By Kathy Rowland
(988 words, 10-minute read)
Spoiler Alert: If you want to enjoy Interchange in all its suspenseful glory, watch the film before you read this review.
The 27th Singapore International Film Festival opened last week with the Asian premiere of the Malaysian film, Interchange. Dain Iskandar Said’s third feature is a ‘fantasy noir thriller’, which starts off with a veritable checklist of noir tropes. They include a fabulous torch singer (Shelah) and a gruesome murder, each convincingly blending into the Southeast Asian metropolis the film is set in. Then Detective Man arrives, encased in a trench coat, an item of clothing as anomalous to the region as it is iconic to the genre. The trench coat is a secret visual gag between the filmmaker and his local audience, fair warning that formalistic requirements are there to be played with as he pleases.
The city is beset by a series of ritual murders, and as the blood-drained body count mounts, Man (Shaheizy Sam) ropes in forensic photographer, Adam (Iedil Putra) to help. Adam is disturbed by visions when he touches the fragments of plate-glass negatives found at each murder scene. At the same time, he is obsessed with his beguiling neighbour, Iva (Prisia Nasution), who convinces Adam to steal a plate-glass negative held by the police. It’s the same item that Sani (Naydia Nissa), a shady antiques dealer, is also desperate to get her hands on. Sani and her associate, an avianish young man, Belian (Nicholas Saputra), become Man’s main suspects.
Detective Man puts his faith in good old-fashioned detective work, forensic science and intuition. Adam, on the other hand, is drawn into a world that defies the cold logic of time and space. The parallel investigations create a pretext for the film to meld the supernatural thriller and the noir in a convincing (if not seamless) manner. Further, it opens the door to a level of thematic depth: Interchange sits at the junction between different belief systems and ways of knowing – ancient and extant – within an urban Southeast Asian landscape.
The plate-glass negatives are photographs of a Borneo tribe, taken by Norwegian ethnographer, Carl Lumholtz, in the early 1900s. The photographs have trapped its subjects’ spirits, damning them to eternal life. It falls on Iva, her tribe’s dayong, to destroy each of the negatives, thereby ending the curse of the ethnographer’s eye. Where Adam and Eve were punished with the loss of their immortality, in Interchange, Iva, with Adam’s help, must return the gift of death to her people.
The film’s plot was inspired by an actual photo of native women performing a ritual to rid themselves of the curse of being photographed. The photo, taken Lumholtz in 1913, is an especially egregious act, justified by notions of civilized vs. uncivilized, science vs. superstition. Set against that other mythological symbol – the city of vertiginous skyscrapers and urban decay – the film gives credence to the traditional taboos against being photographed. Documentation and classification produced bodies of ‘knowledge’ about indigenous communities that enabled their subjugation under imperialism. Photography, as a technology of power, was indeed a blight, and the native people’s fear of it is, in retrospect, prophetic.
Dain Iskandar Said, Nandita Solomon, June Tan and Redza Minhat’s script does a fair job of keeping the different threads of the stories intersecting without getting too entangled. At times though, the dialogue was functional rather than inspired. I did particularly like the fluid multilingualism that was so natural it never called attention to itself.
The buddy-movie bromance between Man and Adam allowed lightness into the film through some well placed moments of humour. Shaheizy’s guy-next-door quality captures the decency at the heart of his character well. As it dawns on Man that there are things beyond his comprehension and control, he defaults to his friendship and loyalty to Adam to guide his actions.
There was some hot-cold chemistry between Adam and Iva that added tangible suspense as the film reached its climax. Iedil Putra captured the internal force of emotions that both animate and immobilize Adam, gifting us with a character that reflected our own horror and discombobulation. Prisia Nasution’s Iva at first felt stiff and self-conscious. Hers is a challenging character to enliven, for it steers close to the fetishised magical native woman. However, as the film progresses, Prisia’s tightly calibrated performance left us with a conflicted empathy for Iva.
The relationship between Berlian, Sani and Iva is an intricate one. We learn that Belian is a totem of the tribe, a magnificent hornbill-like bird, trapped in a deformed human body. Only when all members of the tribe are killed, and the negatives broken, can he revert to his true form and be free. He helps Sani in her search for her negative but when he learns that she is trying to avoid Iva’s restorative dagger, there is a break in their relationship. As Sani shifts from predator, to bait, Nadiya Nissa’s performance moved Sani from a two-dimensional antagonist into a perception-altering moment of messy humanity.
I felt this aspect of the plot could have been explored, or indeed exploited further. It’s a central moment in the narrative, one that would have given a deeper ambivalence to Iva, Belian and Sani’s motivations and actions, making for a richer, more conflicted experience for the audience. More’s the pity as Nicholas Saputra’s portrayal of Belian was among the strongest in the film. Belian is a difficult character to carry, calling for an impassivity to capture its totemic quality, while also conveying the brutish power of the trapped animal. At moments when Saputra achieved this, the film soared.
Interchange is a bold film, driven not only by a desire to tell an old story in a new way, but by a directorial vision that is larger than this one film. There were parts where the film dragged but overall, Interchange offered suspense and thrills to meet the demands of the genre, a doomed romance to pull at the heart-strings and a cosmology that opened the path to a deeper reflection on the permeable intersections between our past and present.
Interchange is directed by Dain Iskandar Said and produced by Nandita Solomon. It was screened at the Locarno International Film Festival and Toronto Film Festival this year. The film opens in cinemas across Malaysia on 1st December 2016. For more information visit the official FB page.
Note: A version of this review was first published on 28 Nov. It was edited and updated on 29 Nov 2016.
Selected reviews of Interchange:
“Interchange” by Marja Korbecka (Easternkicks)
“Film Review: Interchange” by Maggie Lee (Variety)
“Interchange or the Transcendence of Spirits” by The Daily Seni