We Are Moluccans (Cahaya Dari Timur: Beta Maluku, Angga Dwimas Sasongko, 2014)

A motorbike courier finds himself torn between conflicting priorities when his community is threatened by internal strife in Angga Dwimas Sasongko’s inspirational sporting drama We Are Moluccans (Cahaya Dari Timur: Beta Maluku). As the title suggests, team sports provide a means of communal healing fostering both hope and unity among the young but even so the traumatic memories of the recent past prove hard to overcome while the older generation struggle in the wake of their own broken dreams and contradictory responsibilities. 

At the turn of the century, a violent conflict breaks out between Muslim and Christian communities who had until that point lived together in relative peace. With his motorcycle courier business disrupted by the ongoing chaos, former youth footballer Sani (Chicco Jerikho) begins coaching a collection of local boys mostly as a means of keeping them away from the immediate violence of the riots. As the situation begins to stabilise, his new responsibility to the children places a strain on his relationship with his wife, Haspa (Shafira Umm), who complains that he spends too much time giving back to the community while the family is struggling economically to the extent that she can no longer extend their tab at the grocery store. His old football friend Rafi (Frans Nendissa) is also struggling with his fishing business having lost most of his crew who fled the area’s violence and so the two of them begin to make the football club more formal but it soon becomes clear that they each have differing goals and responsibilities that endanger their partnership and the commitment they’ve made to the boys.  

At several points Rafi, not to mention Haspa, criticise Sani for what they see as irresponsibility while some of the other village men also accuse him of unmanliness for choosing to look after the children rather than fight with them to protect the village. His problem is that he’s too kind hearted but is entirely unable to order his priorities torn by the necessity of providing for his family and following through on the commitment he’s made to the neighbourhood boys. He often gives his hard won money away to those in need, angering his wife who cannot understand why he continues to help others rather protect his own family even giving away money he’d saved for their youngest daughter’s vaccinations and abruptly selling their goats without discussing it with her when she’d earmarked them as an emergency fund to pay the enrolment fees when the oldest daughter starts school. 

Because of the ongoing violence, many of the boys are in single parent families and live in relative poverty often needed to help out with their parent’s businesses. To begin with many are fine with them playing football so long as it keeps them safe but as they begin to grow older attitudes harden, many believing that it’s a “pointless” waste of time and too much of a distraction when the children should either be earning money or studying. Sani becomes a kind of surrogate father teaching the boys diligence and responsibility even if struggling with the same in his personal life but obviously cannot overcome the social and economic difficulties of small town life all on his own. His original goal was only to keep the children safe and ensure they had happy childhood memories that weren’t about hate, violence, and fear, whereas Rafi is much more ambitious floating the idea of opening an official football school while eventually deciding to run for public office further adding to Sani’s sense of personal inadequacy. 

“Nothing can destroy us as long as we have will to live a better life” Sani later tells the children, mistaken it seems in his belief that they would find it easier to overcome the differences between them when acting as head coach for a team representing the entirety of the local area. Many of the original team resent the introduction of “outsiders” from the nearby Christian town, but the difficulties turn out less to be about religion or community than trauma, the source of the problem being that the father of two of the Christian boys is a policeman whom another of the players blames for his own father’s death. While such tensions exist within the group the team continues to fail, losing not because of a lack of ability but because they cannot overcome the legacy of trauma to work together. The problem is only solved through a reassertion of their commonality as “Moluccans” rather than Muslim or Christian ironically forged in opposition to their current other which happens to be a team from Jakarta, the urban pitted against the rural. 

In any case, Angga Dwimas Sasongko’s inspirational drama eventually makes the case for mutual forgiveness as path toward putting the past to rest in order to move forward into a kinder and more prosperous era. The emotional closing scenes provide both a personal sense of acceptance in as Rafi begins to put his pride aside to support the local team while Muslims and Christians come together to listen to the nail-biting penalty shootout through their respective contacts in the auditorium after the TV broadcast cuts out before extra time. Demonstrating the power of sports to overcome cultural barriers, We Are Moluccans finally advocates for the right to dream as the youngsters begin to develop self-confidence and a sense of possibility while working together towards a clearly defined goal. 


