Fantastic Fest 2011: BUNOHAN Review
Full disclosure: I thought this was a kickboxing movie. So imagine my surprise when Bunohan (AKA Return to Murder) proved to be nothing of the kind. Set amidst the beautiful Kelantan region of Malaysia, Bunohan is much more concerned with family relations and the ramifications of their actions upon each other and the environment.
It's a very quiet, somber movie, only tangentially related to the world of kick boxing, though the opening scenes involve Adil (Zahiril Adzim), a fighter who has fallen into financial hardship. Desperate to climb out of debt, he agrees to a "duel to the death" in a club in Thailand, but is rescued by his friends when it looks like he might lose the fight. They flee across the nearby border to Malaysia, and Adil seeks refuge in his hometown of Bunohan, translated into English as "Murder." The club owner sends Ilham (Faizel Hussein), an assassin, after Adil, and Ilham leaves a bloody trail behind in his search for Adil. Things get complicated when Ilham and Adil discover they are stepbrothers, and that another brother, Bakar, has also returned home.
It makes for a messy family reunion.
Bakar puts on a show of caring for their aging father, but, in reality, he just wants the old man's land, 30 acres of prime beachfront property ripe for redevelopment. He also coldly calculates how he can build up a business as a loan shark, taking advantage of needy locals. Adil is still reeling from revelations of his family heritage, and is reluctant to step back into the kickboxing ring. Ilham, his hands still very bloody from his life's work, reevaluates where he fits into the scheme of things. Spirit creatures briefly hover, expressing concerns about Bakar's plans for redevelopment, and what it may mean for the unspoiled seaside landscape.
From what little I know of Malaysian cinema in general, Bunohan appears to fit into the current wave of arthouse dramas, raising concerns about social issues while examining a fractured modern family. In the broader scale of arthouse cinema, it belongs, in most respects, to the family of subtle, slow pictures with very little overt action on screen. At the same time, it includes a fair amount of bloody violence, with throats cut and bodies sliced, which pushes it into somewhat more commercial territory. But there's only a total of a few minutes of kickboxing action.
That leaves Bunohan a bit stranded, but for those who are open to its methods, it may be quite rewarding. Director Dain Said previously made Dukun, reportedly a tale of black magic and murder, which was blocked from release in its native Malaysia and remains rarely seen. Bunohan deserves to be seen on its own merits.