Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts hit the international festival circuit last year and made a splash. It wasn’t seen by a particularly wide audience (it’s commercial appeal is limited I think, but that is a reflection of public taste and how bad it is, not a reflection of the film’s quality). It’s got a 97% on rotten tomatoes and has been dubbed a “satay Western”, a term I personally think is terrible as it’s not only derivative but doesn’t even use the Indonesian spelling of “sate.” Critics loved its sleek and confident style, with lots of favorable comparisons to Tarantino’s work. They loved the feminist-revenge theme, again very reminiscent of The Bride from Kill Bill. And filmed in the idyllic, sun-scorched hills of Sumba the film lovingly, almost reverently embraces and extols the natural beauty and diversity of Indonesia, a side few foreigners ever see if they don’t travel outside of Bali.
All of those things are true, and I will get to them shortly - but the film is also an encouraging sign that Indonesian cinema, which has long languished under oppressive regulatory constraints and a strong domestic appetite for a particular kind of schlock, is coming into its own, led by some serious talents like Mouly Surya and Joko Anwar. These filmmakers are not only technically skilled, displaying the kind of natural aesthetic sensibility you cannot teach in film school. But the films they are making are very uniquely Indonesian films, that embrace and celebrate and challenge and revel in Indonesian myth, Indonesian landscapes, Indonesian culture.
Take the opening sequence of Marlina, where the titular character has a tense conversation with an intruder while her husband’s embalmed corpse sits just off in the background. This embalming is a Sumba tradition, one so obscure that my girlfriend (who is Javanese) had to google it. And yet there it is, in this film made for international festival audiences, proudly filling in the back-drop of the frame. You see this in Joko Anwar’s work too, which celebrates Javanese ghosts and Indonesian myths, or where he is happy to just shoot the city of Jakarta while the little melodramas of peoples’ everyday lives play out in back-alleys.
These films are not just well-made, but they are uniquely and proudly Indonesian, even if they are little-known outside of the region. A lot of the films that play at Indonesian cinemas are schlocky horror B-movies or intolerably vapid romances. The fact that talented filmmakers like Mouly Surya and Joko Anwar are getting the opportunity to make good films and getting recognition is a good sign, and evidence that Indonesian cinema is the real deal. It might not have fully arrived yet, but it’s on its way to the station.
Right, so what makes Marlina such a good film? Well first, there is the technical aspect - this film is gorgeous. And it announces that it’s going to be a languid, beautiful visual experience from the opening shot of the Sumba hills, wind-swept and browned. Cinematographer Yunus Pasolang shoots the hell out of the Sumba countryside, filling the screen with David Lean-style wide shots of dusty hills and winding roads and impossibly rustic landscapes. The film is sparse in that sense, and it often indulges in very long takes which is a style I personally love because it’s old school and it announces a certain kind of confidence in what you are shooting. It is a welcome and direct rebuttal to the hyperactive style that defines so many modern films, where editors and directors absolutely butcher their work with cuts every few seconds because this is what a Ritalin-starved public demands.
Then there is the story, which is bold, violent and subversive. Indonesia is a pretty socially conservative country, where traditional gender roles and balances of power remain intact. Women are expected to remain deferential and subservient to men, generally speaking, and depictions of on-screen relationships are often shot through with corrosive jealousy and controlling behavior. Mouly Surya takes all that baggage and revels in it, before turning it on its head in a clever and daring way.
The opening scene is a long and drawn-out affair, in which local gangster Markus shows up at Marlina’s small, traditional country home and casually informs her that now that there is no man to protect her he and his gang are going to take all of her money, her farm animals and then rape her. But first, he commands her to make chicken soup for dinner. All of this with her husband’s silent, embalmed corpse looking on from the corner of the frame. Throughout this sequence, Marlina is in the role traditionally occupied by women in Indonesia - bending to the will of the men, cooking for them, bringing them coffee, spooning out rice and soup, her powerlessness emphasized at every turn.
