Harum Malam (2023)
Director: Dain Said
Platform: Disney Hotstar
Written by : Eswandy
To be honest, there are not many local directors who can excite me everytime there is a new local film release in the cinema. Or indeed we don’t have much choice either. Among them are the likes of Shanjey Perumal, Nik Amir, Muzzamer, Zahir Omar, Quek Shio Chuan, Emir Izwan, Liew Seng Tat, Mamat Khalid & Yasmin Ahmad who have left us early, U-Wei, Sabri Yunus, Fariza Azlina who directed Songlap, and of course a very talented director, Dain Said. Dain Said has given us wonderful films such as Bunohan, Interchange, and Dukun, which have become reviewers and critics’s favourites over the years. This time around, Dain Said is back with yet another spooky supernatural film titled Harum Malam.
The premise of Harum Malam centres around a low-class family (which can be seen through the setting of characters background, social space, and occupation) that has the mystical ability to see and capture supernatural beings. The character of the family’s first child, Iqbal, played well by Idan Aedan, has the ability to see supernatural beings and the ability to treat mystical diseases inherited from his mother, Dina, played by Nadiya Nisaa. Various mysterious events have struck after his father, Norman, played by Bront Palarae has been assigned to guard the greenhouse belonging to Jamil actor Remy Ishak which is also located in the same apartment where all the characters live. The secret of the strange disturbances that occur in the district of the apartment begins to be revealed through a series of incidents of possession and death that occur in the film.
Harum Malam is well crafted in terms of visuals, lighting, and cinematography which helps to build the mood of a supernatural horror film. However, there are things that fail to impress me and of them are the excessive use of visual effects that sometimes spoil the horror vibe and if done wrongly. It turns the scenes into a comedy disaster. But there is also the use of special effects and make-up effects that successfully accentuate the scary mood in this film. For me, the use of special effects is more effective as in films such as Pan’s Labyrinth, The Fly, The Thing, Alien, and also The Exorcist. Special effects tend to be more natural, realistic, and appealing. There is a reason why the Misteri Rumah Tua is still remembered to this day as a local cult horror film.
Dain Said’s films are often talked about because they often play with certain connotations that require audience engagement to think and interpret. Often represented by several signs (sign) placed by the director as a symbol in the film whether it is a character, dialog, or object with a certain meaning. It is also called semiotics. In Harum Malam, which also represents the name of a tree that Jamil brought from Sumatra, the visual form of the tree itself can be directly interpreted as a symbol of sexology (taboo) in local society as well as being among the main points of conflict in this film. I do appreciate this approach because it adds value to a film.
According to some readings of horror film studies in Malaysia and abroad, contemporary local horror films often use the concept of family relationships as a common narrative tool and position women to be the object of storytelling. Harum Malam also uses the same concept. It emphasises the psychology between parents and children, family values, especially patriarchy in Malay families and local cultural sensitivities based on religion and nation. Often focusing on the psychological tension between male and female relationships as well as husbands and wives, lovers, mothers and children or fathers and children, as well as friends will be the motif in horror films.
However, it’s a little unfortunate when the tension in Harum Malam is less felt due to the weak plot in Harum Malam. As a viewer, I was less invested in the characters despite the appearances of some of the big names in the local film industry. The family relationship, the relationship between teacher and student and the relationship between friends could not be felt either. If you as an audience can’t feel that, then you will have less sympathy or support for the character’s motives in the film. The storyline in the film is clear, but the plot that helps add to the excitement of the spectacle does not succeed in supporting the storyline. Honestly speaking, I did not feel any strong sense of danger coming to the main character Aedan despite being presented with scary visuals as the story develops. His relationship with his friends is also executed poorly. In comparison, the movie Pengabdi Setan 2 presents it better where we could emotionally engage and believe in character’s friendships written in the film. There are also some character actions in the story that can be questioned. The character of the teacher played by Faizal Hussein was under-developed and didn’t really help to move the plot. The interweaving from act to act is also sometimes more focused on the visual montage but lost in the continuity of the story that can actually help the audience’s appreciation. Once again, the greatest sin of Harum Malam is its lack of danger. The anxiety that spurs the main character’s decision to deal with the conflict is presented very ordinary and does not reach the audience’s heart (of course this is subjective).
In the end, I only remember Harum Malam as a film that is visually and technically good but inferior in the storytelling department. My hope is that Dain Said will bring back his magic on his next project. Harum Malam can now be watched on Disney Hotstar.
Score : 6/10
*This article is written based on the reflection of the writer’s own personal view and expression towards the subject matter.