We Are Moluccans streams in Poland until Nov. 29 as part of the 15th Five Flavours Film Festival.

Trailer (English subtitles)

Madame X (Lucky Kuswandi, 2010)

“With the force of rainbows I will punish you all” transgender superhero Madame X exclaims as she takes on bigotry and self-interest to fight for human rights in a largely oppressive social culture. Despite emerging from long years of authoritarian military dictatorship in 1998, Indonesia’s LBGTQ+ community finds itself in a marginalised position with homosexuality still taboo and illegal under religious law in certain parts of the country. Lucky Kuswandi’s high camp, pure punk tale of a transwoman embracing her inner power to claim her place in society while standing up against intolerance is a bold advocation for a more compassionate world but also a whole lot of anarchic fun. 

It’s transgender hairdresser Adam’s (Amink) birthday and unbeknownst to her, her life is about to change. A mysterious client arriving at the salon warns her that she shouldn’t go dancing because there’s a kind of dance so dangerous it might end her life. Adam ignores her and goes anyway but is set up by her awful boyfriend and captured by anti-gay vigilante group Bogem who bundle all the transwomen in the place into their pickup truck for “recycling”. During the journey, Adam’s best friend Aline (Joko Anwar) is killed by Bogem leader Storm who turns out to be the head of the National Morality Front, a political party denying any ties to far right violence. Taken in by an LGBTQ+ friendly Lenggok dance studio in the dreamily named village Beyond the Clouds, Adam struggles to rebuild her life but receives a new mission when Aline appears to her in angelic form and demands vengeance. 

“There’s no place for us in the real world” Adam explains at the bar when a potential client asks what a nice girl like her is doing in a place like this, telling him that there are no “normal” jobs for women like her and so she has no other option than to make ends meet through sex work. Bogem refers to the transwomen as “trash”, as if they’re cleaning up the city while touting magnanimity in their intention to “recycle” them so they can be returned to mainstream society as “normal” men. Despite having three wives, their identities hidden by their colour-coded burkas, Storm preaches old fashioned family values but later is revealed to have ties to human trafficking mediated through Tarjo (Ikhsan Himawan), a local man continually dressed like a religious leader who himself is hiding an aspect of his sexuality from his sweet and innocent fiancée Ratih (Saira Jihan) whom he has convinced to give up her career as a lenggok dancer to become a “migrant worker”.

Lenggok, a traditional Indonesian dance, turns out to be the one that the mysterious woman said would end Adam’s life which is one reason she was reluctant to take it up, but only because the way former military instructor Uncle Radi (Robby Tumewu) is teaching it is really a martial art. Radi is himself in a happy longterm relationship with trans woman Auntie Yantje (Ria Irawan) who now uses a wheelchair because the strain of living has taken such a profound toll on her health as she and Radi attempted to stand up to injustice. With the help of mute servant Din (Vincent Ryan Rompies), they’ve built a secret base behind their bedroom filled with amazing gadgets made out of cosmetics and accessories, as well as a beautifully designed superhero suit just waiting for a hero. Adam can only embrace her destiny as Madame X by first accepting her national legacy in Lenggok dance, along with her identity as a transwoman and the trauma of her first love. 

Told in flashback, the melancholy story of Adam and Harun becomes a point origin in the tragedy of love destroyed by oppressive patriarchal authority. “You’re the one ruining my son” Harun’s father claims before literally scarring his own boy and leaving him with an internalised homophobia which encourages him to blame Adam for arousing in him such taboo desires. Yet Adam fights back with the tools used against her, vanquishing her foes with the power of the rainbow. Rich with pop culture references from the Bond-esque opening titles to a Sailor Moon meets Wonder Woman transformation scene imbued with its own particular irony, Madame X is an anarchic tale of high camp hijinks but also a heartfelt origin story for a transgender superwoman claiming her space and standing up for the oppressed in an increasingly hostile environment.  


