How watching “Revenge of the Pontianak” gave me an unlikely new female character to look up to

Letting go of the notion that girls are the “weaker sex”, for we are fearsome, fearless and utterly, terrifyingly fierce.

Rachel Tan
Sep 12 · 9 min read

Introduction

The last time I watched a horror movie was 14 years ago when I wanted to celebrate the end of my A level prelim examinations.

I foolishly went to buy a ticket to Ju-On 2 which was the only show available at that time and I took 3 whole weeks to recover from that experience and I’d never seen a horror show since then.

Until now.

I was sold by Today Online’s review that the show was more pretty than scary. That got me intrigued. And it was directed by Glen Goei (I really enjoyed La Cage).

Plus Mothership’s very detailed review on the show was also a push factor. I liked how the movie took a decade to conceptualise and that the casting took an entire year.

But I think what sealed the deal was my good buddy’s invitation to watch it with her, for she kindly agreed to let me grab her arm whenever I was frightened (which happened at a frequency of every 5 minutes or so.) And yes, I am that big a scaredy cat. And that’s what friends are for.

Brief Synopsis

Note: The rest of the article contains spoilers to the movie so don’t say I didn’t, say I didn’t warn ya.

For the uninitiated, the Pontianak is a vengeful female vampiric ghost present in Malay folklore who dies in childbirth and lives amongst banana trees in the daytime and comes out at night to hunt.

There have been many movies made about Pontianaks over the decades in Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia. It’s an eternal source of fascination for us I suppose.

And with good reason.

I mean, it makes for such a good story, doesn’t it?

Glen Goei’s version of it was BRILLIANT!

I absolutely adored the cinematography. Many scenes were postcard-perfect and the stills could be sold as prints or something. I’d buy them and hang it on my wall (I’m referring of course to the stunning scenery, not the one with blood everywhere, although I know folks who’d buy those.)

However, the banana trees were a bit of an overkill honestly.

The various techniques of foreshadowing were very well done too. And it helped me figure out when I was prepared to be scared silly. Although sometimes it was a red herring. Which I must admit, was pretty fun too.

At the risk of sounding terribly superficial, the actors were very, very good-looking. I loved the two brothers. Especially Reza. Dashing guy. My friend said many people commented that Nur Fazura was too pretty to be a Pontianak but I guess you can’t please everyone. I thought she was excellent playing the titular role. Fantastic acting.

Although the shirtless scene by the very hunky Remy Ishak kinda surprised me a little, it reminded me of the ones in both “Crazy Rich Asians” (opening scene of Pierre Png and middle of the movie of Henry Golding) and the most recent one of Brad Pitt in “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”.

I suppose shirtless scenes with well built guys are de rigueur in the 21st century, but nobody’s complaining. You can always hear the collective, appreciative sigh in the theatres when they appear.

Anyway, back to the story, it’s set in a kampung in Malaysia in 1965 opening with a wedding and barely a couple of minutes into the show, the Pontianak appeared. I was shocked that it came out so quickly, and she appeared so frequently throughout that I was exhausted from the adrenaline overload at the end of the movie.

Oh I almost forgot to mention: I loved her red kebaya and hairdo too. Lovely stuff. So elegant.

But so very, very bloodthirsty was she.

Why the Pontianak is my new hero

So the thing is, in every movie, there’s always a good guy, and a bad guy.

Initially, we are primed to believe that the Pontianak is the bad guy.

She appears during a wedding at the beginning of the movie, murders a friend of the bridegroom, then hangs him on top of the tallest tree in the kampung, with his blood splattered all over the newlyweds’ front porch.

This causes the villagers to think that it’s the fault of the bride who’s marrying into the family.

They harass her to no end, (kinda like Twitter sometimes, when a tweet is taken out of context, but I digress) and I really felt for the poor girl.

But as the movie unfolds, you begin to realise that the Pontianak’s actually the good guy and not the bad guy.

(I did like how the tension was kept throughout and how the backstory wasn’t immediately revealed to us, but only bit by bit, unlike the regular Hollywood blockbuster.)

So what happened was that the Pontianak died a wrongful death in this show, being murdered by the father of her child, just because he wasn’t prepared to be a parent.

She returned to get back at him, his brother and another friend who’d assisted him (They’d originally wanted to send her for an abortion but she didn’t want to, escaped from the car mid-journey and they chased her and in the forest, the main character killed her.)

And what’s most amazing to me was, even though a mob of the fittest and most courageous male villagers went hunting her down with sticks and torches, she took them out one by one.

“Hell hath no fury…” goes the saying.

I felt like the show gave power back to the Pontianak.

She epitomizes how in a patriarchal society, where she was forced to go for an abortion without her consent, murdered, and then buried in secret, that she was taking back control into her own hands.

It’s about justice really.

The weak woman versus the strong woman

And what’s most interesting to me was that, even though dozens of men could not kill her, it was the love of her child that made her decide to hand over the nail (that would kill her) to the boy’s new mother, and willingly submitted to be destroyed.

