Subtle spirituality and gritty kickboxing are two elements that don’t tend to come together too easily. Perhaps the films of Jean-Claude Van Damme deal with themes deeper than I’d noticed, but on the whole it’s pretty fair to say that the cinematic representations of this sport tend to be a little less than profound. “Bunohan” tosses all of those genre conventions out the window. At times almost delicate, Dain Said’s film balances the gritty realism of Muay Thai fighting with a delicate family drama and its almost mysterious spiritual elements.
Adril (Zahril Adzim) is a kickboxer who suddenly finds himself on the run after abandoning a fight to the death. The event’s organizer, infuriated, sends Adril’s assassin half-brother Ilham (Faizal Hussein) after him on a mission to kill. There’s a third brother, Bakar (Pekin Ibrahim), who turns out to be a somewhat ruthless and greedy individual in spite of his unthreatening schoolteacher appearance. They all end up back in Bunohan (which means “murder” in Malay), the town where they were raised. Their father is still there, holding onto the burial ground that he still owns after years of fading away. Things get complicated pretty fast, as their desires for refuge and financial gain come into stark conflict.
The melodramatic elements come through gradually, as these men pick up unexpected information about their family’s past. Their relationships complicate and their memories seem to intertwine, bringing us the occasional dreamlike flashback of Ilham’s mother, now having moved on into a spiritual afterlife. There are moments of almost mythological significance, assisted by the grand landscapes of Malaysia. The swamps and forests dwarf these men, casting the entire drama in the context of a powerful natural presence that lends eternality to this often hushed tale.
In the latter half of the film there is a moment when the father begins to put on a shadow play in the daylight hours – a seemingly pointless act. Yet he explains that this is a ritualistic endeavor, a communication with the spirit world. The violent narrative is occasionally so interrupted by the more profound goings on of this borderland between nations, cultures, and planes. Said has constructed a marvelously dynamic and liminal universe for his film, which in many ways is the perfect compliment to the brutality of his characters.
The Muay Thai fight scenes offer stark contrast to this subtle spirituality. The gritty criminal underbelly of this intersection between Malaysia and Thailand is an unforgiving place, no less so due to the conflicting ambitions of these three brothers. There’s an unbridled sense of violence, and not only while Adril is in the midst of bloody combat. It gets confusing at times, its greatest weakness being the perhaps appropriately mangrove-like tangle of its protagonists’ family tree. Yet this fascinating balance of tone manages to overcome that hurdle by the end and even if you don’t entirely understand exactly what happened, you can still appreciate the poetic accomplishment of this enigmatic film’s final scenes.