Madame X screened as part of this year’s Queer East.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Death Knot (Tali mati, Cornelio Sunny, 2021)

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)

Two Blue Stripes (Dua Garis Biru, Gina S. Noer, 2019)

In less enlightened times, unplanned teenage pregnancy was sometimes seen as a grand tragedy involving the potential ruin of at least three lives. Thankfully, in many places at least, it isn’t quite like that anymore though for the young couple at the centre of Gina S. Noer’s sensitive yet lighthearted drama Two Blue Stripes (Dua Garis Biru) their impending parenthood exposes a series of divisions in a changing society as their families, one poor and religious, the other wealthy and secular though obsessed with respectability, react in quite different ways to the news their child is about to have a child of their own. 

At 17, Bima (Angga Yunanda) and Dara (Adhisty Zara) are a bashful high school couple eagerly planning their futures. While Bima is not exactly a top student, Dara gets good grades and is obsessed with K-Pop, hoping to travel to Korea for university. One day however they get a little carried away and some time later Dara begins to suspect she may be expecting. Originally opting for an abortion, she later finds she can’t go through with it and the young couple decide that if only they can keep the pregnancy a secret until after graduation they’ll be able to figure something out. Unfortunately, however, the ruse is uncovered when Dara is taken ill during a PE session and accidentally reveals the pregnancy while worried about the baby. 

The surprising thing is that Bima’s parents who are devoted to their Islamic faith are the most sympathetic, quickly accepting that what’s happened has happened and needs to be dealt with as calmly and sensitively as possible if also somehow disappointed in Bima while quietly proud of his surefooted though naive pledge to take responsibility. Dara’s parents, however, and in particular her mother Rika (Lulu Tobing) are far less understanding, intensely questioning their daughter in the grim “hope” that Bima may have forced himself on her and she is therefore “blameless”. This rather old fashioned, sexist notion of female purity is further borne out by the school who confess that they aren’t allowed to expel Dara because of her pregnancy, but all the same are asking her to leave meaning she won’t be able to take her exams with the other pupils while nothing will happen to Bima who will be permitted to go to class as normal. 

For Rika shame and confusion seem to be the primary motivators. Attempting to sweep the whole thing under the carpet, she begins talking to a pair of relatives who are desperate for a baby and weren’t able to have any of their own in the hope they will adopt. Affluent and seemingly secular, her worry is perhaps only partly reputation and the fear her own parenting will be called in question with the remainder a sense of frustration that a single moment may have undone all her daughter’s hopes for the future along with all the ambitions she had for her. 

Dara, meanwhile, continues to dream of going to Korea hoping somehow she’ll be able to make it work as young mother. For his part, Bima makes it clear that she should be able to fulfil her dreams if that’s what she wants, never trying to tie her down and always keen to shoulder his sense of the burden. Young and in love they want to stay together and try to make a family of their own, but they are also naive little realising both the differences between them and difficulties of supporting themselves independently. Bima ends up working in his father-in-law David’s (Dwi Sasono) restaurant, proving a good employee and perhaps earning his respect but simultaneously losing Dara’s as he slacks off on his studies, she somewhat disappointed to think he might end up waiting tables for the rest of his life exposing her slightly snobbish attitude further borne out by her reaction on arriving at Bima’s comparatively humble family home. 

In an interesting role reversal, however, it is eventually Bima who takes on the stereotypically “maternal” role pledging to stay home and raise his son while affording Dara the opportunity to pursue her dreams. The parents meanwhile also reflect on their failure to properly prepare their children for adulthood, wishing that they had been less bashful and talked properly about sex so that they might have made better informed choices. “How are we supposed to love, to breathe, to be, when it hurts?” asks the plaintive song running over the closing scenes ironically titled “Growing Up”, each of the youngsters perhaps wondering just that as they try to come to terms with their respective choices while embarking on the next stage of their lives no longer children but perhaps no more certain. 


