Stone Turtle

Stone Turtle (2022)

Stone Turtle has its UK première at Glasgow Film Festival 2023

“Same island, different myths,” comments Samad (Bront Palarae). After all, Turtle Stone Island is said to be uninhabited, but he has found Zahara (Asmara Abigail), her young niece Nika (Samara Kenzo) and a few other women living there – and while he has read that the island is “shaped like a giant turtle”, Zahara has been told that it has the form of “a sleeping preganant woman.” 

Indeed it will turn out that the island, in the Peninsular Malaysian east coast, can accommodate all manner of myths. Both the comic books that Nika reads about a superpowered woman and a malicious male trickster, and the book on Zahara’s shelf about separated turtles on a magical island (with an ending that keeps getting revised), resonate with the strange drama that is playing and replaying on the island itself. The campfire story told by Zahara’s friend Mia (Alison Khor) about her husband’s inadequacy and anger also echoes the film’s broader themes of the unequal relations between men and women in a closed patriarchal society. Meanwhile both Samad and Zahara engage in their own mythmaking, he claiming to be a scientist come to research the island’s leatherback turtle population, and she suggesting that the island’s menfolk are temporarily gone fishing, even though neither is fooled by the other’s deceit. Then there is a different sort of myth – a ritualised dance of masks and effigies on the beach – which both will perform together. 

Stone Turtle

The island is also haunted. Samad keeps seeing the ghost of his brother Ariff (Mohd Zulfitri Bin Zambri), who recently went missing, while Zahara sees the ghost of her sister (Maisyarah Mazlan, also the film’s narrator), murdered years ago by their parents in an honour killing. “We share this island with ghosts,” Zahara will tell Samad – although later she will add, “I’d rather be alive on an island of ghosts than be a ghost in the land of the living.” After all, while the island may have caught Zahara in its looping limbo, on the mainland she is a ghost of a different kind, as an Indonesian refugee, unrecognised and uncertified. 

Ming Jin Woo’s Stone Turtle is an insular enigma, where characters circle one another in different configurations and permutations, and stories blur and recur in search of a “poet’s ending” that can somehow avoid being tragic. Even as the film slowly reveals the hidden truth that binds together the fates of Zahara and Samad, it also shows intertwined lived destined to be relived over and over, in a return as eternal as the waves and tides that constantly buffet the island’s ever-shifting shorelines. 

Its influences are there to be seen – Jang Cheol-soo’s Bedevilled (2010), Harold Ramis’ Groundhog Day (1993), Michaël Dudok de Wit’s The Red Turtle (2016) complete with animated sequences, and Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man (1973) – but they are so eclectic, and so oddly juxtaposed, that the resulting mix seems entirely original. For in this liminal, littoral space, where dreams merge with reality and the living with the dead, multiple myths vie to allow all the concealed grief and guilt, violence and vengeance finally, miraculously to hatch and return to the sea.

strap: Ming Jin Woo’s mythomanic mystery places characters on an island of lost souls in search of elusive revenge and closure

© Anton Bitel