Starting with a shocking ritualised honour killing, Ming Jin Woo‘s poetic and fierce juggles the fantastical nature of a time-loop drama with the almost quotidian enactment of violence against women. The tonal balance may not be entirely successful, but this stunningly beautiful and savage take on the Groundhog Day formula is a gripping dance of death full of ritual, fable, and repeated use of a sea urchin as an offensive weapon.
Zahara (Asmara Abigail) lives a solitary existence on a little island, official uninhabited, just off the east coast of Malaysia. There, her and niece Nika (Samara Kenzo) just about earn a living by poaching and selling the eggs of the endangered leatherback turtle. One day, a man named Samad (Bront Palarae) arrives on the island. He claims to be researching the turtle, but Zahara seems not only to know the man, but to actively dislike him. One sudden moment of vengeance later and she awakes on a canoe drifting just offshore. It soon becomes clear that she’s reliving the same day, and likely has been for some time.
It’s always interesting when a filmmaker applies an arthouse sensibility to a narrative suited to a genre thrill ride, and Woo blends the two beautifully: blood and sand, violence and poetry. His storytelling seems elliptical at first, but with each bout of bloodletting that resets the day, a little bit more of the story is revealed. Even with the changes of events and outcomes of each loop, there’s a central point of origin fixed in the foundational past from which each day sprouts, and to which Woo returns. Also ever-present are Zahara and Samad, the immutable pairing around which time and consequence whirl. Abigail is an implacable figure of retribution, and at first it seems as if she’s the aggressor in the tale. Samad seems quite charming, even sitting young Nika down to tell her the local folktale of the stone turtle (which Woo illustrates in rough-hewn but charming animation by Paul Williams, of The Red Turtle fame). But – another constant in this film of seemingly endless variables – he is not as he seems, and like Zahara realises that whatever measures one takes to change the future, there’s little that can be done about the past.
Stone Turtle is a messy but vibrant and beguiling adult fable that crams literal multitudes into a compact 90 minutes (one imagines what temporal maximalist Lav Diaz could do with this concept). It’s almost unavoidably overstuffed, but is full of indelible imagery, both gorgeous and brutal. It also has that central performance from Asmara Abigail, a vengeful siren in a floating dress that reaffirms that red is nature’s danger colour. A flawed diamond of a film, but one that’s sure to reward return journeys to that little island.
Screened as part of Glasgow Film Festival 2023