Two Blue Stripes streams in the US until March 31 as part of the 12th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Queen of Black Magic (Ratu Ilmu Hitam, Kimo Stamboel, 2019)

“I’m not here just to punish you, I’m here to create hell” the vengeful tormentor at the centre of Kimo Stamboel’s contemporary remake of the 1981 classic The Queen of Black Magic (Ratu Ilmu Hitam) cooly intones. Reminding her victims that not to know is also a sin, the shadowy villainess has come she says to create hell on Earth because she is uncertain that mortal transgressions will be suitably punished after death and means to ensure those who have sinned suffer accordingly. Quite literally trapped in the space of their trauma, the heroes attempt to find a way out of their guilt and shame but are perhaps confronted as much by themselves as by a witch hellbent on justice as they try to find escape from the traumatic past. 

Hanif (Ario Bayu) and his wife Nadya (Hannah Al Rashid) have foregone their planned holiday to Bali to visit the man who ran the orphanage where Hanif spent much of his childhood who is now apparently close to death. This comes as a surprise to their three children who hadn’t realised their father was adopted or really ever thought about kids who don’t have parents, and though they are perhaps annoyed to have missed out on their holiday they are also a little excited to be going somewhere so unusual. Unfortunately however, the family’s cheerful mood is broken when they hit what they assume is a deer on their way to the orphanage casting an air of foreboding over their journey. 

Though it appears Hanif has been “open” with his wife about his past, the same is not necessarily true for his “brothers” Anton (Tanta Ginting) and Jefri (Miller Khan) who have also brought their partners to meet Mr. Bandi (Yayu A.W. Unru), Jefri’s wife Lina (Salvita Decorte) complaining that she knew nothing about any of this until they were already in the car on their way over. Far from a happy reunion, however, the brief sojourn at the orphanage begins to highlight the strain on each of the familial relationships, Lina apparently experiencing a kind of body dysmorphia and preoccupied with her weight while Anton’s wife Eva (Imelda Therinne) is constantly applying moisturiser to guard against a mysterious rash she was convinced was down to flesh eating bacteria but others feel is simply “dry skin”. These will however be the least of their worries as the men vaguely hint on voicing their anxiety that Mr. Bandi’s biological children may sell the estate to developers unsure of “what they’ll uncover”.

This perhaps implies that the now grown up men know more than they’re willing to admit about the dark secrets the orphanage hides, something which Hanif has in any case not shared with his wife who has only a rosy picture of his childhood with Mr. Bandi who eyes her with nervous suspicion even on his death bed. Nevertheless, the men have each been drawn back to the source of their trauma and now find themselves unable to escape without a reckoning, recalling a similar occasion that they tried to run only to find themselves mysteriously brought back as if by some supernatural force. There are indeed dark, other worldly forces in play but also a healthy dose of patriarchal violence, entrenched misogyny, abuse of power, and as the villainess had hinted a wilful tendency not to see especially when it comes protecting the most vulnerable members of society, children without parents who are easily manipulated in the knowledge that, as Hanif originally puts it, they would otherwise die abandoned. 

