Filmmaker Dain Said gets international acclaim
From his boyhood adventures in cinema, dain Said is today recognised internationally as the director of the critically-acclaimed bunohan.
GROWING up in small town Tumpat, Kelantan, in the 1970s, filmmaker Dain Said, as a boy, eagerly awaited the travelling cinema that came to town every now and again. The two guys who brought the magic lantern and big screen to town would give out “sekla” (circulars, or leaflets) from their lorry, announcing the night’s offering, often also blaring through loudspeakers urging the residents to come and see the film.
Sitting in his home in Kuala Lumpur now, Dain laughs when reminiscing about the old days and recalling the fun times he had back then being introduced to the magic of cinema.
“They didn’t have current films,” says Dain. “They showed old films, because it was cheaper. This was sometime around the 70s. I saw Ben-hur, which was made in the 20s. I was like, wow! That was my first memory of cinema.”
From the days of watching classic epics from halfway across the world, he is today presenting his own film to audiences halfway across the globe. Dain and his producer Nandita Solomon have just returned from the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), where his action-drama Bunohan was screened to the public and also industry players.
Dain and Nandita went there as a littleknown team of director and producer, along with their Los Angeles-based co-producer Tim Kwok. Then something quite extraordinary happened. The response from the first two screenings of the film had been good, but what was better was when Variety reviewer John Anderson was in the audience.
Tracing the archetypal violent story of fathers and sons to The Godfather, Vietnamese director Tran Anh Hung’s films, and even Biblical and Shakespearean origins, Anderson goes on to say in his review that Bunohan is “... a fight film with echoes of King Lear, and a ghost story about living people who occupy the edge of existence.”
Anderson went on to praise the film’s pace and momentum, even describing actor Faizal Hussein as “the Jack Palance of Malaysia”.
That amazing review started getting the little film from Malaysia noticed by industry folks, critics and the general public, and Dain being recognised on the streets.
“There were instances where people stopped us on the streets,” says Dain. “A couple of kids walked past us and kept staring at us. We looked back, and they looked back, and they kind of went, ‘ You’re the director of that film, Bunohan, right?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ And they said they loved the film. That was kind of nice.”
Right after TIFF, Bunohan went on to screen at the Fantastic Film fest in Austin, Texas, where it garnered a full house (probably due to the Variety review and positive word from other publications and websites). There was reportedly a queue at the box-office of people wanting to see if there were extra tickets.
Not bad for a local film set in a borderland that has tomoi fight action, wayang kulit, a dead Ho Yuhang, and a woman who turns into a crocodile. Although some things were cultural-specific, says Dain, foreign audiences still managed to digest the drama and action, the relationship between the father and his sons, and the backdrop of folklore. Surely, the story about strained familial ties and estrangement, and the poignancy when tradition is washed away by the currents and tides of time and modernity, should have a universal resonance.
“They understood the story,” says Dain. “There were certain cultural nuances that they might not have gotten, but they translated it through their own cultural experiences. One blogger wrote about Ilham living on a boat, and he referred it to his own American cultural experience, which was Miami Vice where Don Johnson’s character lives on a yacht!”
Dain admits they had a slow start, but after the second screening of the film and the Variety review, things started to roll a little easier.
“We had a reception, and we could only have a small one (for industry and media people),” explains Dain. “What was really nice was that the people we wanted to meet did come, and they stayed till the end. They didn’t have to because there were 15 parties going on all over town. But they did and it was great.”
And then there was the unexpected local element that added to the TIFF experience, and brought some cheer for Dain during the Aidilfitri season. A family from Ipoh that ran a restaurant in Toronto cooked dinner for Dain and gang and also laid out the food for the reception.
“They said, ‘It was Raya recently, so let us make some rendang for you!’” says Dain. “They were very, very proud that a Malaysian film was there. Their sons are also really into films and had done film studies and worked on small productions. The food also helped to bring people to our reception and got them to stay!”
I ask Dain if the endorsement from Variety provided some kind of vindication after the times of uncertainty he and his team have had to face, and gave them even more confidence to forge ahead.
“For me it’s not so much that,” Dain replies. “I’m sure other filmmakers also face this. I’ve worked on this for a long time, I don’t actually know what it means. When that kind of accolade comes, it’s very ... strange. I don’t know what to make of it.
“But of course, one is happy. Emotionally I’ve been living with (the film) for so long, I don’t know how to judge it anymore.”
Snakes and leeches
For a while, it seemed one couldn’t escape news about Bunohan. Almost every week, someone was either reviewing the film or interviewing Dain. And thanks to one online interview, everyone became intrigued by “heat-seeking vipers”. It probably made a lot of people want to visit the village in Kelantan where the movie was filmed, to see if there were indeed such snakes.
There are, Dain confirms. The vipers and giant leeches were some of the biggest concerns of filming in the bog on the east coast, and during the monsoon too. He relates how a documentary-maker friend of his once encountered one of these vipers on a night shoot. The snake, sensing heat from the guy’s helmet-lamp, shot for his head, but thankfully only grazed him.
Scary stuff, but such things only confer upon Dain the title of “maverick director”, going fearlessly into the unknown to capture the real thing, much like one of his filmmaking heroes, Werner Herzog, who’s known to venture into the remotest places on earth to shoot a film.
And like Herzog, Dain’s not stupid. No one goes into these things unprepared. His team had contingency plans in case of emergencies, the nearest hospital and clinics were noted, and even locals familiar with the waterlogged area were hired to keep everyone safe.
Few directors today would bother getting
director dain Said preparing a scene with actor Faizal hussein. dain was not afraid to get down and dirty himself to get that perfect shot or to help his actors do it right.