Part of the joy of being in the business of teaching and learning is that the learning never quite ends, and if you’re lucky, you get masterclasses from with some of the greatest minds in the business. I was incredibly privileged to attend a personal tutorial session with Professor Catherine Grant recently to work on my video essay for the DWGHFH project. I’m sharing with you a draft that I presented to Catherine; there are still a few tweaks here and there to work on, but it’s nearly there. It’ll be my first of hopefully many video essays. Hope you like it! The video essay statement is below.
One could say that since her cinematic debut in the mid-1950s, film sound made it possible for the hair-raising cackle to be closely associated with the pontianak, the female vampire of Malay folk tradition. The pontianak is the paradigmatic figure of horror in Malaysian and Singaporean cinema and television. She is ‘a figure of disturbance, appearing in moments of geopolitical upheaval and, as we have seen, promising to overthrow normativities of gender, race, and national belonging’ (Galt 2021: 199).
This video essay aims to capture an under-examined aspect of the cinematic pontianak: her voice and ‘silence’. Nearly every film about the pontianak contains the audio track of her laugh. We may sometimes see her laughing. Although at other times, her laugh is heard only non-diagetically. But she makes her presence known nonetheless with her unnerving laugh. Cinematic technology made the folk tradition of the pontianak more unsettling.
As I have argued in my work on the pontianak’s laughter (Izharuddin 2020), the de-synchronisation of her voice and image grants her a place in the pantheon of the uncanny. It is also an appropriate vehicle for a feminist critique of the cinematic image. By unlinking sound and image, it denaturalises the audio-visual experience, disrupting the unity that makes the female figure a desirable object of the gaze. Of course, the ear-shattering laugh of the pontianak is meant to make her horrific and repulsive to the male gaze. Thus, as a sound event, the pontianak is a subversive figure of feminist abjection.
But what happens when the pontianak goes silent? Does she lose her transgressive power? In the 2017 short film by Malaysian filmmaker Amanda Nell Eu, It is Easier to Raise Cattle (Lagi Senang Jaga Sekandang Lembu), the pontianak is portrayed as a teenaged school girl who lives in the rural outskirts, close to tropical forests. In contrast to the depiction of pontianak before her, Eu’s vampire barely speaks much less laugh. As an audience familiar with the pontianak, we anticipate hearing her shatter the audio-visual frame with her laughter, but none is forthcoming. As we strain to hear her and the horror she represents, her surroundings come to the fore – especially the sounds we regard as ambient, environmental. The sounds of the natural world: birds chirping, insects buzzing, leaves rustling underfoot fill the frame instead. In other scenes we hear the familiar sounds of eating: chewing, masticating, crunching on bone, human bones. On their own, these sounds do not terrify. Moreover, our languid attention to the young pontianak’s feasting on a man’s body is filled with tenderness. Is this what listening with care ‘sounds’ like?
In more recent depictions, the pontianak is shown as closer to nature. Her natural home is the tropical rainforest although she has travelled to the city, often unwillingly because of male violence or urbanisation. Rosalind Galt has written in her recent book on how the animist origins of the pontianak informs her visuality. Through her image, Galt argues, we see with the forest.
Drawing on the pontianak’s animism is more than an appreciation for the ‘spirit’ and ‘personhood’ of the natural world, but a means to decenter our masculinist, ocular-anthropocentric ways of knowing the world that privilege sight. She argues for a ‘pontianak theory of the forest’ that proposes the environment as ‘animate’, as endowed with the capacity to see, hear, and feel. This is consistent with the indigenous belief in spirits of the natural world common throughout modern Southeast Asia. We find that modernity and technology do not relegate supernatural spirits to the obsolescence of the past but enhance their status and relevance in our everyday world.
By focusing on the sound worlds of the pontianak, including when she is not laughing or is ‘silent’, we find that sounds around her become part of her legend. The lush symphony of the tropical rainforest is both sublime and disconcerting. In cultures across the Malay Archipelago (Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei, Singapore), the impenetrable forest (hutan belukar) can be an unsettling place because of the sounds (and scents) it produces. As any visitor of the jungle can attest, it is filled with walls of sound, that grows louder still as the sun goes down.
My intention of this video is to supplement my 2020 journal article on the meaning of the pontianak’s laughter in Malay cinema. This video essay’s small contribution to the study of film sound is inspired by the video essays by Johannes Binotto on muted cinema and Tracy Cox-Stanton on film noise. Through their work, I’ve gained a greater appreciation for the textures of ‘silence’ and how they are communicated in film.
The narration is in the Malay language, the language of most pontianak films and television dramas.
Binotto, Johannes. 2021. Practices of Viewing III: Muted. https://vimeo.com/563664892
Cox-Staton Stacy. 2017. Film Noise, Material Thinking, and Videographic Writing. https://vimeo.com/209452034
Galt, Rosalind. 2021. Alluring Monsters: The Pontianak and the Cinemas of Decolonisation. New York: Columbia University Press.
Izharuddin, Alicia. 2020. The laugh of the pontianak: darkness and feminism in Malay folk horror. Feminist Media Studies.