Locarno 2022 review: Stone Turtle (Woo Ming Jin)

“A film of immense complexity from a director who has frequently challenged conventions in a way that is nothing short of revolutionary, both in terms of style and substance.”

“I’d rather be alive on an island of ghosts than be a ghost in the land of the living.”

Frequently, characters in Woo Ming Jin’s ambitious Stone Turtle make reference to an island that is supposedly inhabited by ghosts, whether it be heeding a warning or stated in a moment of catharsis. As viewers we are rarely sure whether this is a metaphorical allegory for the colonial past of Malaysia, or if it is a literal description of the spectres of the past that linger around this small but mysterious island. The intentions of the film are not always clear, but it is evident from the first frame that we are in the hands of a filmmaker whose interest in this subject matter is bound to lead to some fascinating conversations, which are reflected in every moment of this disquieting film, as well as in his previous work which shows a keen interest in stories that reside off the proverbial beaten track. In a ferocious combination of layered social drama and cutthroat psychological horror, Woo has crafted an exceptionally strange curio of a film, a contemporary folktale that looks to the past for inspiration, constructing a daring and provocative work that blurs the boundaries between fact and fiction, and leaves us puzzled but thoroughly invested in this engaging and complex voyage into some of the more bizarre recesses of our world. Stone Turtle is intent on investigating the lives of a few people on the margins of existence, gingerly placed out of sight by social ideals, but revealed through the director’s fervent attempts to give a voice to those who did not get the opportunity to have their stories told in the past.

Stone Turtle is a film fueled by terror, albeit a kind that is constructive and actively pursuing something much deeper than just terrifying the audience. A film that is not structured as a horror but still finds ways to create a sinister tone is immediately going to be worth our time, since there is something about searching for the elements that unsettle us that is inherently fascinating, a sentiment that Woo seems to share, as is evident in how he constructed the film. Both visually and narratively, the film is filled to the brim with nightmarish imagery and peculiar deviations, which create a foreboding atmosphere. Despite being mainly set on the wide, beautiful shores of a sun-baked island, it never lets us feel quite at ease (Woo often even contradicting the grandeur of the setting with the disconcerting storyline). The director is putting a great deal of effort into telling the story of a young woman trying to provide for the small group of outsiders that have inhabited this island, which conceals many secrets, in a way that is encapsulating and compelling, without needing to be overly dependent on the plot itself; a plot that, much like the tide that always seems to be just out of view, ebbs and flows over the course of the story. Stone Turtle is committed to unpacking the mysteries of the exotic, going in search of an otherworldly dimension that is recognizable enough to be uncanny, fueling much of the tonal complexity that defines the film and creates a precise mythology on which the entire story is eventually constructed.

The contrast between bleak social realist drama that touches on vital issues that were born from the postcolonial era, and a more experimental, stream-of-consciousness narrative (in which reality and fiction are inextricably blurred) creates a film that carries an abundance of meaning; it just requires some work to fully understand its intentions. Stone Turtle is about going in search of one’s roots – it is not a pioneering work in this regard, but rather a demonstration of those who attempt to find a place to call home, but seem to perpetually struggle to form a foundation long enough to settle down, whether spiritually or physically. This is a film about isolation in different forms – the literal seclusion from the outside world (which is only reachable by a small boat that traverses the hostile open waters) or the emotional distance felt between those that exist on the margins – and it centres on characters who are wandering the world without any clear roots. It is a common trope in art to create stories about the quest for belonging and the importance of carving a home for oneself, even if it takes great travail to get to such a point. Stone Turtle dares to posit what it would feel like to not have a clearly defined corner of the world to call our own and how this can take an enormous toll, particularly psychologically, on those whose only shortcoming is a stronger connection to the past, which can obscure their perception of the present.

Stone Turtle asks a bold question: at what point does history become mythology? This forms the general foundation of the film, which is about reconciling the past with the present; as difficult a task as anything else when it comes to blending different sensibilities and perspectives. Everyday life is a series of rituals consolidated into routines and conventions, so much that we rarely notice the extent to which our behaviour is propelled by a form of socially-mediated superstition and the fear of the unknown dangers that lurk just out of sight. By the end of Stone Turtle it is likely that the viewer will leave the film with more questions than answers – in most cases, this would be a shortcoming, since the lack of closure can be frustrating. Yet Woo is gifted enough to use this as a powerful tool, one that stirs as much thought as it causes confusion, which matches the general tone of the film and creates a far more enriching experience than we may have expected at the outset. The gradually increasing hostility, coupled with the deeply unforgiving terrain that becomes the stage for these disconcerting demonstrations of the human condition, leads to a film of immense complexity from a director who has frequently challenged conventions in a way that is nothing short of revolutionary, both in terms of style and substance, this being a work that perfectly encapsulates his more prominent ideas and provocative questions.