One of the most revelatory works of the year thus far is Mouly Surya’s third feature Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts, which made its debut at the Cannes Film Festival’s Directors’ Fortnight back in May. Although this is already Surya’s third film, it is her first international production, with backing from her home country of Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, and France. As such, it is arguably the film of hers that has received the most exposure so far. We can be extremely thankful for such exposure, for in Surya and this film one is confronted with a defiant as well as playful cinematic and sociocultural perspective. Scripted from an original story by veteran filmmaker Garin Nugroho, Surya and co-screenwriter Rama Adi’s story about a woman’s encounter with bandits is at once a sobering drama of vengeance and a gynocentric send-up of the built-in gendered biases in both culture and genre – while infusing it with the matter of sisterhood.
The film follows the titular character (Marsha Timothy) after she is menaced by a group of men who want to steal her livestock and her body. As the title also indicates, the film is neatly divided into four acts to chart what ensues: ‘The Robbery,’ ‘The Journey,’ ‘The Confession,’ and ‘The Birth.’ In truth, one hesitates to simply describe the film as a ‘tale of vengeance,’ given the elements of bloodshed, sustained action and/or explosion that have come to be associated with this type of story. Part of the film’s reimagining of the revenge tale is the ways in which it does away with such elements, beginning with the fact that the one wronged and therefore on a journey towards justice is a woman. Put another way, in Marlina one finds both the proverbial woman wronged and the proverbial man whose narrative motivation is to right that wrong. As a widow whose child died a year ago, and lives alone with her livestock (though her husband’s mummified corpse occupies a corner eternally in shadow inside the house), she is poised as a frontierswoman braving, and defending, the isolation and struggle of the landscape all by herself. In this way, Marlina is more along the lines of lone, taciturn western figures, whose constant companionship is her shadow and the land that she occupies/traverses.
The invocation of the western is intentional on Surya’s part as well as natural, given the use of Sumba Island (located in the province of East Nusa Tenggare in eastern Indonesia). The island’s rural terrain of golden and green grasses, hills, and plains that stretch out for miles lends itself so much to visual and thematic tropes commonly associated with the western genre. But the film is also a reinterpretation of the genre to address gender biases that operate at narrative and social levels in cultural production. Driven from her homestead yet unable to forget what has happened, Marlina is therefore determined to get back some semblance of herself by going to the police. The further importance and endless allure of Sumba Island emerges: the mesmerising, voluminous manner of capturing the island’s geography via the horizontal space of widescreen makes it not only an atmospheric setting for Marlina’s long, arduous journey to the police but also a physicalisation of the often difficult, obstructed process of a woman seeking justice (from social institutions).
When Marlina finally does arrive at a local police station, the scene inside the station only confirms such a reading. In what begins as a medium shot that then cuts to a medium long shot, Marlina is seated, expressionless and silent in her waiting, and occupying the center of the frame, while sprawled from the left to the right side of the frame is a ping pong table with two of the policemen playing ping pong, perpendicular to the camera, seemingly oblivious to her presence. A caustic, deadpan example of a balanced composition as well as a caustic, deadpan visualisation of men not taking a woman seriously. It is only after another policeman takes the place of one of his colleagues in the game that Marlina is given the opportunity to report what happened at her home.
Surya makes ample use of horizontally balanced and/or symmetrical compositions afforded by widescreen, in which neither the spaces nor the characters are privileged; privileged instead are their ties to each other. Close-ups are therefore scant, but when they are put to use, the effect is thus all the more memorable. And it is Surya’s respect for her actors’ performances and the landscape that makes the film so relentlessly and refreshingly visual. Dialogue is sparse and to-the-point; in their place, a close-up or a long shot emotionally and narratively signifies a moment/situation at hand, including a character’s thought process or mood.
Another way in which the film reimagines the revenge tale is by placing Marlina’s self-defense and meting out justice not towards the end of the film but rather in the first act. In retrospect, the justice served in the first act is but one part of a larger development that grows from Marlina’s encounters with other characters during her journey, particularly Novi (Dea Panendra), a young woman whose pregnancy has brought about problems between her and her husband. In this regard, the film’s four-act structure is more cyclical than linear, hinted at the fourth act’s title. Integral to this cyclicality is how the film also invokes Sigmund Freud’s equation of decapitation = castration as part of its reinterpretation of the revenge western, in that decapitations bookend the film as the only defense against rape.
The film’s leisurely pace, deadpan humour, Zeke Khaseli and Ydhi Arfani’s beautiful and inspired score, and nomadic narrative structure – occasionally leaving Marlina to focus on, say, Novi’s situation or two of the bandits who separate from their group – may strike a discordant chord given such serious situations. But it is precisely the coming together of these unlikely, absurdist aspects that highlights the grim reality of such situations, in real life and in genres.
Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts is showing at AFI Fest on November 13 and 15. It is also showing at the San Diego Asian Film Festival on November 16.