Stone Turtle

Year: 2022
Production Co: Greenlight Pictures
Director: Ming Jin Woo
Writer: Neesa Jamal/Deo Mahameru/Ming Jin Woo
Cast: Asmara Abigail, Bront Palare, Samara Kenzo

This is the kind of movie almost guaranteed to get high praise with critics and (if it gained enough notoriety) the awards circuit because it's a foreign film about an impoverished indigenous culture, two big ticks in the 'worthy art' column.

But it would do filmgoers everywhere well to remember that doesn't necessarily mean you'll get an interesting story well told. It's not that Stone Turtle is a story badly told – although that might be the case. I like to think it's more because cultural idiosyncrasies the writers and director bring to it might render it a tad incomprehensible to most audiences.

Asmara Abigail is Zahara, a young woman living on a fairly idyllic and remote island off the coast of Malaysia with a little girl, Nika (Samar Kenzo).

In an early scene we see Zahara – after rowing them to either the mainland or a bigger island with some government presence – trying to somewhat desperately convince an official to get Nika enrolled in school, making you realise she wants to give the girl a better life than the circumstances she herself has to live with.

But she doesn't have the right paperwork, the stern official doesn't care, and she rows them back home dejectedly to their regular day job of stealing rare leatherback turtles eggs to sell on the black market, where she leaves them on the bank of a stream and a bagman comes along to collect them and leave money.

There's also a new sight in the shape of Samad (Bront Palare), a scientist who's come to the island to study the indigenous turtles and establish conservation efforts around them.

He takes a shine to Zahara and the two start to draw slightly closer despite her mistrust of outsiders, but when the consummation of their burgeoning relationship explodes in violence you're not sure which is more shocking, the about-face in the story or the fact that both Zahara and Samad then turn up again, apparently living the story out a second time but from a slightly different perspective.

That's along with other weird goings on, such as Samad seeing a young man wandering around the beaches and mangroves of the island – apparently his brother – who waves to him and then wanders off, disappearing.

Though the film might not give you any idea (and I'm loath to say so here because it's sort of a spoiler), it's been called the dramatic Malaysian version of Groundhog Day, only instead of redemption and love the characters are doomed to replay the same story of bloodshed and violence over and over again.

It doesn't make a lot of narrative sense – if Zahara is destined to live the same experience over and over again, doesn't that mean Nika will actually never age, so trying to put her in school is a waste of effort? – and it's not altogether clear within the movie itself that the premise described above is what's going on, so it's more frustrating than it is entertaining.

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