What do you do if you keep finding yourself trapped in a loop that repeats over and over again? It was a familiar setup that instantly recalls the work of the late Harold Ramis in the 1993 high-concept comedy gem ‘Groundhog Day’ starring Bill Murray as the disgruntled weatherman. And here is where ‘Imaginur’ somehow gets the idea from, except that director Nik Amir Mustapha doesn’t play it for laughs. It was instead an experimental love story, drawing its inspiration from the aforementioned movie and evoking the feel and tone of the Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet-starred ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.’
Both the latter and ‘Imaginur’ share something in common: memories and lost love. But I’m glad Nik Amir Mustapha pays homage to – intentionally or otherwise — ‘Groundhog Day’ and ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’ without turning his own ‘Imaginur’ into a carbon copy of both films.
Before I get to the review, let’s dive into the premise. Zuhal (Beto Kusyairy) has a recurring dream where we see him standing in the wide-open field and a clear blue sky with no one else except him and a mysterious girl in a white dress facing behind. Then, there is a scene of him involved in a car accident when he crosses the road in a hurry outside a train station, and the next thing we know, he ends up sitting in the hospital’s waiting room with a bandaged head. His elderly father (Mior Hashim Manap) is sitting beside him, and we learn that he is suffering from dementia.
Then comes a mysterious woman (Fatimah Abu Bakar), who is kind enough to lend Zuhal a spare change to buy a cup of hot coffee from the vending machine and even gives him a card. The card in question is a place called Hypnotica, which runs by Dr. Ramli (Dato’ Afdlin Shauki). It turns out that Hypnotica specializes in hypnosis used to help patients to regain focus. In the case of Zuhal’s condition, Dr. Ramli is also determined to cure his series of panic attacks.
After Zuhal reluctantly agrees to receive Dr. Ramli’s hypnosis treatment, this is where the film delves deeper into the surrealistic routes of ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’ and ‘Groundhog Day’ combined altogether. Zuhal meets a beautiful girl named Nur when stopping by a burger stall, and from there, they quickly hit it off. It was love at first sight, but as Nur subsequently reveals she’s planning to leave for Japan, he manages to convince her to stay otherwise. What happens next is a distorted sense of reality, dreams, and memories as perplexing as Zuhal’s increasingly fragmented mind.
Having seen Nik Amir Mustapha’s earlier notable works, including ‘Kil’ and ‘Terbaik dari Langit’, a.k.a. ‘Nova,’ he has a knack for telling a thought-provoking story that is far from your garden-variety Malaysian-made films. In his acclaimed feature-length directorial debut ‘Kil,’ he explored thorny themes of suicide and depression. At the same time, his 2014 follow-up revolved around addiction and the metaphorical existence of extraterrestrial subject matter.
In ‘Imaginur,’ Nik Amir Mustapha subtly incorporated the otherwise familiar high-concept sci-fi subjects to tell a quietly affecting story about a man’s journey of existential crisis, torn between his own sanity and his love life. Such a movie can be easily drowned in a convoluted mess. Still, Nik Amir Mustapha, who also co-wrote the screenplay alongside Redza Minhat, layered each puzzle piece that slowly but surely reveals the whole big picture surrounding the truth of Zuhal’s condition.
The film’s overall subject matter may have been clinical and melancholic. However, Nik Amir Mustapha still manages to slip in some quirky sense of humor, thanks to Dato’ Afdlin Shauki’s spot-on eccentric supporting turn as Dr. Ramli. The cast gets an extra boost from a superb acting ensemble, notably Beto Kusyairy’s sympathetic lead performance as the frustrated Zuhal. At the same time, Diana Danielle’s magnetic screen presence shines through as Nur. It also helps that Beto and Diana share wonderful chemistry together.
But as much as I admired Nik Amir Mustapha’s work in ‘Imaginur,’ the visuals somewhat miss the intended mark. Idham Mad Din’s atmospheric cinematography may have complemented the film’s tone well. Still, Nik Amir Mustapha’s attempt to infuse the dream-like, psychedelic visual quality lacks the distinctive visual aesthetics to make them a standout. Still, such a shortcoming is forgivable since Nik Amir Mustapha’s overall absorbing direction and solid cast are more than enough to elevate ‘Imaginur’ into an above-average effort. After all, it’s not every day that a local film made in Malaysia has a director who dares to break the stereotypical depiction of a romance drama.
Not counting the 2018 political drama ‘Rise: Ini Kalilah’ where Nik Amir Mustapha served as one of the three co-directors, his third solo feature-length effort after ‘Kil’ and ‘Terbaik dari Langit’ continues to prove his directorial prowess as one of the most exciting filmmakers in the country.