Directed by U-Wei Haji Saari; Produced by Julia Fraser; Screenplay by U-Wei Haji Saari; Based on Almayer’s Folly by Joseph Conrad; Starring Peter O’Brien, Diana Danielle, Sofia Jane, Adi Putra; Cinematography Arkadiusz Tomiak; Edited by Kate James; Production company Tanah Licin Sdn Bhd; Release date 6 November 2014 (Indonesia), 24 November 2016 (Malaysia); Country Malaysia; Language Malay, English; Budget RM 18 million (estimated)

Asia is not simply a vast continent on earth. It is also a sensibility and state of mind. Most outsiders tend to project their exotic gaze and nostalgic feelings when they are making a film on Asia. As an insider, the Malaysian film director U-Wei Bin Haji Saari suggests a new way of seeing Asia far from a “nativist” or “nationalistic” tendency, distinct from his earlier Kaki Bakar (The Arsonist, 1997) and Jogho (The Champion, 2002). By adapting radically both Western and local literature into his work, U-Wei transforms his films into a brilliant cultural encounter with the Other within a distinctive Asian perspective.

U-Wei’s seventh feature, Hanyut, is no exception. It is radically adapted from Joseph Conrad’s first novel Almayer’s Folly. Set in 19th century Malaya, Hanyut chronicles the life of Dutch merchant, Kaspar Almayer, whose imperial obsession of a mythic golden mountain and desire to educate his daughter, Nina (from a marriage with Malay/ Betawi woman, Mem) to be a Western subject imperils his life.

Rather than making Almayer wholly as center of narrative, U-Wei subtly shifts the point of view to the female protagonists. As the story evolves, we are gradually absorbed into the labyrinth of minds comprising Mem, Nina and Tamina. And by the end of the story, we realize that the Almayer character is reduced to insignificance. All female protagonists in Hanyut courageously articulate their Malay identity and defend their dignity in daily interaction with foreigners in cosmopolitan Malaya. Nina stubbornly builds her romantic relationship with fugitive prince, Dain Maroola.  Mem cleverly schemes to seduce Almayer with his own fantasy of the golden mountain. And Tamina plays a pivotal role in the complex web of intrigue and betrayal. In short, like many U-Wei films, Hanyut persistently celebrates the female agency in the male-dominated Malay world.

Furthermore, the natural and physical landscape in Hanyut embodies cultural tropes embedded in the film’s narrative. The deep jungle epitomizes a site of intricate antagonism within an imaginary close-knit community of Sambir village in Borneo, Malaya. The river is not only a crucial “route” (for trade activities), but also “root” (of Malay identity). The mythic golden mountain is a morbid colonial fantasy that torments Almayer. And the burning house in the end prophetically signals the doomsday of imperial power.

Meanwhile, in Hanyut, language is cleverly employed as a vehicle to carve out Malay identity.  While Mem and Nina were raised and educated in Western culture, they reject English (as colonial language). In fact, Mem and other Malay characters use pantun (Malay poem) as linguistic device in daily interaction among Malays as well as an organic narrative device in the Malay story.  In short, Hanyut consists of multiple cultural allegories with a very dense narrative base.

image source: newmandala.org

This review first appeared in the catalog of  8th Jogja-NETPAC Asian Film Festival (29 November-7 December 2013)

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