Justifying a particularly ironic part of her revenge plan, the witch reveals that the orphans may in fact be better off dead than raised by a man like Bandi, something which Hanif himself echoes if not quite with the same intent. Creating her hell, she forces her prey to harm themselves and each other with a variety of weapons ranging from kitchen knives, scythes, and comparatively more modern projectile weapons to insects literally choking the guilty from the inside. The orphanage itself is a place out of time, frozen as it was during Hanif’s childhood, one of the two orphans to have remained behind as mystified by Hanif’s inquisitive son Haqi’s (Muzakki Ramdhan) references to such things as “the internet”, “wi-fi” and “streaming” as he is by the “scary” VHS tape she shows him featuring actual footage of his father and a mysterious figure of legend. Yet even in realising they have allowed themselves to serve poor masters, deceived by a man they trusted, there is a sense the men at least, absent from the final frames, may never be able to free themselves from their guilt, forever haunted by the spectre of those they have unwittingly harmed. An eerie, gory, dread-propelled voyage through human cruelty to supernatural retribution, Queen of Black Magic positions the evil that men do ahead of that performed by vengeful witches looking for spiritual justice as its misused heroes attempt to find accommodation at least with the traumatic past.  


The Queen of Black Magic is available to stream via Shudder in the US, Canada, UK, Ireland, Australia, and New Zealand from 28th January.

Trailer (English subtitles)

Memories of My Body (Kucumbu Tubuh Indahku, Garin Nugroho, 2018)

Memories of My Body posterYou view life through a tiny hole, as the narrator of Garin Nugroho’s Memories of My Body (Kucumbu Tubuh Indahku) so often observes. Loosely based on the life of Lengger Lanang dancer and choreographer Lianto, Nugroho’s 19th film examines the physicality of history as bodies become maps of trauma and dislocation while its itinerant hero is pushed from pillar to post through a series of abandonments and upheavals that leave him at the mercy of a society permanently on the brink of eruption.

We begin with the older Juno who narrates his story to us as if it were a piece of ritual theatre. The camera pans left and we meet Juno (Raditya Evandra) as a child – or more precisely, the child of the older Juno’s memory. Abandoned by his father, the boy begins hanging around a troupe of Lengger dancers for whom sensuality is all. Though Juno was originally attracted to the show for this very reason, peeping at the ladies through another “tiny hole” in the wall, he eventually becomes disillusioned with the dancers when he sees the group’s leader viciously beat an underling for having sex with his assistant at her instigation.

Sex, violence, and dancing continue to define the young Juno’s life even after he is taken in by an aunt when it becomes clear his father will never return. Following a brief obsession with chickens, Juno is then sent on to live with an uncle who trains him as a tailor where he develops a friendship with an ultra macho, soon-to-be-married boxer (Randy Pangalila) who too longs to be free of his bodily constraints but has become indebted to gangsters. Before long he finds himself in motion again before coming full circle as a costuming assistant with a troupe of travelling dancers where he becomes a favourite of the “Warok” (Whani Darmawan) but also the object of unattainable affection for the local military representative (Teuku Rifnu Wikana) of a corrupt regime whose insoluble jealousy seems set to burn the world around him.

As Juno’s uncle later tells him, bodies can go anywhere but they take their traumas with them. Even so, you have to love your body or all is lost. His uncle goes on to add that this family is particularly burdened, explaining the reason for his brother’s coldness to his son which turns out to lie in a rational distrust of family born of seeing his own massacred in a river, a sight he couldn’t seem to forget and eventually decided to erase by leaving his home and family far behind for the anonymous vistas of an unfamiliar island. Juno’s own traumas, as he seems to remember them, imprint themselves on his physicality and give weight to his dance as he tells his own story, filled with abandonments, rejections, transformations and rebirths in the intensely repressive atmosphere of a nation trapped in perpetual revolutions.

Juno’s own, slow path towards delight in his own body takes place against a series of external reformations obliquely referenced in a red terror threat to have the dancers denounced as communists, while primacy of religion remains paramount – the local military officer running for office, or more particularly his eminently practical but perhaps also compromised wife, is panicked by a photo in which he unwisely took Juno’s hand in public. Merely grasping a hand becomes suspect in an atmosphere of intense suspicion and any hint of impropriety potentially enough to destabilise an already volatile situation.

