Movie Reviews

‘Marlina’ turns the cowboy Western genre on its head and kills you with coolness (REVIEW)

After two critically acclaimed films, Fiksi and  What They Don’t Talk About When They Talk About Love (which was nominated for Sundance), Mouly Surya adds an Indonesian twist to the story of empowerment while redefining a genre most notable for macho men.

(This review is SPOILER-FREE)

Right from the film, Marlina: A Murderer In Four Acts (or Marlina: Si Pembunuh Dalam Empat Babak) already teases the audience as to the upcoming beauty they were about to experience – a disclaimer stating any similarities to real life characters is purely coincidental and fictional, accompanied by a note which states that the real beauty of Sumba’s is real in its purest form.

Marlina is a story of a Sumbanese woman who was recently widowed. In her grief, she was robbed and attacked by a group of bandits. As a viewer, you’re taken on a journey of a classic tale of redemption told through the empowering lens of a woman out to seek revenge.

Every Frame a Painting

As classic as this tale may be, Marlina is far from cliched or derivative. One of the freshest take-ups that Mouly Surya incorporates in this film is the breath-taking cinematography. Every frame is an amazing tribute to the natural splendor of Sumba, which certain parts of the year looks more like the Wild Wild West than anywhere remotely ‘Indonesian’.

Director of photography, Yunus Pasolang, embodies this uniqueness with inspired discretion, telling a story of Marlina’s (played by Marsha Timothy) isolation and giving a sense of identity to the lawlessness of Sumba. “Sumba is also known as the ‘Forgotten Island in Indonesia because development and urbanization tend to miss the island”, stated Mouly, emphasizing upon the backwater environment of the place.


Yunus Pasolang almost literally makes his every frame in the film a painting, as he takes inspiration from several artworks. He emphasizes this brush-stroke effect with all the wide shots that not only allow you to take in the maximum amount of scenery but also injects a sense of suspense – especially in indoor scenes –  that can drive you crazy at times as you play Where’s Waldo, trying to figure out what might happen next. This is what pulls you into the story, where it’s obvious that so much attention is paid to detail in the midst of its simplicity and straightforwardness.

Marlina has beautiful cinematography
Marlina has beautiful cinematography

Completing the world of Sumba is the thematically profound scoring by Zeke Khaseli and Yudhi Arfani which borrows the familiarity of ‘cowboy music’ characteristic of Ennio Morricone yet native Sumbanese folk sound. It’s bone-chilling and really makes the world of Marlina a fantastical realm, knee-deep in subtle macabre.

Trivia: Marlina also has not one single moving shot in the entire film. Every scene is a still shot to soak in, stressing the emotions of each character and the depth of the landscape. “I look upon other Asian cinema, like Japanese cinemas, like how effective they are with their still shots. I want to have that classic feel”, Mouly explained her directorial decision. “Nowadays we don’t have those shots anymore, everybody wants to do moving shots. I used to teach and one of the first shots my students wanted to do were those circular (action) shots, but I find it even harder to do it this way; going back to basics. I try to challenge myself”

And it works. The scenery feels like one of the most important characters in the film itself, like the existence of Sumba were a giant, sophisticated prop set for a four-act epic.

The murderer

For a person who carries a head she decapitated around, Marsha Timothy portrays a complex but vulnerable figure in Marlina. The ‘badassery’ that often comes with murderous anti-heroines like her often comes with an air of impenetrability, but Marlina’s stoicism is one that’s cracking at the seams. She is not a fearless robot, she is a person who is strong because she has to be. Marsha Timothy is an expert at capturing these intricate expressions, and her initially reluctant friendship with  Novi played by Dea Panendra showcases great chemistry too.

(L>R) Dea Panendra as Novi, Marsha Timothy as Marlina
(L>R) Dea Panendra as Novi, Marsha Timothy as Marlina

This camaraderie between the women in this movie is refreshing, while also becoming one of the sources of dark humor that keeps Marlina interesting. There are so many moments in this film (without spoiling anything) that captures the different phases of a woman’s life and characterizes them in a way that is both optimistic and tediously bleak at the same time. You can relate to the solitude and frustration in the barren grasslands of Sumba through the twist and turns of their lives.

Commenting on the strong feminist messages, Surya said, “In big cities in Indonesia, women are already very independent as they are the family breadwinner. But in others, like in Sumba, a woman’s place is the kitchen, from where she should enter and exit the house. Sumba is an unusual island among the thousands that make up Indonesia. It is a place in which modern society will not believe the things that have and are still happening. People carry around sabers as weapons, and robbers can knock on your home letting you know that they are going to rob you. There is nothing you can do to stop it. You just let them or they will kill you.”

Feminist western

Marlina is an empowering film for all. In the midst of tragedy, Marlina struggles heroically in a society where most men abandon her. Mouly Surya talks about the feminist message of the film frequently, as she aims to inspire more women to enter into the world of film-making. “[We’re taught] that girls are supposed to have the pink toys, and boys are supposed to have the blue toys… Well, film-making is a blue toy in Southeast Asia. Most girls are being taught not to want them. That’s part of the problem. I think it can only change from generation to generation. One of the ways to change things is to not limit someone’s dreams just because they’re a girl or a boy”.

Mouly Surya, director of Marlina (Source: Mouly Surya's Twitter)
Mouly Surya, director of Marlina (Source: Mouly Surya’s Twitter)

Mouly Surya has created a film that finds an important place in the annals of Southeast Asian cinema,not only because it turns a genre only known for overtly masculine stories of heroism into a tale of romantic vigilantism through the perspective of a woman, but also because Marlina is a cool film with an artistic value that sets a stupendous example for the future possibilities of Asian cinema.


MARLINA is available at 5 (five) exclusive GSC cinemas at Mid Valley Megamall, Pavilion KL, 1 Utama Shopping Centre, Gurney Plaza and Paradigm Mall Johor Bahru from 8 March till 21 March 2018.

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