Review: Marlina The Murderer in Four Acts // Marlina Si Pembunuh Dalam Empat Babak (2017)


Exquisitely dubbed as a “satay-western”, Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts is the latest offering from Indonesian writer-director Mouly Surya, of What They Don’t Talk About When They Talk About Love fame. A wickedly stylish feminist revenge fantasy, the film is a genre blender that bears imprints of Sergio Leone’s Dollars trilogy and Japanese samurai films. 

Lensed by Yunus Pasolang in 2.35:1 widescreen, each frame is luxuriously and beautifully composed, showing off the Sumba Islands in eastern Indonesia in all of its resplendent arid auburn and amber glory. Under Surya’s assured and confident direction, the camera is calm and stately; most shots in the film are held deadly still and out wide, inflecting an almost Ozu-esque classicism that feels decidedly anti-genre. Surya and Pasolang’s choice of shot sizes and flat 90° shot angles give the film the quality of a slide show or stage play, allowing  the story and action to unfold through the organic movement and staging brought out by Surya’s intricate blocking.


The film rarely ever dispenses with its classical formality, maintaining a cool detached distance from its title character, Marlina, played superbly by Marsha Timothy. At once simmering and storming, laconic and stoic, Timothy’s Marlina carries within her echoes of Uma Thurman’s The Bride and Alain Delon’s Jef Costello, continuing the rich tradition of imperturbable ‘(Wo)Man on a mission’ hero types. 

Marlina herself is somewhat of a cipher, with nary a reaction or emotion elicited as she punctuates her myth with swift and measured violence wreaked upon her perpetrators. Unyielding and uncompromising, she marches on unblinkingly towards her objective, seeking justice and penance from institutions of codified law. Unsurprisingly perhaps, these behemoths of faceless bureaucracy run by hapless men are utterly ineffectual in granting her the closure she craves. This of course, prompts her to take things into her own hands as the film hurtles towards its blood streaked conclusion, a cycle and dance of death and birth.

Along the way she is joined by Novi (played by the effusive Dea Panendra) who is on her way to re-join with her husband Umbu, in a bid to stem her birthing woes. Rounding off the cast of strong and wonderfully realized female characters is the fiery middle aged lady who is expected at her cousin’s wedding with the dowry of two horses and a precocious young girl who bears the name of Marlina’s departed child. 

Their banter is lively and distinctively uproarious, a particular exchange about the vagaries of having pregnancy sex especially memorable. It is in these moments of levity where the film shines brightest, with the film adroitly subverting “locker-room talk” tropes from typically masculine genres. This is not to say the characters are female mirrors of any male counterparts one might find in more typical genre fare, it is brilliant precisely because they are not. They are wonderful because they breathe and are allowed to exist just as they are.

A delicious sense of the macabre pervades the film. Death is suffused into its very bones; the presence of the mummified body of Marlina’s dead husband initially draws morbidity but that soon gives way as Marlina lovingly leans her head on the shoulder of the body. The quietest of silent gestures transforms the corpse as a figure of frozen violence into a symbol of crystallized grief. 

An imprint from actual Sumba culture, their people frequently preserve the bodies of their loved ones until enough money is raised for a proper ceremonial burial. Demise and bereavement is a common aspect of their every day.



Rounding off the suite is the score by Zeke Khaseli and Ydhi Arfani, which hearkens to Morricone’s finest but infused with notes and signatures from Indonesian tradition. Ethereal and celestial, the score charges the film with a grandiosity that befits its mythic character.

At a lean 93 minutes, the film moves relentlessly towards its inevitable conclusion, though the film wobbles in its middle two acts, sustained by little but excellent and effervescent performances. However it recovers in time for a rousing grandslam finish. It is a shame the intensity that opens and closes the film does not sustain for its entirety.

The film screened recently at the 28th Singapore International Film Festival.

-Written by Koh Zhi Hao

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