Comments on Alluring Monsters: The Pontianak and Cinemas of Decolonization

On 28th January 2022, I was invited to discuss Rosalind Galt’s new book, Alluring Monsters: The Pontianak and Cinemas of Decolonization (Columbia University Press) at NTU’s Asian Cinema Research Lab. We had a great audience and Rosalind was superb. The following are my comments on her book, soon to be published in the journal of Vampire Studies edited by Anthony Hogg:

Many supernatural beings that stalk Southeast Asian folk and screen cultures are feminine. In Singapore and Malaysia, many will be familiar with the pontianak, the ‘birth demon’ or ‘Malay vampire’ of legend. Said to return from the dead after a fatal childbirth or a violent murder, the pontianak is a folk apparition closely associated with the deadly risks and terrors of being female. But she is much more than that. As the new book, Alluring Monsters: The Pontianak and Cinemas of Decolonization by film studies professor Rosalind Galt argues, the Malay vampire is a useful figure for thinking about heritage, ‘race’, Islam, and decolonisation.

As someone who writes about Malay horror, I was curious and even a little bit skeptical about the pontianak being what Galt calls an ‘avatar of decolonisation’ (40). But the extant facts make for a compelling case. There are fascinating coincidences that connect the Malay vampire to the project of postcoloniality. The first films featuring the pontianak were made in the year of Malaysia’s independence from the British in 1957 and in the several years that follow. They were films that were popular with a multicultural audience that had long been divided by British colonialism along ethnic, cultural, religious, and linguistic lines – in her own mysterious ways the pontianak brought people of all colour and creed together. Commercial films of Malaysia and Singapore (until its own independence from the former in 1965) in the 1950s and 60s were scintillatingly transnational enterprises – produced by Chinese businessmen, directed by filmmakers from India and the Philippines, and performed by Malay and Indonesian actors. Despite the language barrier, as the films were in the Malay language, the exploits of the pontianak resonated with the zeitgeist of a nation in its infancy.

The last point above begs the question: why would terror be the affective response to liberation from colonialism? Is there something about supernatural horror that exceeds the limits of ethnicity, language, and culture? The answer is less straightforward, as we must first appreciate the cosmology of a culture that takes the influence of the supernatural world very seriously. Malay culture, from which the pontianak emerges, is shaped by centuries of syncretism. Pre-colonial influences of animism, Hindu-Buddhist civilisation, and the advent of Islam in the 14th century have made a long-lasting impact on what it means to be, feel, and think like a Malay person. Belief in the spirit world and its denizens both benign and malevolent is consolidated by both animism and Islam. This makes ‘horror’ a limiting category for talking about Southeast Asian horror cinema when spirits are not necessarily something to fear but to respect and acknowledge.

In six chapters, Galt elaborates on aspects of Malay cosmology using analyses of pontianak films from the big and small screen, contemporary art and literature. Each chapter discusses how the pontianak disrupts hegemonic understandings of gender, ‘race’, heritage, Islam, and animism. They reveal the sheer diversity of expressions and affects that the pontianak conjures, including its political-feminist-queer-trans potential. Within these chapters, Galt displays an impressive breadth of her material, which includes pontianak films from the 1950s – obscure by global standards – and the even more elusive one-off television dramas on Malaysian satellite channels that can only be accessed in the country.

As per the book’s subtitle, the novelties lie in the political potential of the pontianak. Galt presents an enticing concept of ‘pontianak feminism’, one that interrupts and causes disturbance to the hegemonic operations of patriarchal violence. However, pontianak feminism is cut from the same cloth of the Southeast Asian monstrous feminine, and revenge from beyond the grave is the only recourse for women victims of rape and murder. Not too surprisingly, the rape-revenge trope would run its course to make way for more interesting retellings of the pontianak that serve different ideologies, feminist or otherwise. Newer iterations of the pontianak, in post-millennial films by women directors from the region like Amanda Nell Eu and Nosa Normanda would move away from the terror she embodies and towards the horror of patriarchal violence. The effect of this shift is a kind of taming of the pontianak as a less scary figure with whom we can identify.

