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In 2006, the Locarno audience attending the Open Doors Screenings could discover Lampu merah mati (Monday Morning Glory), the first feature by Malaysian filmmaker Ming Jin Woo, after an initial festival tour that included San Francisco, Busan, Tokyo and even the Berlinale Forum. Sixteen years and over a dozen features later, which have taken him all over Europe and Asia (such as Venice Orizzonti with Woman on Fire Looks for Water and Cannes’ Directors Fortnight with The Tiger Factory, as well as becoming a Rotterdam regular), Woo returns, now to the Concorso internazionale, with Stone Turtle.
His new film is a brilliant yet unassuming balancing act, that flows smoothly despite its complexity, and is engaging on many levels. It plays with genre codes but just enough to allow the viewer the fun detachment of fantasy and myth, while reminding us that there is nothing fantastic or imaginary about the underlying social issues it tackles. There is a lot of violence in its revenge tale, including a couple of brief gorish moments, but the worse violence is left off-screen. Likewise, it builds its narrative puzzle through subtle variations, inviting us to follow the structure attentively like in a game, but ultimately seems to be making a rather hopeless statement on the ineluctability of fate.
With all its artifice, its careful formal construction and slick production values (including delicate animation by Paul Williams that consciously evokes Michael Dudok de Wit’s The Red Turtle), Stone Turtle is true quality entertainment. But it is also (above all, perhaps?) quite a sharp comment on a much grittier reality, yet stylistically far from the realism of most socially-driven cinema.
Zahara, the mysterious protagonist, lives with little Nika in an almost deserted island, where a researcher comes looking for the eggs of an endangered turtle. Through their encounter, the film speaks of the plight of invisible refugees and of the pervasive violence against women, even where they are supposed to be most protected and cared-for. Asmara Abigail offers an enthralling lead performance, conveying the subtle balance of her character between tenderness and rage; vulnerability and unflinching strength; a childlike naivety and the maturity of a woman who has seen it all; the curse of the past and hope in the future; and both distrust and faith in society: as much as she avoids other people, her dream is for Nika to attend school and grow up to a better life, empowered like her favourite superhero Ms. Marvel, but in the true world, ugly as it may be.
Seventeen years ago, in 2005, Ming Jin Woo was in Locarno with his feature debut Lampu merah mati (Monday Morning Glory)