Hell, Fury and All That – Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts

Fikri Jermadi wades in with his opinion on Mouly Surya’s latest film.

When you’re looking at the world, you can never square the circle.” Jerry Brotton, academic.

The above is a quote I had saved for a while. Brotton, an academic with more than a passing interest in maps, had been discussing the idea of understanding the world based on the globe we’ve often been presented with. He talked about how such a map, primarily one that relies on the calculations of Gerardus Mercator, was made for European colonials, primarily to facilitate ease of travel to and from the deepest corners of the world. That the map has sustained itself beyond any such practical concerns, without truly and accurately representing the world as it is, is as much a reflection of how much the subjugated have continued to frame themselves in the terms put forth by their former colonial masters. I didn’t think I’d end up using much of that analysis for ‘Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts’, but incidentally, there is much that fits. How much, though?

Marlina (Marsha Timothy) is our protagonist in this film, a character we’re given a lot of time to invest in and identify with. She lives alone in Sumba, Indonesia, but is not necessarily lonely: her husband, who had passed away, is mummified in the living room, waiting for Marlina to make enough money to bury him. That objective is more difficult to achieve, though, when you have people coming over to rob and rape you. That is what Markus (Egy Fedly) promises her, almost as soon as he arrives at her place. While waiting for his other cronies to turn up, he asks Marlina to cook for him and his friends. This she did, poisoning them through food.

They say the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, and in this case, Marlina peppered it with poison, before beheading him during sex. Yes, that’s right: man got his head chopped off just as someone was riding his other head (in a manner of speaking). Terrible play of words aside, it turns out that such a disconnect between the head and the body is considered a sacred thing, at least in the context of Sumba. An area far enough detached from the head in the capital Jakarta, locals believe that the body should be buried intact, and so any so-called deformity (like, say, the lack of a head) is an affront that should be avoided at all costs. Knowing this, Marlina takes Markus’s head on a journey to the nearest police station many kilometers away. This is a long journey, filled with odd and sometimes perilous characters to be encountered. Chasing her is Franz (Yoga Pratama); in the context of their gang, he is seen as Markus’s pet and next-in-line, a pseudo family whose member is dismembered, prompting a revenge mission.

What is interesting is the context in which Marlina’s actions could be placed. I feel that much of the film can and should be read with an informed gender lens in place. It is not insignificant, I think, that the head of that aforementioned pseudo family had his head removed by arguably the only powerful woman in the film. I say powerful, because Marlina appears to be the only female in the film with enough agency to say that enough is enough. Novi (Dea Panendra), Marlina’s closest ally, is 10-months pregnant (again… yes, you read that right). Her husband Umbu (Indra Birowo) had left her some time ago, looking for work, and it is him she is now looking for, in the hope that his presence could help to bring their overdue child into the world. What doesn’t help, however, is how her delayed pregnancy is regarded by Umbu as a sign of adultery. This indicates the guilt with which the so-called victims are afforded; when Marlina’s pleaded case falls on deaf ears at the police station, it is clear just how deeply entrenched such damaging patriarchy could be.

Perhaps it should also be made clear that patriarchy in and of itself is not necessarily a bad thing per se. However, the way in which it can (and has often) been practiced in this part of the world engenders a fair amount of negative consequences. Dealing with such a fallout, then, in a way that highlights its maturity and the respect with which such issues are accorded, is not as straightforward as it may seem. That Mouly Surya has done so is actually a fine achievement in its own right… if she had not done it before. Her previous films, ‘Fiksi’ and ‘Yang Tidak Dibacarakan Ketika Membicarakan Cinta’, also featured strong female protagonists, centered in narratives focused on women. What makes ‘Marlina’ stand out is its granular approach. This works on two levels. The first is that this film is absolutely gorgeous. Aided by the wonderful vista that is Sumba, the art direction of this film must also be complimented. Frans Paat, the man in charge of that department, should stand up and take a bow, as should the costumer, Meutia Pudjowarsito. You can’t help but admire each and every location, either with its bare necessities or chaotic internal scenes (like Marlina’s kitchen and the police station).

