Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Kuntilanak (2006)

aka The Chanting

Samantha (Julie Estelle) is a troubled young woman. Her life's like a certain type of country song: she is plagued by highly disturbing recurring nightmares, her mother just died, and something has happened that convinces her to keep her distance from her boyfriend Agung (Evan Sanders). And that's not enough. Her step-dad would very much like her to take her mother's place in his bed.

Obviously, Sam isn't going to live at home for much longer and moves into an exceedingly cheap boarding house specialized in catering to poor young people. I wouldn't know who else would want to move in there - the building is rather run-down, its entrance can only be reached by strolling through a small but creepy graveyard and nearly the first thing the landlady tells Samantha is that a Kuntilanak - a ghostly cross of white-haired corpse woman and horse with an unhealthy connection to children - is said to live in the big tree in the middle of the cemetery. While she claims not to believe in the Kuntilanak, the woman is wildly enthusiastic about the legend. She even sings Sam a chant that is supposedly used to summon the creature.

The chant has a strange effect on the girl, nearly letting her collapse on the floor.

Samantha's nightmares aren't stopping in her new home and while Agung, who studies psychology, tries to find out what his secluded girlfriend's dreams mean, ever stranger things start to happen.

Whenever Samantha feels threatened or upset, she falls into a trance-like state and starts to sing the Kuntilanak's chant. Her (not necessarily undeserving) victim bleeds from the nose, Samantha herself pukes maggots and a little later, the Kuntilanak pays a lethal little visit.

Apart from the ghost problem, there's something else just not right with the boarding house. Rumor has it that it belonged to a satanic cult that somehow used the Kuntilanak's powers to gain fortune. It really doesn't look to good for Samantha's health and sanity here.

Kuntilanak is a mighty fine part of the Indonesian share of the big Asian horror wave. The budget may be low, but director Rizal Mantovani is more than able to hide the rubberiness of his monsters. Even better: Mantovani has a real talent for using the decrepitude and decay of his locations to build a creepy mood and he avoids using too much jump cuts or other stylistic flourishes I still like to blame MTV for.

The plot isn't exactly what I'd call original, but the cliched elements the film is made of are put together cleverly and with classical genre verve. I may have heard this song a hundred times before, but the new cover version is still great. And look, it even has traditional Indonesian instruments (or ghosts), but uses them in a modern enough way.

It's also a nicely straightforward plot, without the sort of underhanded bad twists which have ruined more than one film for me with their insistence on acting as if there were no difference between inanity and cleverness. Instead, Kuntilanak puts its energy into old-fashioned values like logical plot progression, and not deep but believable characterization and wins at least my heart with craftsmanship you might as well call art.

The acting is very solid. Julie Estelle is a little awkward from time to time, but this awkwardness fits Sam's character better than your typical clever young method actor ticks would. Estelle is also quite adept at looking creepy into the camera while chanting, which is a real plus and she has no problems selling her character's thematically and plot-important inner strength while still seeming vulnerable. Sanders' Agung doesn't have much to do, but I'm certainly not going to complain about a film that decides to let its heroine rescue the hero and take care of her own troubles.

Kuntilanak is exactly the type of movie that can make me fall in love with genre movies again and again, doing the same thing every other film does, just better and with a handful of thoughtful changes to the formula that really make it worth my while.


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