Impetigore (Perempuan Tanah Jahanam) (2019)

Impetigore (Perempuan Tanah Jahanam) first published by

“Are you Rahayu?” asks the creepy man who for days has been passing – and ogling – Maya (Tara Basro) at the toll booth where she makes her meagre living. “Are you from Harjosari Village in Mandiraja?… Is your father’s name Ki Donowongso?”

These questions about 25-year-old Maya’s identity are key to Joko Anwar’s Impetigore. After all, at the age of five she left her now forgotten parents and village under mysterious circumstances to be raised by her aunt in the city – and now this male stranger, who seems to know more than Maya herself about who she really is, has just tried to murder her with a machete. Armed with this new information about her lost origins, Maya ventures with her equally impoverished best friend Dini (Marissa Anita) to the ‘secluded village’ of Harjosari to see if her parents have bequeathed her property or fortune.

Maya has always been uncomfortable in her skin, and now uncertain of her family’s status in the village, she adopts false identities for herself and Dini – first claiming to be students with an interest in isolated communities, and then to be researching wayang, the branch of Javanese shadow puppetry of which Harjosari’s chief Ki Saptadi (Ario Bayu) is said to be a master. Later Dini, in a momentary lapse of judgement, claims herself to be Rahayu, and then must face the terrible consequences of being the wrong person in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The village itself is in something of a fluid state. This place is under a curse, suspended by its past: for two decades no children have survived birth here, apart from one living as a horrifically disfigured outcast on the edge of town, and three ghostly girls whom Maya, and Maya alone, sees everywhere. At the heart of this curse is Maya herself, reviled for her unwitting central rôle in a tragic story that the villagers understand only in part, not least because Ki Saptadi and his domineering mother Nyi Misni (veteran actress Christine Hakim in her first horror rôle) have been stage-managing everyone’s perceptions like master puppeteers without themselves having the full picture of what afflicts the village. Here secrets have been buried, legacies have been confounded, bloodlines have been mixed – and the only hope that Maya has of surviving the night is with help from young, pregnant Ratih (Asmara Abigail) – who ought to be Maya’s worst enemy.

Impetigore comes with its own identity crisis. In its native Indonesia it was released under the title Perempuan Tanah Jahanam, literally ‘hell woman’, the meaning of which is obvious, even if some work is required in determining to which precise character it refers (there are several contenders). The international title Impetigore (also Anwar’s working title) is a newly coined portmanteau of the straightforward ‘gore’ and the rather more oblique ‘impetigo’. Only after some initial mystification will it become clear what an infectious skin condition affecting communities has to do with this film’s particular narrative situation – but in the meantime, like Na Hong-jin’s The Wailing (2016), Impetigore navigates a winding forest path between small-town superstition, Machiavellian manipulation, witch hunt and supernatural scenarios. As Maya tries to look beyond merely skin-deep notions of who she is and where she comes from, Impetigore also twists and turns this way and that, allowing the reality of its form slowly to expose itself from beneath the epidermis.

As the writer/director of The Forbidden Door (2009), Ritual (2012) and the 2017 reimagining of Satan’s Slaves, Joko Anwar is, along with ‘the Mo brothers’ Kimo Stamboel and Timo Tjahjanto, part of an ‘unholy trinity’ of Indonesian genre filmmakers – and in the macabre melodrama of Impetigore, Anwar himself proves the ultimate puppet master, wrangling richly atmospheric sets and dreamy lamp-and-candle lighting to cast a beguiling illusion over us all out of shudders and shadow play. The plotting here is a little bare-bones, despite having to be tied together in the end with a series of expositional flashbacks, mediated one after the other through paranormal visions – but this story of class conflict, lynch mobs, village viciousness and desperate survival is best enjoyed as a paranoid, increasingly hallucinatory nightmare, with Maya’s unraveling, fugitive identity ultimately merging with that of the panicked Sally Hardesty at the close of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974).

Buried somewhere beneath the film’s structure is a political message with a particular resonance in post-Suharto Indonesia: as one grudge leads to another in an endless, complex succession, those who fail to unearth, address and atone for past sins are condemned to a life without a real future. Here the village of Harjosari is also a microcosm of a forward-looking nation still contaminated by the curse of its own messy history, and unable easily to escape even with a change of identity.

Summary: Joko Anwar’s macabre melodrama finds a young woman and her old haunts cursed by historic sin. 

Anton Bitel