Illicit romantic jealously spurs on a greater tragedy, and Juno is soon on the road again. As Juno says, you see life only through a tiny hole – in this case through the rhythmic history of an itinerant dancer whose stage is perpetually ripped away from him as external freedoms shrink and all that remains is the unification of the contradictory elements of one’s own soul and the authenticity of touch and movement. Poetically told and boasting a wonderful selection of classic Indonesian pop music, Memories of My Body is a beautiful exploration of “muscle memory” as lived history and the tangible effects of a life lived in turbulent times.


Memories of My Body screens as part of the eighth season of Chicago’s Asian Pop-Up Cinema on April 23, at Joffrey Ballet Tower Studio A, 10 East Randolph Street, 7pm.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

May the Devil Take You (Sebelum Iblis Menjemput, Timo Tjahjanto, 2018)

may the devil take you posterTop travel tip – if you encounter a door which is plastered with Buddhist sutras, it’s generally a very bad idea to open it. In this case, just not opening the door is a valid and very sensible option. Sadly, it’s one the protagonists of Timo Tjahjanto’s May the Devil Take You (Sebelum Iblis Menjemput) decided not to take. Following Joko Anwar’s Satan’s Slaves, May the Devil Take You also has a few hard questions to ask about the nature of “family” and how strong those bonds really are when the supernatural presses on already exposed nerves.

The film opens with formerly successful property entrepreneur Lesmana (Ray Sahetapy) entering some kind of agreement with a demonic shamaness whom he later kills and hides in the basement of his remote country villa. An undisclosed amount of time later, Lesmana is struck down with a mystery illness which forces his fractured family back together. Alfie (Chelsea Islan), Lesman’s estranged daughter from his first marriage, is called back to the bedside along with her step-siblings Ruben (Samo Rafael) and Maya (Pevita Pearce), famous actress step-mother Laksmi (Karina Suwandhi), and half-sister Nara (Hadijah Shahab). Forced politeness eventually gives way to resentment, especially when Laksmi begins to ponder selling the villa which is technically in Alfie’s name even if still thought of as a “family” property. When everybody unexpectedly turns up at the same time in search of things of value, they have very little idea of what it is that awaits them there.

Once again the threat is a bad inheritance in which the children are forced to pay for the crimes of their “father” who has let greed get the better of him and allied with dark supernatural forces in order to make himself fabulously wealthy. Lesmana’s sensational success is less due to his business acumen than to selling his soul, well not actually “his” but those belonging to his loved ones, to the Devil. His business empire apparently in tatters, Lesmana has both a problem and a solution, but the Devil is always wanting more and there may lines Lesmana won’t cross even when he is apparently willing to sacrifice the lives his wife and children just to be accounted a “success”.

There may be horrors lurking in the cellar of every home, but in this one they are quite literal and very, very angry. Family, as a concept, is the weapon the Devil chooses to wield, poking into all the dark and uncomfortable corners that basic civility usually leads most to avoid. Alfie, angry and carrying the trauma of her mother’s death, is resentful of her father’s new family and most particularly of her imperious step-mother whom even Maya later describes as “not a good person”. Yet for all that she can’t quite bring herself to “hate” her step-siblings, especially the kindly Ruben who seems to have embraced his role as a natural peacemaker. Their bonds will be tested by insidious evil which presses hard on their insecurities of their awkward family set-up in which no-one quite feels accepted, or wanted, or loved by almost anyone else.

Then again, family itself becomes a source of salvation when the buried past is unearthed and then reburied having been properly dealt with. Rather than a comment of Lesmana’s rejection of traditional religion and misuse of black magic, May the Devil Take You is an exploration in the desperation of a greedy man whose desire for infinite instant gratification is matched only by the Devil himself. Lesmana was willing to sell his family for gold only to change his mind and lose them anyway. The supernatural horror is all too real, but rooted in the sins of the father and in the broken familial connections which continue trap each of the protagonists in the stereotypically creepy remote rural mansion complete with creaking floorboards and leaky ceilings. Tjahjanto’s awkward tone, over-reliant on genre norms to degree of parody but distinctly serious, makes for a strangely uneven experience but there is certainly enough hellish imagery to fuel the nightmares of many a susceptible viewer.


