Mati Suri

There's a fine line between quotation and plagiarism, but a movie confident of its own identity can indulge in either (or both) without too much concern for which is which. That's certainly the case with Rizal Mantovani's Mati Suri. For about seven-eighths of its length, Mati Suri is the best of Maxima Pictures' horror films to date, and one of the stronger entries in the current Indonesian horror boom. Sure, it cribs liberally from other horror films, past and present; but although this usually means the director is out of ideas, in this case it just goes to suggest that Mantovani is supremely comfortable with the Standard Repertoire, and is riffing on his source material.

But then, seven-eighths of the way through, the movie starts falling apart — seriously falling apart, to the point where all the good work that's preceded it starts to curdle in our imaginations. Our worst expectations from the movie's title (especially its export title, which I do not intend to mention here) seem about to be fulfilled. That's when Mati Suri does the other thing a movie with a strong sense of identity can do: it allows us to be disappointed, so it can pull the rug out from under us at the very last moment. Whether you find the movie's punchline exhilarating or eye-rollingly stupid is up to you, but it's unlikely to leave you without a strong opinion of some kind.

Mati Suri means "apparently dead". That's the condition a young woman named Abel finds herself in after she attempts to commit suicide. A strange woman named Lisa shows up at Abel's door, claiming to know her fiancé Wisnu very well. In fact, she claims that Wisnu is the father of her yet-unborn child. She has photos of herself together with Wisnu to back her story up. Abel calls Wisnu to confront him; her husband-to-be is about to stammer some sort of explanation when Abel hangs up on him. She then has a complete emotional collapse and swallows an absurd number of sleeping pills. Wisnu is unable to make it home in time to stop her; but fortunately her best friend Charlie finds her before she dies, and gets her to the emergency room.

Charlie is a mild-mannered, bespectacled guy who hides his crush on Abel, since she doesn't seem to see him as anything more than a confidante. Yet as Abel lies in the hospital, barely able to regain consciousness, Charlie steps up and refuses to allow Wisnu anywhere near her. During her recovery, Charlie takes her away to his remote villa, where he hopes she will be able to get well again without any unwanted intrusions from Wisnu.

While she's there, Charlie wants her to work on redesigning the old building. In his absence, he leaves her in the care of an elderly couple who tend to the property. The old man seems a harmless sort, but the old woman has a tendency to appear unexpectedly at the most unnerving moments. It's not exactly the most comfortable environment for Abel's recovery, though it certainly seems better than the hospital. And for the most part, it seems to be the ideal place to forget about Wisnu.

But then the disturbances start.

The first and most obvious disturbance comes from within Abel herself. Since her near-death experience — her mati suri — she has been experiencing blackouts and lapses in memory. Since we see the majority of the film from her standpoint, we are immediately put on guard: everything we see through her eyes may be distorted, or may be a pure hallucination.

Early on, the old woman warns Abel not to be frightened if she should see anything, or if anything should come to her, during the night. Sure enough, at night Abel does get a visitor, who seems at first to be mysterious and ghostly... but it turns out to be the caretakers' teenage daughter Wida, who's come to keep her company in the lonely old house. Wida warns Abel that she shouldn't tell her parents she's staying with her, or Wida could get in trouble. The next morning, though, the old woman denies ever having told Abel to expect anything strange in the night. We immediately wonder if Abel has imagined everything, including her young visitor. Or perhaps Wida is a ghost?

The next disturbance may follow from the first: Abel starts hearing a child's voice in the night, calling her to come play with her. A disembodied voice is terrifying enough... but things get worse when Abel actually sees her. The girl is a pale grey spectre, with white eyes and vomit dribbling from her lips; and the "game" she wants to play involves a seemingly endless supply of sleeping pills that pour out onto the floor. It's always possible that this is a manifestation of Abel's tormented conscience; but then even Wida — the girl we've half-assumed to be a ghost herself — starts seeing the apparition. The house had never been haunted before, claims Wida; this apparition must be something Abel has brought with her. Of course, Wida may also be a figment of Abel's imagination, so who can tell what it all means?

Abel recognizes the ghost girl from a brief moment of consciousness in the hospital: she's a child who also overdosed, and who died retching on the gurney next to her. Suicide is a sin, whispers the girl's voice... It is not enough for you to die only once! These words even issue from the girl's broken doll — that is, when the ghost isn't cramming little yellow pills down its throat. When Abel protests that she's repented of her despair, and that she doesn't want to die again, the girl warns her: if she doesn't want to come with her now, then he will have to come for her later.

I think you can guess who he might be. Even if he comes from Abel's subconscious as well, the encounter is likely to be far from pleasant.

But there's yet another level of disturbance going on here: we get the feeling early on that everything may not be quite what it seems. Not all of Abel's lapses seem to be her own fault. Little reminders of Wisnu and his betrayal keep popping up, even after Charlie and the old couple claim they've destroyed them. We start to suspect that one, or maybe both, of the possible hauntings may be fake... not just our misunderstanding, or Abel's hallucination, but a Gaslight scenario, designed — perhaps by Wisnu, or perhaps even by Charlie — to drive Abel to finish the job she started with the sleeping pills. Certainly the visions Abel has of a cleaver chopping through human body parts suggests that there's a brutal mundanity behind at least part of this supposed haunting. But how could that be, when everyone seems to be so concerned about keeping her alive? Is this, too, a figment of Abel's imagination?

