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Stone Turtle

Malaysian director creates a multilayered blend of tragedy and horror about stateless refugee on a remote island - live from the 75th edition of the Locarno Film Festival


Zahara (Asmara Abigail) explains:”I’d rather live on an island of ghosts than be a ghost among the living”. She is a stateless refugee who lives on a remote Malaysian island where she makes her living selling rare turtle eggs on the black market. But she is still a ghost on the mainland and for the bureaucracy. One gets the feeling it wouldn’t matter so much for her but she is caring for a young girl, Nika, who she is desperate to get into school. Nika, however, has no papers: her father is unknown and her mother is dead – killed by her religious parents for having Nika out of wedlock. When Samad (Bront Palarae), claiming to be a university researcher, arrives on the island, Zahara’s life descends into a spiral of violence, magic and revenge.

Ming Jin Woo’s film is a surreal melange of Elizabethan revenger’s tragedy, mixed with Groundhog Day (Harold Ramis, 1993) and The Wicker Man (Robin Hardy, 1973). Kong Pahurak’s cinematography makes the most of the beautiful locations even as terrible things occur throughout them. A postmodern irreverence sees Ming and his collaborators use everything from animation to folklore and dance to create a rich and layered tale.

That Samad is not who he claims to be is apparent fairly early on but his complicity and motives are revealed gradually as Zamara enacts her revenge only to find herself having to reset her life to before the killings in order to try again. As the old saying goes: she who would have revenge first dig two graves. In this case, it will be many more than just two.

From the very first scene, when we see the original killing of Zamara’s sister, the murders are brutal without being gratuitous. Having said that there is something almost glorious in the varieties of danger Ming packs onto his island. Poisonous fish, ritual sacrifice, stabbing, drownings and even a return to quick sand. Each time though unforeseen consequences requires Zamara to have a rethink. But played with utterly fierce conviction by Abigail, she strides through the film in a red dress like a wet blade, in search of a stabbing. She is a feminist avenger who uses witchcraft against religious bigotry and patriarchy, and a righteous fury against the men who have destroyed her life. While Nika reads a Ms Marvel comic book, her guardian angel here is the real Avenger.

Stone Turtle is a striking tale of many layers which manages the handy trick of being mesmerising while retaining a basic direct simplicity. It has the depth and power of a folktale and yet feels witty and topical. When a murderer woman reveals her husband and murderer’s sexual insecurity, it is at once funny and terrifying that strong women should be destroyed by such fragility.

Stone Turtle has just premiered at the 75th Locarno International Film Festival.

By John Bleasdale - 05-08-2022

John Bleasdale is a film critic and writer based in Italy. He has published a novel entitled Blood is on the Grass and a book of short stories as well as a number of articles and features. His work ha...

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