’s grief and rage are biblical, as is his taste for retribution.
Acting is uniformly excellent. The arresting photography includes the occasional trip into hallucination — Ilham’s sequence with a possessed bird, for instance; or a ghostly woman in a gown, wading through an endless green expanse of reeds. The interrelationships are knotty but well defined, the many grudges and grievances always clear. It helps that Said is telling a tale rich in literary allusion, but it’s also one aided by its contemporary references: While brothers Adil and Ilham are men of action, violence and basic principles, the loathsome Bakar, the educated one, constantly has a cell phone to his ear and a polo shirt tucked into his Dockers. He’s easy to hate; Adil and Ilham, despite their outward simplicity, are captivatingly complex creatures.
Tech credits are superb, notably the work of d.p. Charin Pengpanich. For the record, the film’s English title according to press materials (but nowhere onscreen) is “Return to Murder.”