And all along the way, we get flashes of Hitchcock and Clouzot — along with explicit references to The Grudge (name your installment) in particular, and any number of other J-Horror hits to boot (e.g., croaking corpses, hair in the spigot, raven-haired ghost girls in white nighties, and so on)... to say nothing of Jacob's Ladder, a quote from which at first seems like an obvious cop-out, but then goes on to subvert itself beautifully. I also found myself thinking of The Sentinel, which also concerned a woman being punished by the supernatural for her suicide attempt; there are also throwaway references to movies as diverse as Dementia 13, The Sixth Sense, The Others and last year's hit Malaysian film Congkak (these last two in the same scene!). I'm not completely sure how many of these references are intentional, how many are slips on the director's part, and how many are valid only in my twisted imagination; but the end result is a movie you're certain you've seen somewhere before, but which still manages to seem enjoyably different.

That's not to say that everything in Mati Suri works. There are times when the movie's desire to pile twist upon twist upon twist goes a little too far. For instance, we find out (or at least we think we've found out) that one of the characters we've been introduced to is (or seems to be) a ghost. I think you'll have figured out which character it is from my description so far, just as you'll be able to figure it out pretty quickly while watching the movie itself. Quite a bit of what we think we know about this ghost will turn out to be misdirection; and some of this misdirection contradicts itself, which isn't really fair to the viewer. However, the movie laspes into absurdity when we find out how this character actually died.

You see, there is a human villain to the piece. Or at least, according to one interpretation of what we think we see, there is a human villain to the piece; and he's responsible (or appears to be responsible) for all the mayhem that... umm... may or may not be playing out on-screen... (these movies that [may or may not] involve subjective reality are damned hard to describe!). Anyway — when we flash back to the murderer's crime, it goes a little bit like this:
KILLER (standing over body): Oh my God! What have I done!? SOB!
VICTIM: Ummm, it's all right. I'm not really dead...
KILLER: (whap! whap! whap! strangle! drown! bludgeon!) Oh my God! What have I done!? SOB!
... which is just plain silly. The death is subsequently ruled an accident, and the body is buried nearby. But then, according to still more flashbacks, the killer takes a cleaver and reduces the corpse to Salisbury steak. What happened? Did he dig up the body and chop it into bits? He couldn't have done it earlier, since there's no way to make that kind of butchery look like an accident. But what possible reason would he have for doing it later? It just seems to be an attempt to add one more shock to the growing collection... and the attempt is less than successful.

Nevertheless, for most of its length, the movie sustains its twisty narrative well. Rizal Mantovani understands horror films: he's one of the few Indonesian directors to take the genre seriously (OK: relatively seriously, anyway). Mati Suri is Mantovani's first horror film for Maxima Productions; but he is also responsible for the acclaimed Kuntilanak trilogy, which are some more of the best Indonesian horror films of the new era. One of the ghosts that appears in Mati Suri looks like a standard kuntilanak: a ghastly crone in white; there's also a walking corpse that shows up in its traditional pocong wrappings. But (unusually for a Maxima production) these apparitions are used sparingly, and this restraint makes them all the more effective.

It's true that the ghosts' appearances, as usual in a Maxima film and most Indonesian movies in general, are accompanied by ear-shattering BOOMs that grow tiresome after a while; but the ghosts themselves are the most professionally-realized and genuinely scary creatures Maxima has yet featured. Credit for this must go in large part to Mantovani: if you observe them closely, the monster costumes are every bit as cheesy as they are in all the other local productions, even dating back to the seventies. But Mantovani times his shocks and sets up his camera so that the effects look much better than they really are.

Best of all, there's no comic relief in Mati Suri. What's more, Maxima's unlikely scream queen — pop star Dewi Perssik — is nowhere to be found. Instead, the lead role is taken by Nadine Chandrawinata, Miss Indonesia of 2005. Chandrawinata is a little better suited to serious horror than Perssik. Like Callista Flockhart in Jaume Balaguerò's Fragile, her presence is unexpected; but she brings a certain welcome realism to her depiction of a woman dealing with emotional trauma. She's vulnerable, yes, but not in a pliant or shrinking way. There's an edge to Abel's attitude, and she tends to push away the people who want to help her (which in this case might turn out to be a good thing). Chandrawata is much less effective when she's asked to be a helpless screaming victim... but I'm not complaining too much about that, when you consider how often the situation is the other way 'round.

Lack of originality doesn't disturb me very much in a horror film. Why should it? Most horror involves the return of things that won't stay dead, so you could say I've got used to the idea. Love stories are even more repetitive, but you don't get the sort of vitriol directed against them that you do towards horror films. The thing is, many kinds of stories, including horror stories and romances alike, depend on our recognizing certain elements in order for them to be entirely effective. Some of these welcome repetitions may be echoes of our childhoods: what kid ever complains he's heard his favorite bedtime story too often? A lot more of it has to do with the importance of repetition and pattern in our own daily lives. But I also think that clichés on their own can be very useful — they are emotional shorthand for large swaths of human experience that are very, very difficult to communicate in their raw form. In my opinion, a good horror film can give us plenty of stock characters and situations, and still come up with something entertaining and even meaningful. Mati Suri is by no means a terribly original film. Nor is it likely to go down in film history as a horror classic. But it is a deviously entertaining little movie; a twisty ghost story told with the sort of confidence and conviction and trust in its genre that's all too rare in modern Indonesian horror.

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