Screened at the 2018 BFI London Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Buffalo Boys (Mike Wiluan, 2018)

Buffalo Boys PortraitIndonesia is embracing the western in grand style. Following hot on the heals of Marlina the Murderer, Buffalo Boys picks up Hollywood’s most idiosyncratic genre and repurposes it to attack the thing that it ultimately stands for – colonialism, while also reasserting its perhaps more positive messages in the quests for honour, justice, and above all personal freedom. A tale of vengeance, Buffalo Boys makes unexpected revolutionaries of its two returnee heroes as they eventually come to realise that their personal quest must take second place to that of their nation as they attempt to liberate their people from the cruel oppression which has so directly affected the course of their own lives.

California, 1860. Brothers Jamar (Ario Bayu) and Suwo (Yoshi Sudarso) have been raised by their uncle Arana (Tio Pakusadewo), brought up in the precarious frontier environment since travelling to the New World as infants. After a shocking incident on a train leaves Arana injured, he realises it’s time to take the brothers back to their homeland to address the long buried past. Twenty years previously, Arana’s brother and the boys’ father, Hamza, was a Sultan who thought he could placate the Dutch colonisers by acquiescing to their demands, but was cruelly cut down by a vicious Captain, Van Trach, who executed him in cold blood. Arana fled with the children, leaving his wife behind and taking with him only the ancestral dagger to remind them of their legacy.

The boys have returned to avenge their father’s death by killing Van Trach (Reinout Bussemaker), but they find that things have only become worse in the twenty years they’ve been away. The Dutch are cruel masters who brand the native Indonesians like cattle, torturing those who won’t play along with their demands, and displaying the bodies of those deemed to have disobeyed their masters in the streets as examples to the others. The bodies which currently line the trees, belong to those who refused to clear their rice fields to grow opium poppies as the Dutch demanded, preferring to feed their families instead. Not content with beatings, torture, and executions Van Trach has now progressed to mass starvation which begs the question who he thinks will be tending to his poppies with half the population weakened through malnutrition.

As soon as the boys arrive they find themselves embroiled in a small conspiracy which leads them straight to Van Trach when they rescue the daughter of the local village head, Sri (Mikha Tambayong), from a lecherous collaborator. Thinking only of their individual revenge, the boys and their uncle plot and watch Van Trach but are increasingly touched by the plight of their people who struggle to survive under such a corrupt and oppressive regime. Poignantly reuniting with an old friend who has suffered years of brutal torture directly at the hands of Van Trach, the boys are reminded that their father was an honest and just man who would not want them to waste their lives in a pointless quest for vengeance, but to dedicate themselves to the wider cause of justice on behalf not just of themselves but of their people. 

Ironically enough, Jamar and Suwo are two returned “cowboys” who find themselves becoming legendary figureheads for a resistance movement on the behalf of the native local population against the cruel and oppressive colonial occupiers. Heavy stuff aside, Buffalo Boys is less an authentic exploration of the colonial era than a pulp fuelled Eastern western filled with exciting bar fights, adventure and romance. The boys are loosely paired off with the rescued Sri and her feisty sister Kiona (Pevita Pearce) who is the original “buffalo girl”, defying her father to ride buffalos and fire arrows at moving targets though sadly reverts to damsel in distress mode for most of the picture save for smashing a bad guy over the head with a bottle and then being allowed to do a little beheading of her own. Nevertheless, Buffalo Boys is a perfect encapsulation of the positive values of the “cinematic” western in its insistence on individual freedom from political oppression but makes sure to temper its central quest with humanistic virtues, making a case for forgiveness and altruism over coldhearted vengeance as the best way to move forward having made peace with the past.


Buffalo Boys was screened as part of the New York Asian Film Festival 2018.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

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)