Orphaned siblings attempt to process the dark legacy of the superstitious past in the debut feature directed by and starring actor Cornelio Sunny, Death Knot (Tali mati). Travelling from the comforting sophistication of the modern city back into the eerie darkness of the ancient forest, the pair find themselves confronted first by a filial dilemma and then a spiritual conundrum in their potential destiny which their possibly shamaness mother may have gone to great lengths in order to prevent.
As the film opens, Hari (Cornelio Sunny) texts with his younger sister Eka (Widika Sidmore) who somewhat sexistly tells him not to stay single too long because he needs someone to cook for him. Falling asleep watching a program in which a woman remarks on the presence of jinns as manifestations of energy that can’t be seen by the naked eye, Hari has a strange dream in which he witnesses his mother hanging herself in the forest in the middle of the night uttering only the words “stay away”. As it turns out, Eka had exactly the same dream and a phone call from their estranged uncle who rather bluntly tells them that their mother is dead and as the villagers won’t have anything to do with her they need to come for the funeral, confirms their worst fears. Ignoring the warning in the dream, Hari, Eka, and her husband Adi (Morgan Oey) drive back to their home village but quickly find themselves out of their depth trying to figure out what’s going on.
The first clue is the reaction from a previously friendly old woman who suddenly gets up and walks off after exclaiming that the body should have been burned not buried when Hari stops to ask for directions. The second clue is that only three people including their uncle turn up for the funeral. The third clue is that everyone keeps telling them to leave town right away while the fourth is that they can’t because of a mysterious storm that has apparently closed all the roads. Meanwhile, hostile uncle Rahmen immediately asks for what seems like a lot of money to cover his expenses for the clandestine funeral and then wastes no time staking his claim to their mother’s house. Though neither of the siblings want it, the request offends Hari who feels guilty that he never really got to know his mother and is wary of abandoning the last traces of her in the house she once owned.
Described by Adi as creepy, the house does however have a dark legacy, the pair already aware that their father left and took them to the city because of their mother’s strange behaviour that saw her ostracised by the other villagers who suspected her of being a shamaness responsible for a strange phenomenon known as “The Harvest” in which spates of suicides take place across a specific month. Hari tries to rationalise it away, pointing out that it’s hard to live in rural poverty and putting a label on unexplained deaths is easier than admitting that people are taking their own lives because of economic precarity and an ongoing sense of despair, but with the increasing strangeness all around him he has to admit a degree of spiritual unease in this fiercely traditional world he is ill-equipped to understand.
Rather than hauntings and jump scares, Cornelio Sunny concentrates on conjuring an atmosphere of supernatural dread in which anyone may suddenly become a grinning demon, performing strange ritualistic dance and odd movements only to suddenly disappear from view. An educated man from the city, Hari quickly becomes fed up with talk of ancestral deities, pacts with the devil, and black magic, only latterly accepting his role within an arcane system and understanding that his mother’s distance may have been her way of protecting him which has in the end backfired. Yet having destroyed the symbol of this spiritual oppression, Hari discovers that there may be no escape from its darkening legacy or the atavistic superstitions of the villagers, an ominous cloud always hanging over him even as he faces the final choice of whether to continue fighting or accept the inevitable. Proceeding with moody inevitability, the ironically titled Death Knot ensnares its confused hero in a tightening noose of spiritual dread and filial guilt before cutting him adrift a victim of his own sophistication.
Death Knot streamed as part of this year’s hybrid edition Udine Far East Film Festival.
Original trailer (English subtitles)