This all comes to a head when she slips some poisonous berries into the soup and the four bandits keel over. As they are eating, Marlina is located in the back of the shot, spooning out their meals; as they die the shot composition suddenly shifts so she is in the foreground, obscuring them as they topple over behind her. She has the power now, and she is the one who commands the frame as she cracks a little Mona Lisa smile. Enhanced by the knock-out score that channels Morricone with an Indonesian flavor, this brilliant scene uses the visual space within the frame to show us quite viscerally that Marlina has taken back control. She then goes into the room where Markus is and as he is raping her, she chops his head off with a knife. This is basically the end of Act One, and the point where it becomes clear that even in this very traditional house, tradition is out the window and we are seeing something new.
The rest of the film is about her carrying Markus’ head to the local police station, and meeting various characters and obstacles along the way. It ends with a simultaneous death and a birth, a kind of John Steinbeck/Grapes of Wrath continuity of life thing. After such a virtuoso and compelling opening act, it is difficult to maintain the momentum and the ending doesn’t quite live up to the beginning. But then again, how could it really? The film is still an interesting and compelling journey of self-discovery and emancipation through a gorgeously filmed landscape.
This is only director and writer Mouly Suyra’s third feature-length film, but she shoots it with boatloads of confidence, diving into heady, disturbing issues with a vigorous and almost self-righteous passion and anger. Because the truth is (and this is coming from a white American man, so feel free to ignore me) it is tough being a woman in Indonesia. I know a lot of my female friends here often worry about how they will be viewed in the eyes of society, especially when it comes to being ostracized for having a divorce or being a single mother. There are a lot of societal expectations placed on women about how they should act and what role they should serve in the community, and this film takes all that shit that gets laid on women in Indonesia every day and gives it a cathartic expression in the most satisfying way: through cold-blooded killing of the very people doing the oppressing.
I think one of the reasons the film is so popular on the festival circuit is that that kind of righteous feminist revenge fantasy sits well with Western audiences. And in the end it is a clever and subversive play on the traditional Charles Bronson avenging angel of death trope, which gives the film a lot of thematic depth. This is a movie that is gorgeous to look at, but it’s also using the medium and the narrative to try and say something important and make a point underscoring some weighty issues in the very culture that it embraces and celebrates.
In other words, there is a lot going on in this film. And to a large extent, in addition to the fine filmmaking going on, the film is carried by the under-stated yet powerful performance of actress Marsha Timothy. Generally speaking it is harder to convey deep, complex emotions while giving a restrained performance (think Ryan Gosling’s sublime turn in Drive), then in gnashing your teeth and chewing scenery. And Marsha Timothy nails the part, embodying a kind of quiet, simmering rage that seems just barely contained. And when she does give full expression to that rage, all she needs to do to convey that is a tiny curve of a smile. That’s good acting.
I will also just briefly say I really enjoyed the genre mash-up. Taking Western tropes (dust-swept landscapes, hard-scrabble country folk, the familiar twang of a classic Western guitar riff) and transposing them to the Indonesian setting of Sumba makes for a great way to inject some life and freshness into tired old conventions. A lot of this can be chalked up to Mouly Surya’s decision to shoot everything on location, so the natural beauty of the countryside does a lot of the heavy-lifting by just, you know, existing. Another Indonesian-Western mash-up that came out recently, Buffalo Boys, completely squandered this opportunity by confining almost all of its action to fake-looking sound stages rather than just shooting things on location. I really hope that more filmmakers will take this lesson to heart and shoot on location, maximizing the potential of the Indonesian countryside, because I think it is a very under-used asset for local filmmakers.
Ultimately, you don’t need me to tell you this is a good movie - everyone has already pretty much agreed that it is, that it brings important issues about gender roles to the forefront, plays with them in narratively innovative ways, and that it is simply beautiful to look at. This is an excellent Indonesian art house film. And the good news is, it’s not the only one! There are quite a few good Indonesian films being produced domestically by local talents who I think are just the beginning of what will soon snow-ball into a vibrant, diverse and productive domestic film industry. Marlina is proof that Indonesian cinema is the real deal, and if you don’t know now you know!