Her ideas can Kill: An interview with Mouly Surya

Mouly Surya’s latest genre smash hit, Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts, was screened last month in Singapore as part of the 28th edition of the Singapore International Film Festival. A work that resists easy classification, SINdie had the privilege to catch Mouly and her effusive full-bodied laughter outside of her busy schedule for a quick-fire interview.

Zhihao: I notice a lot of the movie was shot at 90 degrees. It was your main visual motif. Can you share more about this?

Mouly: This has to do with my cinematographer whom I have been working with since my first film. At the early stage, I decided that we don’t want any camera movement for the film and we wanted to have some kind of a, how do I explain this…...We decided very early we wanted to make a Western, but we were not sure what kind of a Western. Aside from the genre elements, we also wanted to have other elements in it. The flat angle was one of it, perhaps to maintain a certain formality? Like Ozu? To look at it in a very objective way. That’s the brief I gave the cinematographer.

Z: So, you are shot a very personal revenge tale from a distance?
M: Marlina is kind of mysterious. Somehow i find her mysterious, when we look at the character. When someone is labelled a hero, you tend to look at them from a distance. As opposed to people like ourselves who are, haha, not heroes. In this particular character, Marlina, she is the kind of hero that is mysterious. You cannot guess what she is going to do next. So I kind of like that.

Even ourselves, when we try to do something very life changing, you often find yourself simply doing it instead of thinking a lot about doing it. So you know, from her point of view, everything may not make sense, but from audience point of view, they can see everything objectively. Of course, we are not from the village, we are city dwellers. So this is some kind of folklore, something you see on stage.
Z: What was the process of getting the actress into the mental space of the character while still maintaining the distance? How do you create the environment for the actress to act out some of the more difficult scenes in the film?

M: We chose them for the reason. I am not the kind of director that likes to control the scene a lot. We did not stereotypically cast her in that kind of role. But she has that kind of strength and yet vulnerability as well. I have those images in my head but I do not tell my actors those images, I just explain their motivations, if they need it. This is how I usually direct actors. I put them in certain places. e.g. when Markus first came into the house, you would expect me to have that kind of blocking... face to face, she would serve him. But the way I chose to just put them in the scene and tell them to sit in certain way, and by doing that , they will find a natural way of delivering the scene.

Z: So your direction comes from the blocking.
M: You see, in acting it is hard to tell people the way to do certain things. They are artists, they have their own imagination, their way of doing certain things. So that’s how I do it.

So you give your actors more space to move because you hold the camera so long and so wide, they have a lot of space to explore the space and the characters.

M: Yea, I mean from my previous films, I realise too much direction can be too much. It can be very constricting. I kind of like my shots long, but I don’t actually use all of them. By doing that, they have freedom to explore their lines and spaces.

Z: Was the approach the same for the child actor?
M: She is not trained. Not just her, but for Novi, it is not her first time acting as well. I was giving her more directions than the rest of them, but the direction is not just tell her what to do but also giving her confidence because she was acting against experienced actors. But for the little girl, I was basically concentrating on making her feel comfortable, being herself and being as natural as possible. It’s hard for a non-actor to feel comfortable on set, so that’s the most important thing.

Z: Were her all lines scripted?
M: It was totally scripted. But how to make it seem as it came out naturally right? She is a very smart girl, it’s just that she has not acted before. Like right now, i can feel someone is taking a picture of me. Hahaha. (turns to photographer)  Sorry i do not mean to pick on you. (pause) It makes you act in a certain way. You want her to forget that we are recording her actions.

Z: Can you talk about all the dead bodies in the film? There was one in the living room that starts out the film?
M: It’s actually the village culture. It’s the culture of the people at Sumba, we have several of these things in Indonesia in several islands. Sumba is one of them. They usually keep the body because the burial ceremony costs a lot. So they preserve the body first until they can find enough money to finance the burial and this usually takes years. I have seen one that has been there for 30 years. And they are very particular about the funeral. You can google.

Z: Zumba?
M: It’s pronounced like Zumba the dance but with an S. (laughs) I thought it would be interesting to showcase people in the village living very closely and very naturally alongside death in a way. I mean when I went there, in the many villages, they basically bury the dead in front of the houses. The cemetery is literally right in front of the house. It is just in the city that this is separate. But in the village, you live alongside them. If you have a cemetery next to your side, it is not a scary thing. It is your family! I also wanted to put that culture on screen.

Z: I found the setting of the film interesting. Because the world that you created felt like it was coming out from the past, like from a book, very mythological, but then there was also the cell phone.
M: That’s the word I was looking for earlier - mythological! (pause) What we wanted to show in this film was that this is a modern world. I think you would think it is set in 1920s or something and then suddenly your phone rings. I think that is what is unique about this world. The contrast. You have a phone but things are still very primal in this island.
It’s like the Japanese , they are very high-technology but also very traditional. It was that contrast that I wanted to show. There was one time, we were suddenly invited to this party, not really a party but a celebration of a king but the king is like wearing shorts and has tattoos. Unlike the Thai king; the king of a village. So they just slaughtered a pig. Suddenly he is like looking at his smartphone and flicking the screen. And the guy next to him was showing him the heart of a chicken or pig. I think it was to show him something about the future, like a prophecy. And throughout that, he was still holding his phone in his hand and I really wanted to have that in my film.

Z: The chapters in your film. I feel like giving each chapter a title creates an expectation of what will unfold.
M: The story is actually from Garin Nugruho. When I received it, it was all in chapters. And I kind of saw it like a stage thing. Marlina the Murderer sounds like a very gory film, but Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts adds a lot of drama to it, so that was why I did it. And then to put it into four acts, I thought it would be interesting. But yeah I titled it to give the audience something to expect, even with the film title, you enter the film waiting for Marlina to actually kill someone.  I wanted to set those expectations and play with these expectations. Also, the language matters. Actually the first acts title when translated in English reads ‘The Robbery in Half an Hour’ which sounds strange.

Z: My last question is where you think you film sits in relation to Indonesian cinema as this film has a very uniquely female voice.
M: Yeah I think it is very new. The thing that was very hard when I tried to pitch this project was that nobody has seen anything like this in Indonesia. When we usually do rural area films, we are very authentic about it. We don’t usually put genre on top of it. But then I wanted to make this film more accessible so that international audience, so you don't feel too distant. I wanted to give it some kind of familiarity to the audience. So that was my intention. I did not intend to make a new sub-genre but suddenly it was called that. This is like a Feminist-Western set in Indonesia. But then it was quite peculiar, I kind of liked how it sounded at first when the film was done, and it went further than I thought it would go. I don’t really know, I am kind of excited about how it will affect our industry, our cinema industry, what kind of films we are going to do next. But yeah, the audience in Indonesia said “wow, I have never seen Indonesian cinema made this way”, even though my previous films were not like that. I am pretty excited, and was also quite proud of it. Who knows... I don’t want to compare my films to others in Indonesia because they are very different films with very different strengths, but yeah I think maybe if this was a way for Marlina to be remembered by the audience so be it.

Interview by Koh Zhihao

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