Friday, June 24, 2016

Past Misdeeds: The Real Pocong (2009)

Through the transformation of the glorious WTF-Films into the even more glorious Exploder Button and the ensuing server changes, some of my old columns for the site have gone the way of all things internet. I’m going to repost them here in irregular intervals in addition to my usual ramblings.

Please keep in mind these are the old posts without any re-writes or improvements. Furthermore, many of these pieces were written years ago, so if you feel offended or need to violently disagree with me in the comments, you can be pretty sure I won’t know why I wrote what I wrote anymore anyhow.

As is somewhat traditional in films, a small, young family consisting of mother Rin(i) (Nabila Syakieb), father (I)Van (Ashraf Sinclair) and little daughter Laura (Sakinah Dava Erawan) moves into a new home in the country, although as a non-Indonesian I'd call it "the jungle" or at least "the deep dark woods".

Rini and Van are enthusiastic about their new house. It was cheap, and there are none of the dangers of the city threatening their daughter now. One would think that the country air could also be good for Laura's asthma. There's a certain lack of neighbours, though, with the only person living nearby the young physician Dr. Nila (Kinaryosih). At least she's friendly and could probably be of help when little Laura has one of her attacks.

Less friendly are other inhabitants of the area. Right on the family's first day in the new house, Laura follows a strange, unsmiling girl of about her own age deeper into the woods, until she comes to a weather-beaten old shack beside a well. There, the other girl seems to disappear into thin air. Instead, something dressed in white funeral shrouds jumps Laura.

When Rini finds her deeply disturbed daughter, she can't get a word out of the girl, and puts her strange behaviour on an understandable reaction to the new environment. In truth, a pocong (female Indonesian ghost dressed in white shrouds that often seems to have religious connotations I won't pretend to understand) has taken an interest in the girl. At first, it seems relatively benign, turning into a kitten and sneaking into Laura's room, or singing her lullabies, but just too soon the ghost again lures the girl to the shack.
Only this time, Laura doesn't return.

The police (who are never actually shown by the film) find not a trace of the child, nor any explanation of what happened, so the desperate Rini seeks the help of a medium, very much against Van's will. The medium diagnoses the place to be haunted and declares a pocong to be the child snatcher, but seems unwilling to act on her findings. Only when Van calls her out in a fit of aggressive scepticism she deigns to do something, and I can't say that I find giving the sceptic an amulet that is supposed to help him cross over to the spirit world and then drive away never to return to be a very responsible action.

Surprisingly enough, Van actually uses the amulet to cross over (through a gate of pine trees, no less), and manages to bring Laura back. Of course, this is not the end of the family's troubles.

The more films of the (as it seems still merrily continuing) Indonesian horror film boom I see, the more impressed I am with it. Of course, quite a few of the films are terribly generic, or marred by the sort of comic relief that is neither comical, nor any kind of relief, but you can say that of every country's genre film output at the best of times. The important thing is the good films, and the good horror films made in Indonesia in the last five years or so tend to be very good, and quietly ambitious in exploring the possibilities of their genre.

The Real Pocong definitely is one of those good films. Directed by Hanny R. Saputra (whose other films I unfortunately know next to nothing about), it is a film that treats its horror story as a fairy tale. One just needs to have a look at the plot structure - like the way the film uses repetition - or the elements (the deep dark wood, the road into the other world, the child-snatching supernatural creature etc) of the plot to realize this.

The characters are more archetypes than psychologically "realistic" people. As such, they don't always act as rational or logical as some viewers might want them to - especially Rini's inability to completely understand what is happening around her in the final third of the film could be very problematic to some - but I'm not too sure I would find people learning that their little daughter has been kidnapped by a ghost and then acting rationally and logically that much more believable. Thankfully, the handful of actors is good enough to provide performances which do not confuse the archetypal with the inhuman.

I was especially impressed by Sakinah Dava Erawan. Child actors are often terrible, and I find it somewhat unfair to blame them for it, seeing that they just don't have much life experience they could draw from, but I didn't find it difficult at all to sympathize with this little girl. Cleverly, the first part of The Real Pocong lets the film's audience share Laura's perspective, her mixture of terror and wonder and the naturalness with which she treats the stranger occurrences around her; as a child, she doesn't have the grip on what should be reality and what not a grown-up possesses, and because we share her view of the world, we don't get to have that grip either.

As any good fairy tale would, the movie does well addressing anxieties people typically don't want to be confronted with quite directly. The Laura-centric half of the film embodies many childhood anxieties. It's not only the more banal ones like "the thing in the cupboard" or "the thing under the bed", but the fear of not being understood by one's parents, and the more painful fear of not being able to trust them.

The second half of the film puts the same (slightly painful) spotlight on the big parental fear of the loss of one's child without going down either the road of Spielbergian kitsch, nor that of exploitative melodrama.

Apart from that, The Real Pocong also manages to be quite creepy (again, as a good fairy tale should be). While some of the special effects look a bit ropey, the production design and photography are excellent. This is one of the few horror films whose actions take place nearly entirely by daylight, and it proves that a director who knows what he's doing doesn't need darkness to build a mood of dread.

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