In the opening minutes of Stone Turtle, a cryptic and eerie drama set on Malaysia’s eastern coast, a mother entrusts her child to another woman. Crucial information is left out of their interaction—is this for temporary or permanent care?—but soon the mother, kneeling in an intimate ceremony, is stoned to death. From this moment, Stone Turtle’s unsettling rhythm begins: disturbing acts of violence and suffering are smothered by an oppressive atmosphere, prompting in the audience a deep sense of unease.
As the story progresses, Stone Turtle conjures ghosts and folktales with such ease that it seems like director Woo Ming Jin is drawn to mythical creations more than human characters. More accurately, his characters seem subservient to the demands of the mythic. Stories are not passive, Stone Turtle argues; they are powerful, active forces that can imprison and alter us.
Zahara (Asmara Abigail) lacks the proper citizenship to enroll her niece in school. Young Nika (Samara Kenzo) is more interested in Ms. Marvel comics than her aunt’s work as a turtle poacher on an isolated island in Terengganu. She’s even sure that her comics hold more instructional power than any mythology could. Still, there’s a warmth between the guardian and child, an affection that turns to fear once a suspicious conservationist, Samad (Bront Palarae) arrives to make an assessment of the natural resources of Zahara’s home. As Zahara guides him through the island’s veins and undergrowth, she hides the evidence of their contraband trading, secreting leatherback turtle eggs and removing traces of their enterprise.
Samad is not a conservationist, but the reveal of his duplicity and subsequent murder at Zahara’s hand is overshadowed by a more pressing problem—she wakes to find that the day of his arrival has started from the beginning again, and the ceremony they commemorated his death with has triggered a time loop on the island. Again we see Zahara take Nika to be enrolled in school, again she is informed by an islander that a suspicious man has appeared. Again, he dies at her hand, again his death is ritualized, again the same day begins.
It feels that with every day starting afresh, a story is not being repeated but retold; a point affirmed by the continuation and reinterpretation of the island’s origin myth about a turtle who turned to stone, and his mate who sacrificed the rest of her life trying to bring him back. This mythology, inspired by the real folklore of the region, is dramatized in graceful and affecting animation (from a former Studio Ghibli animator). It’s not that the origin myth is a human construction to make sense of the geographical space; the story holds dominion over the island and its dwellers. Is there a correct series of actions that Zahara has to enact for the island to set her free, or is the purpose of the loop to show the different shades and interpretations one story can have?
Cross-cultural conversation is key to deciphering Stone Turtle’s meaning. Woo doesn’t just tell a Malaysian-Indonesian story, but he’s assembled a team of creatives and talents from varied Southeast Asian countries—all contributing to a film that addresses the differences in myth and meaning across various cultures sharing a connective cultural tissue. As Samad (played by a Malaysian actor of Pakistani-Malay-Thai descent) points out regarding the stone turtle myth, “Our version isn’t exactly the same,” but he still recognizes it. Folktales aren’t complicated or weakened by changing across different cultures; they’re strengthened. It shows their expansive reach, while imbuing them with an unplaceable, incorporeal power that is difficult to deny or eradicate.
Folktales aren’t complicated or weakened by changing across different cultures; they’re strengthened.
The sense of disorientation that’s central to the film wouldn’t be possible without the meticulously crafted style Woo creates. A soundscape of natural but creeping noises blends with a detached narration; it feels like we’re both watching the film from within the island itself, and floating above it, disconnected from the characters. At some points, Zahara watches violence with a fixed, passive expression; at others, she looks straight into the camera lens, implicating us in her actions.
These moments get most of their impact from the film’s central performance; Asmara Abigail fuels Zahara with a desperation and conviction even without speaking dialogue changing her face. There’s something striking about the way she observes the suffering of others, whether she’s in control of the situation or a helpless bystander. With the striking red dress she wears throughout the film, she signals both attraction and danger to Samad as he tries to take advantage of her island.
Just when you think Stone Turtle is done asking complex, thorny questions, the climax invites many, many more. Throughout the film, Woo seems to be investigating the concept of extracting nature’s resources, assessing the contradictions between the female islanders’ poaching and Samad’s more insidious desires to profit off it. Is Zahara’s transgression more forgivable because of how powerless she is at punishing, violent patriarchy, or is she fated to also turn to stone on the shore, just like the mythical stone turtle was for eating from a forbidden pool?
The purgatory-like sentence she’s been living takes on queasy connotations after we learn she wanted revenge on Samad for raping her. What’s more, we’re asked to consider her care over Nika as something constrictive, seen in Nika’s freedom from the island being equated to a baby turtle hatching from one of the eggs Zahara had poached. But perhaps these contradictions of liberty and imprisonment are what Woo is most interested in. There is no such thing as an apolitical interaction with historic land, and no way to exercise control over cultural myths. What’s more likely is that folklore will hold us captive, deciding how we live, until we too become a story told, and retold, and retold.
Stone Turtle made its UK premiere at the 2023 Glasgow Film Festival. Read our exclusive Q&A with Woo Ming Jin here.