Satan’s Slaves (Pengabdi Setan, Joko Anwar, 2017)

Satan's Slaves posterBad things happen in houses where they don’t pray. So says a kindly Imam in Joko Anwar’s chilling horror remake Satan’s Slaves (Pengabdi Setan). Taking inspiration from a 1982 classic, Anwar updates the tale of supernatural dread and familial breakdown for the new century while maintaining the early ‘80s setting and pushing back still further into the superstitious, gothic past. The family, threatened by financial, social, and spiritual pressures is stretched to breaking point by supernatural unease. Advised that the cure for their ills is religion, they begin to conform but, unlike the original, godliness cannot save them from a greater evil and if the family chooses to save itself, it will be through acts of selfless love rather than brutal adherence to a set of outdated social codes.

As the film begins, eldest daughter Rini (Tara Basro) – a 22-year-old former college student, has given up her studies and become the defacto maternal figure to her small family while her mother, Mawarni (Ayu Laksmi ), remains bedridden after a long illness. Mawarni was once a famous singer and the family’s breadwinner, but having been out of the spotlight so long her music has begun to go out of fashion. Royalties have dried up and there is little prospect of any further income. Lacking the funds to pay for ongoing hospital care, the family have brought Mawarni home to care for her themselves though the father (Bront Palarae), worrying about feeding his children, secretly urges his wife to be on her way to a better place, as a disturbed Rini hears him say from outside the door. Soon enough, Mawarni is gone, but not forgotten. Strange noises fill the old mansion as Mawarni’s bell continues to tinkle in the night, her records play without warning, and radios reset themselves to play her song. When dad leaves the siblings – 16-year-old Tony (Endy Arfian), 10-year-old Bondi (Nasar Annus), and 7-year-old Ian (M. Adhiyat) who is deaf and mute, in Rini’s care to head into the city in search of money, the kids are left to deal with the legacy of his moral cowardice all alone.

Adopting the trappings of the classic European gothic chiller, Satan’s Slaves sets itself in an old fashioned villa located in a forest some distance outside of the city. If the house were not creepy enough on its own, it is also conveniently located next to the local graveyard where Mawarni has now been laid to rest (in theory, at least). Moving in “next door”, a kindly Imam and his spiritually open minded son Hendra (Dimas Aditya) promise to provide pastoral care to the bereaved children but find themselves engulfed by the house’s increasing power to isolate and terrorise.

Tipped off by Hendra, Rini discovers a dark and disturbing secret regarding her mother’s former life and her own origins. Devolving into a vast conspiracy involving satanic fertility cults and their apparently omnipresent spy networks, Satan’s Slaves revels in its oppressive atmosphere of supernatural dread and human impotence as the children find themselves surrounded on all sides by faceless, umbrella wielding zombies lying in wait to tear their home apart.

Rini is told, by an old friend (Egy Fedly) of their grandmother’s (Elly D. Luthan), that the fertility cult requires child sacrifice but that the cult cannot take the child unless the family gives it up. She is being asked, quite literally, to put her life (and those of her siblings) on the line in order to save “the family”, yet “the family” or more particularly hers already has its problematic elements. Rini’s grandmother, recently deceased in mysterious circumstances, was not originally accepting of her daughter-in-law because of a class difference and also because of her occupation as an “entertainer” which was not considered respectable at the time. She only warmed to Mawarni once the children were born which was already some years into the marriage as Mawarni, finding it difficult to conceive, became desperate for a child and for her mother-in-law’s acceptance.

Rather than the lack of spiritual rigour which the Imam blames for the increasing demonic presence, it is these social taboos which seem to have opened the door to evil. The kids try the religious solution, but unsurprisingly it doesn’t help them. Literally haunted by their late mother who feels herself “abandoned” by her family, her loving husband hastening her death now that she is no longer economically useful and has become an unbearable burden, the only way to defeat this curse is to reverse it through unconditional familial love and solidarity even given what Rini now knows about her history. Oppressive in atmosphere yet filled with an eerie beauty as shadowy figures slowly colonise the misty Indonesian forest, Satan’s Slaves challenges the idea of “the family” in the face of strict patriarchal social codes and finds that in order to survive it must salvage itself through acts of defiance and self identification.