Secondly, I also mean granular in terms of how each scene is allowed to develop and drip with meaning. Much like the camerawork itself, there is a more minimal approach to the editing process, the long takes and shots relying more on the actors to do the heavy lifting in terms of exacting emotions from the audience. This is something that Timothy, whose haunting face adorns the effective poster for this film, does with such aplomb. The creases and dirt on her face could be the same as Sumba itself, reflecting both areas’ (dis)location as marginalised from the mainstream. A lot of Sumba is treated as a desert wasteland of misogyny and lawlessness. On one hand, this is perhaps done to mimic or pay tribute to much of the Wild West, an effort which has ladled this film with the term satay western. I have an issue with that, which I will get to in a moment. For now, I read Sumba as Marlina (and vice versa), as the area itself could be seen as having been ignored and mistreated by the head of the family (Jakarta, perhaps, in the case of Sumba). In more recent times, we see more of the place (it is also featured in ‘Susah Sinyal’ recently), but such films bank more on its exotic value, further entrenching its value as an outsider to be admired, rather than a family member to be cherished.

This film comes closer to actually manifesting a more critical, complex and uncommon identity of both Sumba and the role of such women on screen. In more recent times, films such as ‘Ayat-Ayat Cinta 2’, ‘Eiffel I’m In Love 2’ and ‘Dilan 1990’, amongst (many) others, have pushed forth the idea of the ideal woman as… well, as the spoilt brat to be exploited at the libidinous whims and fancies of the male figure. Such subjugation is not necessarily a new thing, and it is definitely not contained merely to Indonesian cinema. Nevertheless, it is getting to a fairly critical stage, whereby variety and difference becomes not mediums through which meaning is made, but methods that allow for forms of social discipline to be exacted; if you are not in line, you are to be resocialised into the hegemonic patriarchy. Marlina (as a character and a film) stands apart from that, largely alone in the barren wasteland that is Indonesia (in the geographic sense, as represented by Sumba) and its cinema.

That sounds like a controversial statement, and I don’t necessarily wish to stoke any fires here. All the same, it helps to highlight not just how unique and powerful this film is, but also how much it resonates with its target audience. I caught the film in the dying embers of its theatrical release, a period which coincided with the opening weekend of ‘The Last Jedi’. Yet even in the face of such hyped foreign contenders, the film held its own, as the cinema was half full for what was one of the last screenings of its run, a period which lasted a month after its release. That in itself is a rare thing, as many local films are snuffed out after a few weeks.

It is also in this context that I disagree with the idea of this film being branded as satay western. This comes about because of other films, such as ‘Once Upon a Time in the West’ and ‘The Big Gundown’, have Italian origins that manifested the idea of a spaghetti western. Around a decade ago, ‘The Good, The Bad and the Weird’ Asianised that concept into the kimchi western. While such efforts are understandable, and I myself may have fallen for that in the past, in the case of ‘Marlina’, such a label is a poor post-colonial iteration that does not come close to what the film truly is about and like. The Western genre model applies in a fairly superficial sense, and a degree of the story also runs along the same path.

However, the film is successful at presenting on screen a mirror upon Indonesian society in its own way, one that is poignant and difficult to consider; scenes of forced sex and physical violence against women, for instance, made me flinched, as Mouly Surya chose not to cut the action. Much like Marlina’s hold on the head (and the head’s hold on her; she is seen haunted by Markus’s headless body throughout the film), the director held my gaze as I am forced to see and reflect upon the damage enacted on the characters (physical, mental, emotional, spiritual and more). Calling it a satay western, therefore, reduces it to a form of (self)exoticisation that does very little justice to the film, its story and their tellers.

Ironically, this brings us full circle to the quote at the start of this review. Much have been written about this film, and perhaps more informed opinions could be found elsewhere in terms of more critical analyses. Having held the bit between my teeth all these months, it could be argued that mine is an opinion that’s not necessarily the freshest out there. Much like the Mercator map, though, such a label remains popular even when other alternatives more accurate (if also more complex) are available. It is important, therefore, that any such discussions on ‘Marlina’ and films of its ilk is done so on an even keel, one that pays proper respect to it, the story and its filmmaking team, without necessarily resorting to taglines coined in relation ideas hoisted upon us by a patronising and patriarchal mindset, colonising us in ways not all that dissimilar from those world-traversing Europeans many, many years ago.

Featured image credit: Rosalilium

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