Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts (2017)

Review #1,475

Director:  Mouly Surya
Cast:  Marsha Timothy, Egy Fedly, Dea Panendra, Yoga Pratama
Plot:  Marlina lives quietly in Sumba until one day a man named Markus and his gang tries to rob her house and she kills him.  Eventually, she is haunted by Markus, and her life turns in 180 degrees.

Genre:  Drama / Crime
Awards:  Director's Fortnight & Nom. for Queer Palm (Cannes)
Runtime:  95 mins
Rating:  M18 for sexual violence
International Sales:  Asian Shadows

A distinctively American genre, the Western, however, has been through appropriations by other countries and cultures, most notably ‘Spaghetti Westerns’ from Italy, in particular the works of Sergio Leone.  In recent times, there had been the ‘Kimchi Western', or the ‘Noodle Western’, but in Indonesian filmmaker Mouly Surya's third feature, Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts, which she likened to be a ‘Satay Western', it could be the first time anyone has heard of such a moniker.  

If you are curious—and you should be—Marlina is worth a pop.  In fact, the film is many things at once: it is not just a culturally-specific genre film, but an anti-Western and a feminist Western at the same time.  Only the third Indonesian feature to premiere in Cannes, Marlina eschews gunfights and a heroic protagonist for a quiet—or is it disquieting—treatment of a woman who kills a group of men who invades her home in hopes of robbing and raping her.   

As the title suggests, her story is told in four acts in what is essentially a three-act narrative.  Without revealing anything significant, the first and last acts are startlingly good and unexpectedly violent.  Conversely, the middle two acts take on a more contemplative mode, with Marlina (Marsha Timothy in a performance of both calmness and viciousness) going on a soul-searching journey.

The mood of the entire film is one of foreboding masculine threat.  It is not exactly overpowering, but it lingers beneath the surface.  Surya’s copious use of wide, landscape shots contribute to this effect, giving her protagonist a sense of isolation and perceived helplessness.  There are also several hallucinatory moments that give the film a strange, haunting quality.  

Marlina is, however, empowered by her own moral code of justice—she is well-aware that she is a killer and takes steps to ‘atone’ her misdeeds.  There’s a touch of stillness to Surya’s work, as she holds her shots far longer than usual, especially when nothing much is happening.  One can sense her confidence in trying to subvert the traditional Western convention of shot-lingering to evoke maximum suspense.  

With a score that pays homage to Ennio Morricone’s iconic sound for Spaghetti Westerns, yet also retaining some qualities of ethnic Indonesian music, Marlina is interesting sonically, even if the music is used quite sparingly.  I think what’s most intriguing for me about the film is not how the story plays out, or how much we can invest emotionally or psychologically in the protagonist, it’s how Surya employs stillness and silence sporadically to create a distinctive—and yes, disquieting—vision. 

Verdict:  Indonesian filmmaker Mouly Surya’s third feature is a feminist ‘Satay Western’, imbued with a contemplative touch of stillness, and unexpectedly startling violence.  




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