Bunohan: A Noir Film Analysis

Bunohan: A Noir Film Analysis

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Figure 1 Ilham talking to Deng before Deng strikes him with a knife

Film Noir which means black films in French, was actually coined by a French film critics, Nino Frank in 1946, who began to notice that darkness, downbeat, mysterious and black themes could create a different and unique visual style in American films which were released in France following the World War 11. This style has been used in films to reflect the tensions and depression of the time during the war. Characters in the films during that time would show feelings and emotions such as fear, despair, grieve and paranoia to reflect that terrible War feeling.

However, film noir began and was only popular in America and in Europe, the style and characteristic of noir would have been just in the western context. Would it be possible if it could be used in Asian films? How would they film it? It would be interesting to use the style in Asian context. Then again, there is no specific definition for noir film and it is still being debated. ‘We’d be oversimplifying things in calling film noir oneiric, strange, erotic, ambivalent, and cruel’ (Borde & Chaumeton, 1955). However, Paul Schrader (1972) argues that film noir is not a genre, but rather is defined by more subtle stylistic qualities of tone and mood. He emphasizes that film noir depicts the specific period of film history, which refers to the Hollywood films of the 40’s which mostly portray darkness in the city streets, low key lighting, crime and corruption.

Therefore it is only a matter of time that Asian filmmakers started to use noir genre to create dark and hardboiled storylines for their films. There were not many noir films before but now the genre is getting popular especially among indie filmmakers. They usually express their grieves, sorrows and dissatisfaction towards the world using the noir genre. Dain Said, the director of Bunohan said in an interview at International Film Festival Rotterdam SlashingThrough ‘That is the backdrop of the film, I wanted to show the real world. I'm not against development of land but most of the time we have done it quite wrong’.

Dark, gloomy, mysterious, confusing would be the things you would describe the atmosphere in the film ‘Bunohan’. At first glance of the DVD, you would have thought it was going to be a movie about Boxers and immediately you would have predicted the storyline.

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However as soon as you watched the film, it will leave you speechless until the very end! In my opinion, my first time watching it, I would have have rated it bad for the first time. It feels like you just watched the scary tape from The Ring movie. But wait; according to other reviewers and critics of Bunohan, you need to at least watch the film two or three times to understand what is going on.

After watching it a few times, you realized the film is more than just violence, family tragedies and crimes. If you look closer at its cinematography, you will see the beauty shrouded behind the stark contrast and gloomy settings of the film. Bunohan, I have to admit, is one of a kind. You do not see this kind of film every day in Malaysia and it would have been considered as taboo or controversial if there are such films available. However, it did become controversial and that is why they did not receive so much attention in their own country. But they did attract attentions from overseas such as United States and few European countries that they received several awards for the film. It is acceptable in other countries as the style is normal to them compare to Malaysia.
Fortunately, the digital technology revolution has changed the system of communication today. New media has made communication easier and cheaper even visual communication is getting convenient. This technological development has made it easier for independent filmmakers to make their own films in their own way. They can make films cheaper and upload them instantly on social networks where everyone in the world can watch. They are getting popular that people started to watch these types of films. From there, they started to realize how they are able go further using western cinematography.

However, Bunohan was not the only film that uses western genres, there are many Malaysian filmmakers, usually independent filmmakers such as Amir Muhammad,
James Lee, Ho Yuhang and Yasmin Ahmad, which made films using techniques from western films. However this essay will only focus on the use of noir theme into the Shakespearean tragedy of the film, Bunohan.

The essay will analyse the noir film genre in Bunohan into four parts:
1. Visual style
2. Structure and narrational devices
3. Plots, characters and settings

Visual Style

Figure 2 Ilham digging to make graves

In film noir, film technique plays an important role in most noir films. It is used to enhance noir narratives such as mise-en-scene, mise-en-shot, lighting, editing and sound. As mentioned by Alain Silver, he describes how cinematographic choices emphasize the story's themes and mood. It uses a lot of lighting techniques to show the dramatic effects of the film. Low-key lighting schemes are commonly used to create stark light and dark contrasts and also shadows. It is to create that black and white color effect. Black and white cinematography is considered by many to be one of the essential attributes of classic noir.

The lights are usually used to partially show parts of the characters usually just the face or parts of the body. They do not usually show the whole body, which gives that mysterious dramatic effect onto the characters. For example, most of the scenes in Bunohan show the characters partially shown whilst part of their body remain in the shadows, as shown in Figure 1 above where Ilham is talking to Deng. The approaching darkness is like foreshadowing Ilham’s death. Natural lights can sometimes be used to emphasize emotions, mode or even to symbolize something. Day light could represent happiness, freedom, new beginning while night light could represent fear, darkness or death.

Another visual effect is the use of shadows and silhouette. Most of the scenes in Bunohan show silhouettes such as in figure 2 where Ilham is digging a grave on the beach. It uses low angle and wide angle in a dark setting. The contrast between Ilham, the stairs, the clouds and the sand is quiet high as you can see, the sand is really bright and the character becomes a silhouette. The darkening scene emphasize on the sinister character of Ilham. He is like a reaper that lurks in the shadow killing people with no hesitations. Below are some of the scenes that use the low-key lighting effects.

