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Bunohan (Return To Murder) | Review

Muted Feelings Trapped in a Plodding Tale of Patrilineage

The sophomore effort of Malaysian director Dain Said, Bunohan, plays like King Lear in a murky, jungle landscape, with the narrative focus being transposed to three very estranged brothers. Despite a narrative that seems rife with tragic and violent implications, this surprisingly tame tale has trouble setting a clear tone or managing to bring anything refreshing to the well-tread territory of the ties that bind.

The narrative begins in Thailand, where kickboxer Adil (Zahiril Adzim), stage name Bungo Lalang, must flee a death match and take refuge across the border in Malaysia. Adil makes his way to his home town, Bunohan, where is father, with whom he has been estranged for nearly five years, still lives. In Thailand, ruthless crime lord wants Adil back and a vicious killer, Ilham (Faizal Hussein), is dispatched to find him. Ilham quickly finds that Adil is his half brother, which somewhat changes the nature of his mission. Meanwhile, a third estranged brother, the manipulative Bakar (Pekin Ibrahim), has moved in with their father, a shadow puppeteer in ailing health, with the intention of coercing his father into signing over their remaining land to him, which he plans to sell for a large profit to a corporation. As each of the brothers’ paths converges in Bunohan, family secrets and conflicts come to light.

The real trouble with Bunohan is a lack of narrative focus. Each of the brothers and their various circumstances are all rather happenstance and vague. The multiple kickboxing sequences suffer from some choppy edits and feel as if they’re introduced only as distractions. A strange lack of any feminine presence is interesting with the exception of Ilham’s mother, a “magic” woman that turned into a creature upon her death. We see her spirit several times, wandering in the tall grass and in an extended sequence after the climax. While shapeshifting is a common theme in Thai films, it feels a bit jarring with the rest of this quiet tale concerning lineage and land rights. However, when Ilham learns that her grave has been moved from the beach where she was buried, his struggle to return her to her resting place results in the film’s most beautiful cinematography sequences. Several shots gazing at the overcast sky upon the graves on the beach are superb.

Upon the sale of the land out of the lineage, their stories will die, we are told. But when Bakar tells Adil that the sale of the land would be good for the family and Adil replies “What family?” the film begs the question, “Why do we care if their stories will die?” The film drains itself of any tension or surprise and the weak characterizations and lack of any clear cut protagonists fail to engage care or interest in the conclusion. Que cera, cera.

Reviewed on September 10 at the 2011 Toronto Int. Film Festival – DISCOVERY Programme.

97 Mins.

Rating 2 stars

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Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is IONCINEMA.com's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), FIPRESCI, the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2023: The Beast (Bonello) Poor Things (Lanthimos), Master Gardener (Schrader). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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