The lives of an affluent urban family are disrupted when they receive a call from a mysterious visitor informing them that she is no longer prepared to look after the husband’s ageing mother in Teddy Soeriaatmadja’s eerie familial horror, Affliction. What posits itself as a meditation on the effects of childhood trauma turns out to be its reverse, but nevertheless contemplates contemporary filiality as the wife, blaming herself for her mother’s unexpected death by suicide, tries to repair her familial bonds by resolving to look after her estranged mother-in-law. 

The fact that Nina (Raihaanun Soeriaatmadja) has never met her mother-in-law Bunda (Tutie Kirana) despite long years of marriage to her husband Hasan (Ibnu Jamil) doesn’t seem to have felt odd to her, at least until she’s visited by a young woman who informs her that Bunda has advanced dementia and needs more comprehensive care than she can give her. Her words that it’s time a son should look after his mother further add to Nina’s sense of guilt especially as she is still grieving for her own mother whose ghost she saw slightly before she died leading her to believe that there might have been something more she could have done to save her. But when she mentions the strange encounter to her husband, he becomes angry and belligerent explaining that he has a “different” relationship with his mother than Nina had with hers and has no desire to return home or ever see her again though open to the idea of hiring a new live-in nurse. 

Nevertheless, the family to eventually make it out to the incredibly remote mountain area where Hasan grew up. To Nina there seems to be something not quite right with the house, a sense of discomfort and unease that is something more than her mother-in-law’s strange manner though bar a strange episode on their first meeting she appears to be in much better health than the young woman who visited implied. Even so, Bunda is indeed very territorial over her home, citing herself as its guardian and point blank refusing to leave it despite the worrying presence of a mysterious woman who turns up at night to stare in at them through the eerie fog gathering outside. 

Much of the drama centres on Nina and Bunda who are neither divided mother and daughter-in-law nor bonded in solidarity as women trapped by a patriarchal system that turns them into the carer and the cared for whether they like it or not. Despite having agreed to take responsibility for his mother, Hasan is incredibly ambivalent the entire time, constantly banging on about needing to get back to the city for an important interview and accusing Nina of trying to sabotage his career in pointing out that it’s going to take a little more time to sort things out with Bunda than just packing all her stuff and bundling her into the car. A child psychologist, Hasan ironically had little time for his own children and family prioritising his career prospects ahead of his role as a father, but on arrival at the cabin his manner turns towards the controlling and narcissistic, eventually taking off and leaving Nina and the kids behind while he finishes his big presentation back in the city. 

Hasan hints at a traumatic past in an opening speech insisting that a lack of parental love is responsible when a child becomes violent towards their peers but it turns out that there’s a reason beyond toxic parenting in Bunda’s raucous laughter on hearing her son’s occupation that implies both an intense love for him along with shame and resentment that he seems only to have rejected her. The house is indeed haunted as Nina had feared, though by something much darker and more human than she could ever have expected. Where a happier resolution might have been expected in Hasan suddenly realising that his narcissistic obsession with career success is ruining his family life, we find only the toxicity of familial bonds as Nina is asked to make the same choice that Bunda had but chooses a different way to save her family, easing another mother’s pain rather than allow the unresolved past to erode her relationship with her children as she tries to salvage what she can from the ruins of a seemingly perfect life.

Affliction screened as part of this year’s Five Flavours Film Festival.

Trailer (no subtitles)

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