Malaysian New Wave Pioneer Woo Ming Jin Returns to Busan With Locarno Winner Stone Turtle

Malaysian filmmaker Woo Ming Jin, whose work has been showcased at the Busan International Film Festival from his first feature “Monday Morning Glory” (2005), is back with his latest feature “Stone Turtle.”

The film, which won the FIPRESCI Prize at Locarno earlier this year, follows a woman living in the peninsular Malaysian east coast, who gets entangled with a stranger who claims to be a turtle researcher, in a dangerous dance of duplicity and deception.

“Stone Turtle” originated from the time Woo spent at the east coast of Malaysia a few years ago, where he met some turtle egg poachers and villages that subsisted on this trade. He learned a lot about the region’s history, culture and way of life and this became his impetus for creating the protagonist of the film.

“I had always been drawn to the richness of Malaysian folklore and myths and felt they have not been depicted in cinema much. The original folklore of ‘Stone Turtle’ is a story that mirrors the journey of [the main character], and I tried to use that as a starting point to delve deeper into the character’s quest,” Woo told Variety.

Woo was also inspired by Park Chan-wook’s “Thirst” and Hiroshi Teshigahara’s “Woman in the Dunes,” both of which revolved around two characters. “Just like those films, I’d wanted to make a film centered on two characters in one location, partly for practical reasons – it was the pandemic and we had limitations in terms of crew and what we could do,” says Woo. 

“The film is somewhat personal and deals with social themes that are present in many of my films, so in that manner it’s not truly a huge departure. The difference for this film is that I wanted to be more playful, and I wanted to make something that was more emotionally accessible and thought provoking,” adds Woo. I wanted the audience to go on a roller-coaster ride where they aren’t so sure what type of film they’re watching, yet still be totally invested. ‘Stone Turtle’ is a time-loop revenge thriller with magical realism and a dash of animation thrown in.”

The film, a co-production between Malaysia’s Greenlight Pictures and Indonesia’s KawanKawan Media, is produced by Woo, Edmund Yeo, Yulia Evina Bhara and Cheng Thim Kian. It was financed by government grants and COVID-relief funds with support from Malaysia’s National Film Development Corporation (FINAS) and private equity.

“After our festival run, we are hoping to secure some territories for theatrical distribution, as we hope that this film can be enjoyed by audiences on the big screen. We are currently in talks with various film distributors,” Yeo told Variety. “We are also very happy to work together with Yulia and KawanKawan Media to explore the vibrant Indonesian film market.”

KawanKawan Media’s Bhara told Variety: “We saw its potential for Indonesian audiences and market. Beyond that, the most important factor for us is to strengthen the collaboration among Southeast Asian filmmakers.”

The film, which features Indonesian stars Bront Palarae and Asmara Abigail, will play at a few Indonesian festivals next. KawanKawan is aiming for a wide release in Indonesia next year.

Woo is a pioneer of the Malaysian New Wave whose work has traveled to Cannes, Berlin and Venice. “I think the movement was a reaction to a lack of diverse content in Malaysia, and to a certain degree, showed the possibility of what Malaysian cinema can be. So I’m grateful for that period and the films that came out of it. But I like to look ahead, and not at the past,” says Woo. “Cinema is constantly evolving, so as filmmakers, we must evolve as well, to continue expanding our canvas, whatever that may be. I for one, would love to see a new group of filmmakers emerging from Malaysia, much as we’ve seen in our neighbouring countries. I believe the future is very bright.”

There are indeed bright signs at the Malaysian box office as local films have been performing well theatrically, post-pandemic. “It’s refreshing to see, though the scope of what is considered a marketable film is still somewhat narrow. You’re looking at horror and action movies, and not much else, made for the Malay audience,” says Woo. “It’s still very challenging to market films that don’t fall specifically into those categories. But as a filmmaker, I’m very cognizant of the changing landscapes, in term of how we can economize our films. With the addition of OTT platforms, I think there are more options for filmmakers. I feel optimistic about the near future as there are more co-productions and local government agencies like FINAS are stepping up to the plate to support filmmakers who can help develop the nation’s cinema.”

Next up for Woo is horror film “Indera,” which is in post and due a 2023 release. Yeo and Woo have some Asian and Southeast Asian projects in development and Woo is also developing his English-language feature debut with some U.S.-based producers.

“Stone Turtle” premiered in Busan on Oct. 7 as part of the A Window on Asian Cinema strand. Parallax Films is handling international sales.

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