Return To Murder (Bunohan)

Malaysia (2011) Dir. Dain Said

Three brothers return to the small Malaysian village of Bunohan, each under different circumstances which inexplicably become intertwined. Kick boxer Adil (Zahiril Adzim) is brought back from Thailand when he is abducted in the middle of rigged fight; half brother Ilham (Faizal Hussein) is a contract killer hired by the fight organiser to kill Adil; and Bakar (Pekin Ibrahim) has returned from the city under the pretence of being a teacher but instead is trying to con his father Pok Eng (Wan Hanafi Su) into selling their beach burial ground to a construction company.

Despite it being a key plot component and contrary to the promotion surrounding this film, there is an estimated two minutes of kick boxing action present in what is more of an arthouse-esque meditation drama than a sporting extravaganza. There are times when it wanders into surreal territory with its spiritual explorations and often jaunty narrative which makes this a harder sell to mainstream audiences especially those who are expecting a healthy dose of kick boxing action.

The story flits between the three themes of Adil’s cross country trek home with his childhood friend whilst keeping a low profile under the Thai radar. He seeks shelter from a swamp based sage who also has his finger on the pulse of the communal goings on, including the shady deals of local sleaze bag Jolok (Hushairy Hussin) who is not only running the fights to raise money but is also in league with Bakar who resorts to underhanded manipulation of his ailing father to secure his land.

Ilham is slicing and dicing his way across Bunohan until he discovers his mother’s grave has been moved, distracting him from his mission to kill Adil. At the centre of this unusual reunion of the prodigal sons is the identity of Adil’s mother which puts him on the outside of the family unit as well as providing the film with a supernatural twist.

Seemingly borrowing ideas from Thailand’s mind bending Cannes winning opus Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (but nowhere near as challenging) the supporting cast includes a talking bird, an exotic woman with spines down her back and a young boy who speaks with Pok Eng’s voice. This boy first appears at the start of the film in a seemingly incongruous scene which serves as a brief heads up for the conclusion, while the women pops up in the most unusual but, as we later learn, appropriate places.

Perhaps it is a cultural thing but the spiritual aspect of the story might have more resonance for Malay or indeed Asian audiences in general than it would us westerners. That is not to say the tenets behind them are not universal but their application to this story feel random within the context of three estranged brothers caught up in a violent circle of deceit and betrayal and tends to cloud things a little, especially for viewers used to a straight narrative in their films.    

The tone and ideas in the film suggests that writer/director Dain Said is an ambitious filmmaker and intended to make something genre defying to make the world sit up and take notice of Malaysian cinema, or at least the critics and the “intelligentsia”. The meandering pace, cryptic symbolism and heavy spiritual meditation on the meaning of family certainly will please the arthouse fans.

As said before the kick boxing is two few and far between to please even the most hardcore aficionados although they are very convincing looking. One of the film’s greatest strengths, even if the narrative alienates some audiences, is the photography which can be enjoyed by all. Bunohan may not exactly be the most picturesque location in the world but the way it is photographed here makes it look as idyllic as much as a bucolic and unspoiled village can.

Bunohan is not without its ambitions when it comes to competing on the world stage and in that respect it achieves quite a lot, making it a fine representative for Malaysian cinema. However the practice of cramming too many disparate ideas into one film is likely to backfire, especially as the marketing is going to lead to some very disappointed and disillusioned viewers.