Screened at the 20th Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts (Marlina Si Pembunuh Dalam Empat Babak, Mouly Surya, 2017)

Marlina posterIf a widow poisons a bunch of bandits before decapitating their leader but no one bothers to investigate, has she committed any crime? Adopting the trappings of the spaghetti western, Mouly Surya’s Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts (Marlina Si Pembunuh Dalam Empat Babak) is less a tale of revenge than of survival. Marlina’s world is out to get her – a lone widow with property (and debt) is a magnet for the unscrupulous who think they can take what she has with little resistance. They are very wrong. Marlina has had enough of stoically putting up with the various trials fate has seen fit to send, and this time she intends to fight back with whatever resources are available to her.

We first meet Marlina (Marsha Timothy) one evening, home alone (except for the mummified corpse of her late husband sitting silently in the corner) on the small ranch she now operates without assistance. An unexpected visitor arrives by motorcycle and lets himself in, literally invading her property safe in the knowledge that she lacks the strength to eject him. The man, Markus (Egy Fedly), informs her that his men will soon arrive and if she’s “lucky” and they have time, they intend to have their way with her in addition to making off with her cattle and anything else that will fit in the van. Markus also asks Marlina to make him some chicken soup, which is something he’ll later regret. Or would have regretted if Marlina hadn’t hacked his head off with a machete while he raped her. Having poisoned all but two of the bandits and beheaded Markus, Marlina neatly tidies the bodies away into a cupboard, trusses up Markus’ head, and takes it with her on a journey to the police station to report her crime (and hopefully gain their protection against the other two bandits still on the loose).

Marlina has had her share of troubles. Having lost a child and now her husband, Marlina is a lone woman which makes her particularly vulnerable in an intensely patriarchal society. The bandits think she’s easy pickings because she is undefended. Entirely alone with no close neighbours and no apparent family members to fall back on, Marlina has only herself. This has however made her tough and resourceful, acutely aware of her precarious position and instantly wise to the bandits’ plans. Terrified but biding her time, she attempts to placate them until she manages to retrieve her poison berries (carefully stored for just such an occasion?) and slide them into the chicken soup Markus has been so kind as to order.

Unsure what to do next, Marlina looks to the police for guidance. Her friend, Novi (Dea Panendra) – 10 months pregnant, reminds her that the police won’t do anything about the bandits and she’ll only get herself in trouble. Novi advises her to come to church instead and gain peace of mind by confessing her sins, only Marlina doesn’t think she’s committed any. Novi’s prognostication about the police proves (partly) correct. Marlina sits in the waiting room, anxious and irritated, while the policemen continue their game of ping pong. When one finally does take her statement, he listens patiently and asks relevant questions, but eventually declares that they won’t be able to investigate because they don’t have any cars today and, being underfunded, won’t have the proper tools for weeks. Likewise, they can’t investigate the rape because they don’t have any rape kits or access to doctors and without evidence there is no crime. Marlina leaves a free woman but one with seven bodies in her cupboard she doesn’t know what to do with and two crazed bandits after her to retrieve their boss’ head.

If anyone’s going to save Marlina, it’ll have to be Marlina herself. Unfortunately a literal busload of other people including Novi and an older lady trying to get some ponies to her nephew’s wedding to rectify a shortfall in the dowry have got mixed up with the bandits’ ongoing vendetta. Where Marlina has become tough and independent, Novi is intent on getting her useless husband to listen to her and not the voice of superstition which attributes the late arrival of their child to “breech birth” as a symptom of promiscuous infidelity. Despite her devotion to him, Novi’s husband kicks his heavily pregnant wife to the ground and leaves her in the hands of mischief making bandit Franz (Yoga Pratama). Alone with Franz in Marlina’s house, Novi fights back horror to grab one of the dead bandit’s machetes but finds herself unable to strike until struck by the twin pains of labour and the screams of another woman in distress.