Structure and Narrational Devices

According to an article, the main themes of the noir narratives are about the sense of entrapment, as murders, betrayal and psychological entrapment and complex plot with lost of twists and turns and flashback versus present. Most of these themes are present in Bunohan. The film is about these estranged brothers trying to pursue their selfish intentions which brought them back home at Bunohan which they also meet their father.
The father married two wives, which the first wife gave birth to two sons, Ilham and then Adil after she was divorced. The second wife gave birth to Bakar, years before Adil was born. However all of these stories are kept in secret which only few of the people closest to them know. From my understanding, the protagonist is Adil, known as Bunga Lalang, the illegitimate son who is quite a popular boxer in his hometown. He is struggling to pay off debts and also trying to find out who is his real mother. During his childhood, he seems to be badly treated by his stepmother, Mek Ani, and his half-brother, Bakar that he left. In the end, he became the tragic hero, poisoned and died in the ring after he won the fight.
Personally, I pitied Adil because he could have stopped Bakar’s dirty work if he just accepts the 30 acres land given by his father which he could use or sell it and live a good life. But he was not as clever and educated as Bakar to even think about using the land or selling it. Beside the fact that he was passionate with boxing, he was just too stubborn which leads to his death. As proven from figure 7, the scenes where Pok Wah keeps on reminding him that he is too stubborn or deaf. He could have avoided his death if he listens to Pok Wah. Also there are betrayals such as Ilham betrayed by Deng who was hired by Bakar to kill him. Muski, Adil’s friend, betrayed him by fighting against him in the Boxing competition.

According to some articles, the director uses the Shakespearean Tragedy theme to the film and if you look more closely, it does have some similarities to the story of King Lear and Hamlet.
Bunohan has a somewhat fragmented and non-linear narrative structure because the film uses flashbacks and some twisting and turning in the story. It actually suits the theme of the film because the film is about these estranged brothers and their father reunited again after not seeing each other for quite a long time. When there is a reunion, there will always be people talking and recalling about their past and being nostalgic thus the flashbacks enhance the reunion narrative of the brothers.
The film is very much similar to the film by Christopher Nolan called Memento (2000). The film is about a man, suffering from short-term memory loss, uses notes and tattoos to hunt for the man he thinks killed his wife. The film uses frequent flashbacks because the protagonist has short-term memory loss so the film tends to flashback to a brief time before he has a lapse and shows how he got to that point. Bunohan, on the other hand, starts with the future and then shows flashback in the middle of the film. It is also like putting together puzzle pieces of which scene comes first and end, similar like Memento.
Moreover, there are also some oneiric elements in the film such as the dream-like, high contrast scenes, the female ghost and the strange little boy and also the talking birds. It is somehow giving that whimsical and fantastical narration of the story to emphasize more of that noir theme.

The Plots, Characters and Settings

The plot of the film is mostly crime especially murder. The murderer here is Ilham where he is hired by Thai gangs to do their biddings and then later on, he is asked to kill his own brother, Adil. Other than that, Adil’s other brother, Bakar, also wants to kill him and hired Jolok to do it by poisoning Adil in the end.

Figure 8 Adil lead to a tragic death because he was poisoned.

However, the real criminal here is Bakar, he is this ruthless and selfish business man who somewhat disguised himself as an innocent schoolteacher in his hometown. He hired people to do his biddings while he lives a normal life. He is the reason why everyone starts killing each other. Crime and murder is actually the common and basic plot in film noir. The motives of the villains or the criminals are always because of selfish intentions such as greed in the case of Bunohan. Bakar’s selfish is greedy. He wants to be successful and rich that he rather killed his family for it.

Figure 9 Bakar is stabbing his father to death

Films noir tend to revolve around heroes who are more flawed and morally questionable than the norm, often fall guys of one sort or another (Naremore, 2008). The hero, unfortunately, usually ends up dead or crazy or just losses his reputation and people starts hating him. In Bunohan, Adil is the tragic hero here. Adil is the protagonist you really sympathized with because, he was born out of wedlock, mistreated by his father and brother when he was a child and he just found out about it after he met Ilham. But there are people who care and support him but his weakness is that he is too stubborn and refuses to listen to people’s advice and in the end he died (poisoned) during his last fight, which he won.
In many noir films in America, the setting usually set in the urban areas such as cities or towns. But in some articles, that is not always the case. In classic noir, some films are set in countryside or industrial settings such as factories, power plants but basically the setting usually involves darkness, rains such as in Bunohan, most of the settings are dark, wet and some scenes they have rain.

Figure 10 Raining scene where Bakar is sitting in his car, smoking a cigarette.


Basically, Bunohan has successfully create that noir theme film to tell the story of these estranged brothers and their father. What attracts me the most is its cinematography that is the visual style and the lighting angles. You could feel the atmosphere, the emotions of the film, how dark and sinister yet beautiful at the same time. Moreover, in the interview with Dain Said in Slashthrough, he also wanted to show the beauty of that ‘kampung’ even though it is small and not as developed. He was also trying to show us to be appreciative to nature and the traditional way of life as he showed it from the films, the ‘kampong’ houses, the beach, the swamps and even the use of traditional herbs as medicines. Also according to the interview, the reason why he used noir theme is to show the fact that the traditional way of life is getting scarce and people are just looking forward to modernity. The reason why the brother’s father refuses to sell the land is because he wants ‘to preserve their stories’. He said to Bakar, what is left if he sells the land? Their stories will disappear. It is now happening in Malaysia where lands are sold to make new buildings and the traditional culture will just be buried under the rubbles and stones of the buildings.


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