The second annual 20th anniversary New York Asian Film Festival took place from July 15 to July 31. For more information on what you missed, click here
“It’s a pickle, isn’t it? Trying to remember what you don’t know you’ve forgotten”
Admittedly I was slightly sleep deprived when I sat down to watch Nik Amir Mustapha’s poignant, impressive, somewhat genre defying Imaginur, but somehow I suspect the effect it had on me would have been the same had I been jacked up on a gallon of Red Bull. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a movie so skillfully replicate the shifting realities of a dreamlike state before, including a couple of very big names that are kind of known for that sort of thing. The movie is a protean thing, shifting from moment to moment, never quite settling in one space or plane of reality for long. And yet, for all that, it’s not just a gormless , but a thoughtful, moving treatise on memory, destiny, holding on and letting go.
When we first meet Zuhal (Beto Kusyairy), he seems a bit lost, distracted. It could be the stress of taking care of his ailing father. It could be the recurring dream of a woman whose face he never sees, but who feels so familiar regardless. It could even be the fact he just got hit by a car. But whatever the case may be, he’s clearly not his best self.
When an encounter with his ex-fiancee leads to a panic attack and a scary near catastrophe with his father, he is finally shaken enough to seek help, and finds himself at the doorstep at Hypnotica, a decidedly low-rent operation that claims to specialize in better living through machine backed autosuggestion.
The office and it’s lead scientist the bathrobe clad Ramli (a scene stealing Afdlin Shauki), do little to inspire confidence, but the affably eccentric mind expert wears down his defenses and before long, Zuhal has submitted himself to the process.
And a door is unlocked in him.
After having yet another vision of his dream woman, Zuhal is shocked to meet her in real life: Nur (Diana Danielle), a free spirit only passing through. Playful, sweet, and simultaneously attuned to his worldview while incorporating a far larger and more fantastical perspective of her own, it’s not easy to see how quickly he goes from bewilderment to pure infatuation, an infatuation that overrides the curious revelation that she just happens to be another client of Hypnotica.
This section of the film captures the dreamy haze of romantic discovery, where time stops and the world seems to fall away; and yet, like a beautiful dream, there is a ticking clock, as her upcoming trip to Japan affects him like reality creeping in along the edges of a dream you don’t want to wake up from.
And while you might suspect you know where this entire section of the movie is going… the odds are good that you really, really don’t.
To say much more would be to give away the game, though phrasing it in just that way perhaps does the film a disservice; this isn’t a puzzle box, one of those mind bending mysteries where you’re trying to piece together what’s happening and why. It toys with that in moments, as it toys with many other modes of being over the course of its 90 minute run time. But for all it’s shifts in reality, Imaginur is not about the destination, but the journey.
(Oh, good God… I literally just noticed the wordplay of the title. A genuinely humiliating moment in my history as a film critic…)
We think we have some idea where things are going as Zuhal’s sense of reality starts to blur and he struggles to find a foothold. And it’s in those dreamlike moments where Mustapha’s style finds its clearest purchase. We return to certain moments over and over again, like a recurring dream, or a memory you can’t, or won’t, get rid of. And the transitions between imagined moments, real moments, moments that feel too good to be true and moments so devastating that you wish they weren’t, is fairly seamless.
Kusairy is given a lot of notes to hit with his performance, and he rises to the challenge. His chemistry with Danielle’s endlessly warm and charming Nur feels lived in; though the speed of their connection could come off like a bit of cinematic contrivance in lesser hands, the instant sense of familiarity they generate does feel, in its own way
Though the entire cast is good, Mior Hashim Manap deserves singling out for his role of the ailing father of Zuhal, a man trapped in a decaying mind; the experience of caring for a relative suffering from dementia or Alzheimers has been a recurring theme in multiple movies during this festival, and few of those portrayals have been suffused with quite this sense of visceral tragedy; without going into spoilers, there is a brief moment, one that washes over us so quickly we barely notice it’s happening until we’re already deep into it, where Zuhal’s father seem to develop a sense of clarity, and we finally see the man he once once, in all his kindness and loving wisdom. The movie has many more moments to savor, but in some ways, that might just be the touching highlight.
Imaginur opens with an act of hypnosis, as if the filmmakers themselves are trying to lull us into a sense of blissful understanding and in its best moments, that’s exactly what it does; it is a piece of cinema that has something to say and is, at all times, entirely itself. And to me, that’s something worth celebrating.