The power of the photographic image and the woeful legacy of colonialism intersect in eerie ways in the stylishly shot supernatural thriller “Interchange.” A police murder procedural that segues into anthropomorphic hocus pocus, the mystery solving moves too leisurely compared with Korean or Hollywood genre films. However, Malaysian director Dain Iskander Said develops the story’s ornithological motif with grotesque yet beautiful atmospherics. The film’s tasteful exoticism no doubt contributed to inclusion at such top festivals as Toronto, Locarno, and London before landing an opening slot at the Singapore film fest.
Said’s sophomore feature “Bunohan: Return to Murder” premiered at Toronto and won numerous awards back home. While the village-set crime noir was noted for its sinewy action, the writer-director’s latest is considerably more ambitious in the way it explores the legacy of Malaysia’s colonial past on the country’s ultra-modern present within an entertaining genre framework, enhanced by some genuinely creative fantasy elements. Though his narrative technique is not as polished as his visual sense, Said could be a vital force in energizing Malaysian commercial cinema, saddled as it is with cheesy romances, provincial comedies, and tinpot horror movies.
Adam (Iedl Putra), a former forensic photographer who quit after being freaked out by a grisly murder, bums around snooping into nearby high-rises through his camera’s viewfinder from his balcony. When another body turns up, killed in exactly the same manner, Det. Azman (Shaheizy Sam), fondly called “Man” by his associates, drags Adam out of his hiatus to help him investigate. As the death toll mounts, shards of glass and feathers of hornbill (a rare bird from Borneo) are found at each crime scene.
Adam identifies the shards as fragments of glass plates, used for photography in the 19th century before the invention of plastic film. He takes them to expert Uncle Heng (Chew Kin-wah) to have them developed, and discovers that they were negatives taken by Norwegian explorer Carl Lumholtz, who trekked through Borneo’s Central Kalimantan between 1913 and ’17, recording the customs of the indigenous Dayaks, whose totem is the hornbill. From a book published by Lumholtz, Adam sees a striking resemblance between the murdered victims and members of the disappeared Tingang tribe. One tribeswoman is the spitting image of Iva (Prisia Nasution), the enigmatic neighbor Adam has been spying on and falling for.
With obvious references to “Rear Window,” the screenplay by Said, his producer, and wife Nandita Solomon, Redza Minhat, and June Tan makes a provocative parallel between the lonely urbanite’s sexually tinted voyeurism with a more pernicious kind of cultural voyeurism represented by the white explorer, whose photography was believed by the Tingangs to “steal their souls” — a disquieting allegory of how colonialists define the indigenous as an exotic “other” in the name of anthropology. It also questions the photographic image as a medium to “immortalize” its subjects.
The film’s supernatural component is heightened by the appearance of Belian (Indonesian heartthrob Nicholas Suprata), a hooded figure with a beaky nose and talons in place of pinkies. Though the CG effects used to suggest his mutations are hit and miss, the creature design is strong, and his role in the film stands out forcefully — especially in fight scenes against Man, which recall “Constantine’s” blend of fantasy and film noir, as well as the aerial shot that ends “Birdman.” Indonesian actress Nasution cuts a striking figure as the chic Iva while looking hypnotically strange in the black-and-white photographs, though the suspense surrounding her identity doesn’t last till the finale. The same goes for much of the detective work, failing to generate much tension.
It’s commendable of Said not to overplay the ethnographic mysticism, though he doesn’t delve deeply enough into the historical subtext of his fantasy plot, which implies that tradition and spiritualism are eroded — rendered soul-less by colonialism and modern technology. How exactly the Tingang’s souls are trapped in the past, and why this existence is more unbearable than death, is not convincingly explained, especially given the hipster lives Iva and other surviving tribespeople now lead.
Performances by the distinctive-looking cast are charismatic and engaging, while production designer Zaharah Nakibullah and costume designer Akma Suryati deliver contributions well above mainstream Malaysian cinema, reinforced by a brooding score from Luka Kuncevic and sensuously-saturated images from DP Jordan Chaim, who frames Kuala Lumpur’s concrete jungle in icily gleaming wide shots in clever counterpoint with the lush flora and fauna of the Borneo tropical forest.