Beautifully photographed and filled with the wide-open plains and middle distance perspective of the 70s exploitation-leaning western, Marlina the Murderer is also a marvel of magical realism where headless corpses contribute to the soundtrack and pester our heroine for a restitution to which they are not entitled. Absurdist humour undercuts the grimness of Marlina’s plight and allows a kind of warmth to shine through as our two heroines find the strength to save each other, united in female solidarity. 


Currently on release at selected UK cinemas courtesy of Filmhouse.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Postcards from the Zoo (Kebun Binatang, Edwin, 2012)

postcards from the zoo posterThe thing about zoos is, how can you be sure which side of the bars you’re really on? The heroine of Edwin’s whimsical adventure, Postcards From the Zoo (Kebun Binatang), finds herself at home among the animals after being abandoned by her human father with the consequence that, to her, the outside world is the inverted mirror of her theme park home. Themes of exploitation, exoticisation, innocence and experience run side by side but then perhaps Edwin has tried to pack too much into his day out lending a degree of incoherence to his meandering itinerary.

As a young child, Lana (Ladya Cheryl) is abandoned in the zoo by her father. All alone, trapped in the park overnight, she wanders around exploring and calling out for her dad to come and get her. He doesn’t, years pass and suddenly Lana is a beautiful young woman, still living in the zoo after having been taken in by a giraffe handler, Oom Dave. Her life changes when a new authority takes over and immediately sets about trying to evict the collection of people who’ve made the zoo their home without the proper permission. Taking off with a handsome magician (Nicholas Saputra), Lana begins to explore the world outside but quickly finds that there are invisible bars everywhere.

Edwin ties Lana to the figure of the zoo’s solitary giraffe – a herd animal forced to live alone in Jakarta’s zoo as the sole representative of its kind. Certifiably nuts about giraffes, Lana rolls off various animal facts and expresses the long held desire the touch the giraffe’s stomach. Her status is confused; she’s both visitor and exhibit, caretaker and resident. The zoo is all Lana has ever known or wanted to know, and so when she must leave it, she does so with curious eyes, examining the regular world like a traveller on a journey to untold lands.

Becoming the magician’s assistant – a Tiger Lily to his cowboy, Lana travels the city as a co-conspirator in his life of hustling. Their odyssey brings them into the seedy underbelly of the modern capital with its heartless gangsters and oppressed women. Once again abandoned, Lana finds herself sinking into this world as one of many generic young women dressed in white, given a number (33), and placed behind glass waiting to be called forth by male visitors. Now literally an exhibit in a human zoo, Lana finds that things on this side of the enclosure are no different. While her customer asks her to dress up in a “tiger” suit (it’s a leopard, she quickly corrects him), a family with young children pose with a “tamed” python at the zoo. The twin pictures of exploitation neatly ram Edwin’s point home even if he allows Lana’s experiences to remain in the realms of whimsy, only hinting at the darkness of the “massage” industry in an early humiliating scene in which a naked, frightened woman is awkwardly sat with a grinning gangster as a kind of living trophy.

Broken with a series of title cards explaining zoo-related terminology each of which relate to the latest stages of Lana’s journey – “ex-situ conservation”, “reintroduction”, etc, Postcards from the Zoo maintains a kind of distanced affectation which undermines the whimsy of its magical realist stance. Lana’s journey is one of youthful exploration in which the adolescent must venture away from home in order to become adult and return home with wiser eyes but Lana’s quest, with her series of abandonments and mysteries, may perhaps never be finished. Edwin finds the whimsy of the zoo with its dinosaur shaped carts and strangely designed cowbus mimicked in the outside world with monkeys wearing doll masks and wandering magicians selling snake oil claiming to provide “instant youth” and cure roundworm, fungus, and stab wounds,  returning him to the “all the world’s a zoo” ethos which seems to pervade but even if he fails to bring his tale full circle he does at least allow a kind of harmony in the reunion of his twin symbols of the solitary, imprisoned giraffe and the curious little girl.


Original trailer (no subtitles)