“I am not afraid of you.” Spoken tenderly, lovingly, to one, and acidly to another. Fear and love are often conflated, but in May Dinadala (Giancarlo Abrahan, the Philippines) and Kekasih (Diffan Sina Norman, Malaysia), love cannot exist where fear is present. Both films explore the relationship between humans, nature and spirituality, weaving threads of mythology in their respective narratives.
In May Dinadala, a man seeks refuge from bitter conflict with his wife with alcohol, but finds something better in the forests. He carries out a surreal courtship with a tree-like creature; they lie on the beach next to each other with a flower between them, waves crashing on the shore accompanied by gentle acoustic guitar. The black figure promises happiness, but demands that the man stays with him and rejects family and community. “All your life you’ve done nothing but turn your back from everything that matters to you,” he accuses.
But turning one way means abandoning his unborn child, and turning the other way means losing love happiness for a banal, painful reality. One feels the titular ‘weight’ now – there is no right choice to make, and when the man does make his decision, it seems more accidental than intentional. The wings that sprout from the man’s back are conventionally symbolic of liberation and release; they should empower him to leave. Instead they weigh him down, so large they seem to take up the entire frame. By the end of the film, all three characters are monsters, in every sense of the word.
The supernatural and the mythical are also significant in Kekasih, but instead of emphasising the ache of a dull and miserable reality, Norman uses these elements in his film to exalt protagonist Mansor’s love for his late wife into something divine. Kekasih plays with traditional imagery in the nightingale and the rose, a well-known Persian tale, as well as with the expectations of science fiction and horror genres: Mansor takes on the characteristics of the mad scientist trope, and the film’s shock ending will definitely surprise any audiences looking for a conventional romance.
In one memorable scene that mirrors the nightingale singing to encourage the blooming rose, a blood-splattered Mansor wearing a manic grin and a lab coat croons “What A Wonderful World” to a pink flower. Perhaps this captures the unique tone with which Norman approaches this film and its varied themes – irreverent and unsettling, but not without tenderness.
“Stare at me and tell me that you are not afraid,” the black figure of May Dinadala says. Far from it, may well be the answer. After all, Kekasih’s Mansor embraces the supernatural and allows the lines between science and myth to blur in a desperate effort to resurrect Rozita; the protagonist of May Dinadala finds love and comfort in the arms of an anthropomorphus tree-like being. One can’t help being sympathetic: we are all monstruous yet have the capacity to love. And some among us look to something incomprehensible, or even divine, for a solution to the unbearable.
We asked both directors to describe their film in a tweet, and both yielded surprisingly similar results. Abrahan called his work “a love triangle between a man, a witch and a monster”, and Norman replied, “A botany professor pursues his late wife in this startlingly strange sci-fi romance”. May Dinadala and Kekasih might fulfill the general expectations of love stories, but they are made much more by the surprising, inspired choice to incorporate the strange and the supernatural.
An interview with director Giancarlo Abrahan
Your film heavily involves Filipino mythology, and ties it closely with reality. Would you say this is common in Filipino cinema?
Fantastic elements, especially mythological creatures, are associated with the horror genre in our cinema. But growing up, I heard people talk about matters of reality (politics, celebrity gossip, sports, and the separation of a couple across the street) and supernatural events (a woman who was impregnated with leeches by a black creature) in the same breath. I make the sign of the cross when I pass by a mound where a dwarf supposedly lives just as I would make the sign of the cross every time I passed by a church.
I wanted to make a film with superstition and mythology that is closely weaved with real life and everyday drama.
Were you concerned about how international audiences would understand or respond to your film?
I am really anxious how an international audience would receive the film. But I think we all have become monsters in our lives, and the struggle to be human is something we all share.
Since the man turns his back on the black figure at the end, what do you think is really the relationship between humans and nature?
Nature is dangerous. We build our lives around the notion of security and stability. We build lives against death. And even as nature represents life’s lyrical form of vibrance, embracing nature in all its beauty means embracing death. Nature brings danger into our well-built and well-protected lives. And that is nature’s greatest beauty, its capacity to annihilate us.
The bat’s wings, interestingly, both enable the man to ‘fly away’ and trap him in his position. Could you elaborate on this choice?
It is indeed both. And that is the irony–it is a relationship of love and it hurts, it is liberation but with inescapable painful tasks that come with it, and it is actually transforming him from the monster of anger into a compassionate human ultimately.
I’m curious, as I’m sure many among the audience are, about the exact name and mythology behind the creature in your film. Would it be accurate to call it the “kapre”?
“Agta” would be the closest mythological creature to the one in the film. People compare the “agta” to the “kapre” because it is black. But it is neither agta nor kapre.
But even for the credits which roll in Filipino, I maintained to call him “Itim na Hubog” which literally translates “Black Figure” which I prefer for you to use. I’d rather not name it. Names are for certainty, which is the complete opposite of what the film is trying to be whether in form or content.