Galt’s chapter on the pontianak’s embrace of Islam marks an unexpected turn in the tensions between religion and superstitious belief. Although Islamic tradition affirms the existence of supernatural beings like angels, djinns, the dajjal and the devil, it makes little allowance for the more fantastical animist-influenced band of spirits and demons. The heyday of Malayan horror cinema of the 1960s was interrupted by the efforts of Islamic revivalism in the 1970s to eradicate Malay culture of its pre-Islamic, indigenous cosmology. But the spirit of the pontianak refuses to die. For in the early 2000s, she makes a spectacular return after a long state suppression on the making of local horror films. The dawn of the millennium also sees a friendlier, more nuanced birth demon who wears the hijab and strives to be a good Muslim.

I’d like to know more about Rosalind’s definition of decolonisation. Unlike its neighbour in the Malay Archipelago, Indonesia, the path of Singapore and Malaysia’s independence cannot be said to be a decolonising project much less a struggle. On the run up to independence, ten years into the post-war period when Britain was ceding its conquests, the Malay aristocratic elite led by Anglophile Tunku Abdul Rahman who went on to become the country’s first prime minister made a pact with the British for release from an already weakened imperial bind. But ‘independence’ came at a heavy price, on racially exclusionary conditions that would perpetuate the colonial legacy in insidious ways.

As part of the postcolonial nation-building project, the Malays, along with their culture and Islamic faith enjoy a legally protected privileged status. As a colonial construct, the ethnic category of ‘Malay’ homogenises diverse ethnic and cultural groups, creating a majority group that wields a hegemonic influence in all aspects of public life. Since its creation, Malay-ness has been mobilised to enact institutional racism and the Othering of non-Malay citizens and migrants. And thus for this reason, to say that the pontianak is ‘Malay’ whilst establishing her status as both marginal and in solidarity with the marginalised, such as the recent television dramas that show her on the side of migrant workers, can seem strange. Galt does not offer her own definition of what decolonisation means nor situate the term within ongoing intellectual debates. The pontianak nevertheless destabilises the institutional certitude of Malay-ness and its colonial foundations in her wake, and she is far from over. From calls for reparations to the toppling of statues, it is clear that decolonisation is a continuous process that would unfold for decades beyond the first moment of independence.

Perhaps the final chapter, ‘Animism as form: a pontianak theory of the forest’, offers an implicit definition of decolonisation as process and methodology. Rosalind’s discussion of animism as a decolonial resource makes it the book’s strongest and most innovative chapter of all. It makes a fine case for moving horror criticism away from the limits of psychoanalytic theory that has shaped much of horror film critique. It also offers a productive opportunity for reconfiguring the ‘centres’ and ‘peripheries’ of global film theory through seeing cinema from a Southeast Asian lens. That lens, argues Galt, involves a critical engagement with the non-human, of seeing through and with the plant and animal kingdom. It would be essentialist to say that a Southeast Asian way of thinking, seeing, and feeling necessitates a type of jungle logic. But Galt avoids such essentialisms by suggesting that the pontianak and her preferred vegetal hangout are a reminder of the limited and limiting ontology and temporality of anthropocentrism. Dense foliage frames and obscures the world of the pontianak and the world more generally. Similarly, we can never see the world in its entirety from our own situatedness. In a way, tropical flora is complicit with the pontianak in destabilising the hubristic assumptions about human knowledge and consciousness.

This is the first book of its kind and a truly unique achievement on multiple levels. Southeast Asian cinema occupies a marginal place in the global landscape of filmmaking and criticism. Through Alluring Monsters, Galt advances a compelling and critically agile reconsideration of popular Southeast Asian filmmaking, one that goes beyond the auteur-festival cinema that panders to western aesthetics and that cuts across national, class, gender, and human/non-human boundaries. It would appeal to scholars interested in global, postcolonial vampires and de-familiarising the affects of ‘horror’.

By Angry Malay Woman

I like plants.

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