It is “Groundhog Day” in America. Now, Malaysia has “Stone Turtle,” a charming, beautiful retelling of Southeast Asian folklore in which the characters can’t get out of a cycle of revenge, lust, and violence.
Here, it’s not rom-com karma but a very serious political statement that makes island-dwelling refugee Zahara (Asmara Abigail) and an intruding outsider (Bront Palarae) play out different versions of a cautious standoff: She sells valuable leatherback turtle eggs.
He says he studies wildlife, but the way he chases after her suggests he has other goals. “Stone Turtle” is a welcome return for Woo Ming Jin (“Woman on Fire Looks for Water”), a leading voice in the Malaysian New Wave who has spent the last ten years making zombie movies and other mainstream movies.
Now that he’s won the prestigious FIPRESCI prize at Locarno, he’s back on the international festival circuit with a project that uses interesting elements of genre filmmaking in a more anthropological art-house format.
The result is a crazy mix of “The Wicker Man” and “The Woman in the Dunes.” A mysterious siren in scarlet robes traps a man on the beach for all time, leading up to a dangerous ritual in which lives are sacrificed and a straw effigy is set on fire.
The movie starts off with a shock when a woman (Masyarah Mazlan) gives her child to Zahara. She then takes part in a shocking ceremony that looks like a feast but ends with the guest of honor having a boulder dropped on her head from behind.
Even more upsetting is the idea that the woman has chosen to take whatever punishment this is. Now that the victim’s daughter, Nika (Samara Kenzo), is old enough to be raised by someone else, her sacrifice is meant to restore her parents’ honor.
Woo focuses on Zahara and Nika’s shocked faces at the window when the woman is killed. This makes it clear that the woman’s death is a lesson for the rest of this isolated community, no matter what crime she committed. Later, we find out that the wrongdoing was much worse than we thought.
Whatever shame the woman may have caused was nothing compared to the sexual assault that led to Nika’s birth. This is a film that deals with issues like rape and immigrant rights not as talking points but as obstacles to the happiness of the characters.
Zahara is now responsible for Nika. Even though the girl learned to read on her own, it’s time to bring her to the mainland to get a better education.
Unfortunately, the local government makes the girl show the right paperwork first, which creates another kind of circularity: Nika can’t go to school because she doesn’t have the right paperwork, and she can’t go to school because she doesn’t have the right paperwork.
“Stone Turtle” doesn’t say where Zahara and her sister came from in the beginning. Instead, it takes its name from the island where Zahara and her sister have been hiding out, which is thought to be uninhabited. This makes the island seem almost haunted, like its people might be ghosts.
Along the east coast of the Malay Peninsula, people really do live like this. It’s against the law for them to take the eggs of endangered species, but the authorities don’t care because it’s almost their only way to survive.
Woo could have made a gritty thriller out of this black market activity, but instead he goes for something more mysterious and poetic, which is helped by the rare beauty of the setting and the movie’s star, who draws a lot of attention.
The whole movie depends on how Abigail plays her role. She has to show that Zahara is strong because of what she has been through, but she can’t say too much about what she has been through. When Samad (Palarae), a man in a small boat, shows up on the island, he puts the refugees’ fragile lives in danger.
Samad says he is looking for leatherback turtles, but he seems more interested in Zahara and the girl. He tells them a story about two turtles that is popular in their area. Woo tells this story through hand-drawn animations that were supervised by Paul Williams, an independent animator who worked on the tropical island cartoon “The Red Turtle.”
Even though the children’s story was meant to teach kids about greed, the movie that includes it is more of a lesson for adults. Zahara and Samad end up killing each other in a cave by the beach, which is a big surprise after all the seductive buildup.
The movie then starts over. From here on out, “Stone Turtle” gets more and more vague. Still, even though it can be hard to figure out, everything that happens next makes sense in a way that is like a dream. The looping format plays off of culturally specific ideas of karma and reincarnation.
Folk stories have been told many times before, and even though Zahara wants to break the cycle she’s stuck in, the “Groundhog Day” style works well for Woo’s project: It’s a new way to show that violence leads to more violence, and it’s also a reminder of how stories in that area can be told in a million different ways, but the lesson stays the same.