Apr 12, 2023
Woo Ming Jin embraced the chance to make Stone Turtle, his eerie drama that won the FIPRESCI prize at the 2022 Locarno International Film Festival and makes its California premiere at the SFFILM Festival on Saturday, April 15. It was the middle of COVID, a time of punishing lockdowns in Malaysia. In those bleak times, the filmmaker’s career seemed at a standstill.
“During COVID, there was a feeling that I wasn’t sure whether I would make another film,” Woo says during a video call. “I had the opportunity to make this film very quickly, and I thought, ‘You know, I’ll just do something that I truly want to do without any sort of expectations from anyone else.’”
What is Stone Turtle about?
The title, Stone Turtle, refers to a Malaysian folk tale, a kind of romantic tragedy involving a turtle couple who become separated, leaving the female turtle to search ever after for her missing mate. The lore comes alive in beguiling animated sequences, directed by Paul Raymond Williams (assistant animator on Studio Ghibli’s The Red Turtle).
The animation is woven into the story of Zahara (Asmara Abigail), an Indonesian migrant living on the titular island off the east coast of Malaysia. The place is sparsely populated, the province of women, all outsiders like Zahara and her 10-year-old niece Nika (Samara Kenzo). Zahara’s biggest concern besides selling enough turtle eggs to sustain her small family is getting Nika into school, a high hurdle when only Malaysian citizens are allowed to register for public education. But those challenges are soon supplanted by one far more dangerous. An interloper arrives on the island, Samad (Bront Palarae). He claims to be researching leatherback turtles but Zahara recognizes him and doubts his intentions are so benign.
As Zahara and Samad face off, violence and mystery envelop their conflict, embroidered with elements of ghost stories and revenge, and shot through with alternative timelines that have led some critics to compare Stone Turtle to the classic Harold Ramis comedy Groundhog Day.
“In terms of Groundhog Day, I suppose it’s the seminal sort of time loops movie,” Woo says. “When we started making this, and I was discussing it with my producer, we thought it could be a day repeating itself but it could also be parallel realities, so like one version after the other.
“So time loops weren’t strictly on my mind as we were making it, but as we edited and the film became more crystallized, it became obvious it was a time loop. So, unconsciously absolutely, Groundhog Day, or I really enjoyed that Tom Cruise movie, Edge of Tomorrow. Maybe I was thinking more of that in terms of this looping element.”
Woo was a boy when he first visited the island that became his mythical Turtle Island. He spent holidays and vacations there fishing, starting when he was in high school. Then a few years ago, he spent a few months there while working on a project and got to know some of the villagers who eked a subsistence living turtle poaching. With turtle populations declining, it is a practice that could be disastrous but conservation groups in the region have become the villagers’ customers, ensuring the safety of the eggs.
“It was sort of like a symbiotic relationship,” Woo says. “I found it really fascinating. That was the catalyst for the film, and I had really wanted to make a film on the east coast. That region where we shot is really well known for that folklore, the legend of the stone turtle. It was really my desire to basically tell a contemporary version of this folklore and I was inspired by some of the people I’ve encountered in the region.”
To the folk tale and the turtle poaching, Woo added in elements highlighting the situation for migrants in a society where they have few rights or opportunities and also observes the perilous status of women in patriarchal society. At the same time, Woo didn’t want to make a heavy-handed social issues movie.
“In terms of the genre, I just wanted to have some fun with it,” he says. “Maybe it was a reaction to COVID. We were all stuck and feeling miserable and I thought, ‘This is an opportunity. I’m just going to do something fun.’ I say ‘fun’ in quotation marks as cinematic.
“I wanted to do something that’s important but also play with genres. And I’d always wanted to mix animation with live action, and then came the idea of looping time, because this place where we shot is pretty magical.”
Woo wrote Samad with Palarae—whom the director describes as a kind of Malaysian Michael Shannon—in mind. The men are friends, and Palarae appeared in Woo’s film Zombitopia (2021), as well as one Woo produced, Barbarian Invasion (2021). The actor occasionally works in Indonesia and suggested Abigail, with whom he’s appeared in several films, to Woo.
“I had seen a few films Asmara’s been, and she was really brilliant,” Woo says. “She had this sort of natural instinct about her. Even though she’s professionally trained, she has this feral sort of instinct about her that I really liked. We cast her and immediately knew she had chemistry with Bront, because that was important. Even though they were playing good/bad person, they still needed to have some sort of on-screen chemistry.
“And so, we worked together on this character, Zahara. There was a lot of input that Asmara gave that I really welcomed because, for me, I’m writing the lines but I always enjoy it if the actors take the role and sort of sort of carve it to make it their own.”
Woo Ming Jin’s San Francisco Homecoming
When it comes to Stone Turtle’s appearance at the festival, the film represents a kind of homecoming for Woo. The very first film festival Woo attended was what was then the San Francisco International Film Festival in 2005, when his first feature Monday Morning Glory screened as part of a spotlight on Malaysian cinema programmed by Roger Garcia. Four years later, another of his features, Woman on Fire Looks for Water, delighted Festival audiences. Woo can’t attend in person this year but he is thrilled that Stone Turtle will represent him at the Festival.
“I’m very happy to screen it in San Francisco,” he says, “There is something special about screening to an audience in San Francisco.”
Stone Turtle: 9 PM, Sat., April 15. CGV San Francisco. Click here for further information and tickets.
About the Author
Pam Grady is a freelance writer, whose work appears in the San Francisco Chronicle, 48 Hills, and other publications. She also has her own web site.
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