‘Harum Malam’ — a messy yet sometimes glorious missed opportunity

Malay Mail
Malay Mail

FEBRUARY 18 — Any fan of Malaysian cinema should already be familiar with Dain Said, the director responsible for such critically acclaimed films like Bunohan, Interchange and Dukun.

One of the very few active Malaysian auteurs who can be clearly seen engaging with cinematic/visual language in terms of conveying meaning and telling a story in his films, there’s a reason why his films have always managed to get noticed outside of his home turf, whether by securing slots in prestigious film festivals like Locarno and Toronto, or by getting distribution deals in Europe and the USA under companies like Universal Pictures and Oscilloscope Laboratories, even if those films rarely cause a splash at home.

So, when news started trickling in that his latest film Harum Malam (aka Blood Flower for the international market) will be arriving in Malaysian cinemas in February 2023, preceded by a festival run that included such big hitters in the genre film festival scene like Fantastic Fest and Sitges, which resulted in Shudder picking the film up for release later in the year (making it the first Malaysian film to get the honour of being a Shudder Original), of course my hopes for the film went sky high.

These are major festivals for genre films and Shudder is the genre film scene’s undisputed champion when it comes to streaming, so of course I was flushed with excitement and pride at seeing a local horror flick getting that kind of premium treatment from world-class platforms.

Having now seen the film in the cinema last weekend, and with the big asterisk of it getting a P13 rating, resulting in plenty of silenced dialogue (but with the English subtitles thankfully not redacted), blurred scenes, and even blackened ones with only the audio running, I can’t help but feel disappointed at what a jumbled mess the whole film turned out to be.

I might revisit this opinion once I’ve seen the uncensored version of the film on Shudder later, because I won’t have any idea how much the P13 rating affected the film’s editing until then, but at this moment, based on what I saw in a Malaysian cinema, Harum Malam is a jumbled mess that suffers from a surprisingly poor script.

The film centres on a kid named Iqbal (a strong acting debut from Idan Aedan), who, like his mother, has the ability to see ghosts/demons/djinns etc and also possesses the ability to exorcise them from whatever bodies they chose to inhabit.

As is usually the case in horror flicks, trauma plays a huge part in the film’s plot, and this comes in the form of Iqbal witnessing his mother’s death during an exorcism gone wrong, leading him to not only hate his “gift” and not wanting anything to do with the exorcisms that his family has been known for, but also hating his father Norman (an understated Bront Palarae) whom he blames for his mother’s death.

The film’s B plot comes in the form of a greenhouse that Jamil (Remy Ishak) has entrusted to Norman to look after during his field trip away in Indonesia to look for more exotic plants.

One of the exotic plants in the greenhouse is the titular Harum Malam flower, and this plot not only involves that flower (which, since it’s from Sumatra, is surely haunted), but also a mysterious empty room with a piece of mantra paper pasted on its door, and another traumatic paternal relationship involving Ah Boy aka Nurul (one of the kids in Iqbal’s group of friends) and Jamil.

So, in terms of story structure, there really is something clever being cooked up here with both the film’s A and B plot mirroring each other in terms of trauma and psychological back story.

A scene from Dain Said's latest film, 'Harum Malam'. — Screen capture via YouTube/harummalamfilm
A scene from Dain Said's latest film, 'Harum Malam'. — Screen capture via YouTube/harummalamfilm

A scene from Dain Said's latest film, 'Harum Malam'. — Screen capture via YouTube/harummalamfilm

But watching the film as these events unfold is another matter.

There are gaps in logic and plot holes that even the most casual of movie goers will begin to question, the dialogue (God bless the actors for having to speak them) sound like they’re translated from English, resulting in a lot of awkward moments, and most glaringly, there’s a clear creative decision being made here in terms of acting style, blocking and placement of actors that will remind most cinephiles of the Robert Bresson style of acting/underplaying, which can work beautifully in arthouse films/slow cinema, but unfortunately doesn’t work in a horror film.

This creative decision is bold, I’ll give you that, and that (including the fact that foreign audiences who will only be reading the subtitles and won’t be able to pick up these nuances that native Malay speakers will) is probably why this film has managed to travel to such prestigious destinations.

And it’s this boldness that gave me something to admire about the film, like how the ending and the netherworld parts of that ending instantly evoked memories of Lucio Fulci’s The Beyond and that memorable ending to the first Phantasm film, which I never thought I’d get to experience in a local film.

And the film’s technical merits, and its unforgettable possession scenes (complete with some actual gore!) will leave audiences with plenty to remember when they get home, and are now the new benchmark for horror set-pieces in Malaysian films from now on.

But great and sometimes glorious parts do not make a great film if that film doesn’t cohere as a whole.

And until I can confirm it after a viewing on Shudder, that is what Harum Malam will be for now: a messy yet sometimes glorious missed opportunity.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.