How Indonesia's Oscar Submission, 'Marlina the Murderer,' Became a Revenge Thriller for the #MeToo Era

Marlina the Murdered-Film Still-H 2018
Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival

Mouly Surya channels the Hollywood Western in this story of female solidarity in a male-dominated world: "It was something that the Indonesian audience was not fully prepared for, but then a lot of them embraced it."

Jakarta-based filmmaker Mouly Surya began work on Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts long before the downfall of Harvey Weinstein brought a reckoning to the film business, but her film would turn out to be perfectly calibrated for the times. Call it Indonesia's feminist Western for the #MeToo moment.

Marlina stars Marsha Timothy as the titular heroine, a widow whose rural home is set upon by bandits, with the leader of the gang perfunctorily announcing their plans to rape and rob her. Exhibiting enough grit and steely survival instinct to rival any hero — male or female — of a classic Hollywood Western, Marlina snatches the lives of her aggressors instead, then heads to the regional police headquarters to explain that she acted in self-defense. But in Indonesia's deeply patriarchal society, her allegations of rape will only be met with skepticism; her only allies on the road to justice prove to be other women, each entangled in her own oppressive predicament.

The film is set in the dry, expansive plains of Indonesia's Sumba island, where men wear machetes the way gunslingers of the American West would carry pistols. Surya, 38, says she deliberately gave the film the feel of a classic Hollywood Western — when it premiered in the Directors' Fortnight section at Cannes, critics dubbed it "the first Satay Western" — to expand its reach beyond the narrow festival set who follow social-realist Southeast Asian cinema.

"Usually Southeast Asian films that speak about these specific cultures use a very documentary approach to get the authenticity," Surya says. "Whereas I wanted to make it more universal in a way — so the audience can feel that this is a classic story that could happen anywhere."

Both the style and feminist themes that suffuse the story also resulted in something entirely fresh and unexpected for the Indonesian box office, where the film made north of $23,000 despite the fact that the #MeToo movement has yet to make a mark in the world's largest island country.

"It was something that the Indonesian audience was not fully prepared for, but then a lot of them embraced it," Surya explains. "Even with the heavy subject matter and very specific way of storytelling, it did really well both commercially and critically here."

Without giving away too many spoilers, Surya says she deliberately chose to end the film on a note of female solidarity between Marlina and a plucky young pregnant woman she meets on the trail. At moments the women are skeptical, even resentful of each other, but ultimately each in her own way proves to be the other's savior. "These women are probably still going to meet some more assholes," Surya says. "But in the end, one woman is inspired by another woman, and now they stand by together — and I just love that."

This story first appeared in a November stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.