(The white kebaya at the end with blood all over it, contrasted with the innocent boy actor, was a fantastic touch. The blood naturally coming from her killing off all the men who were baying for her blood of course.)

But the handing over of power from one strong female to another was very poignant.

Power, in this case, did not lie with any of the male figures. Neither the bomoh (witch doctor) nor the village head could do anything about the Pontianak.

She was that powerful.

Completely random sidebar: This reminds me of when an 8-year-old boy recently told me that his favourite Marvel character was Captain Marvel because she is the most powerful one out of all of the superheroes.

The fact that at the end of the movie, the Pontianak was, in a sense, giving back the boy’s new stepmom, a new chance at life, was very impactful to me.

See, the villagers all hated her because she thought that her entry to the kampung was the thing that brought a curse upon them all.

They were just about to kill her when her husband entered the scene and confessed to his crimes and that it was his fault that the Pontianak was causing trouble to them all.

In the very last scene where it fades out before she nails the Pontianak, we realise that if she comes back as the hero, even as a single mom, she’ll be supported by the entire village instead of almost being lynched by them the night before. For she’d have succeeded in doing what all the men died trying to do. (Of course that’s just speculation on my part.)

So what was fascinating was that throughout the movie, there was a stark contrast between the strong woman (the Pontianak), and the weak one (the new stepmom).

But in the end, it was the former that gave power to the latter to end her (undead) life.

I guess it just reminded me that we should all help one another, instead of trying to tear each other down all the time, which sometimes, unfortunately, happens.

Referencing current events where women took control

In light of the #MeToo movement and recent happenings in Singapore where Monica Baey was actually vilified for naming her perpetrator, I thought this was an excellent movie to remind us girls that we can take control of our situations, and even if it doesn’t blow up like these two incidents did, that we do not have to let the patriarchy oppress us.

I mean, look at NUS, it had a track record of 26 incidents of sexual offenses over the past 3 years with no expulsions, which is very troubling, to say the least. (And these are just the cases reported, who knows how many more have kept silent?)

The Monica Baey incident only blew up because of her deft use of social media and it was only a matter of time because it had happened too many times before in NUS but was never dealt with properly. This is because the people in power decided that the male students should be given a chance at rehabilitation, ignoring not only the distress of the victims, but also the fact that more female students on campus could potentially be victims of these very same men.

I honestly wonder if any of the those on the board might have read research papers on recidivism rates on sexual offenders.

The good girl versus the bad girl

It doesn’t pay to be the good girl all the time, does it?

Just look at how the new bride tried to do her best but kept getting shot down.

But how amazing the Pontianak was in her full glory.

Which interestingly enough, reminds me of every little girl’s current favourite princess: Elsa from Frozen.

Now as I apologise even as the strains of “Let it go” begin to automatically play in your mind, but have you ever wondered, what she is actually letting go of?

Let’s take a quick look at the lyrics, shall we?

The wind is howling like this swirling storm inside
Couldn’t keep it in, heaven knows I’ve tried
Don’t let them in, don’t let them see
Be the good girl you always have to be
Conceal, don’t feel, don’t let them know
Well, now they know

Let it go, let it go
Can’t hold it back anymore
Let it go, let it go
Turn away and slam the door
I don’t care what they’re going to say
Let the storm rage on
The cold never bothered me anyway

Let it go (x4)

It’s funny how some distance makes everything seem small
And the fears that once controlled me can’t get to me at all
It’s time to see what I can do
To test the limits and break through
No right, no wrong, no rules for me
I’m free

Let it go, let it go
I am one with the wind and sky
Let it go, let it go
You’ll never see me cry
Here I stand and here I stay
Let the storm rage on

Probably how the Pontianak felt (without all that the ice and snow, of course, this being the tropical part of the world), don’t you think?

And it’s also probably how a lot of women feel too.

Too often we’ve been told we’re too loud.

And that we are too angry.

Or too meek.

We need to be good.

We need to hide our feelings (especially as Asians).

Well, like Elsa and the Pontianak, I’m learning to let go of all of that.

We should be letting go of society’s outdated and misogynistic preconceived notions of what a good girl ought to do and embracing all of who God has made us to be, unleashing our full glory unto the world.

And the world will be better for it.

In conclusion

Pontianaks are awesome.

A Pontianak, to me, is a figure that symbolises female empowerment and I’m all for it.

P.S. Thank you Alfian Sa’at for the translation of the movie to English so that I can appreciate the horror just that much more with the subtitles.

Also, dear readers, thank you for reading this far, as a bonus, here are two research papers on the Pontianak I’m currently reading for fun, for those who might be interested:

  1. Pontianaks, Ghosts and the Possessed: Female Monstrosity and National Anxiety in Singapore Cinema by Kenneth Paul Tan
  2. The Villainous Pontianak? Examining Gender, Culture and Power in Malaysian Horror Films by Adrian Yuen Beng Lee

Plus the official trailer:

Trailer for “Revenge of the Pontianak”
Rachel Tan

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I’m learning to live with less.

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