Impetigore: the promise of I-Horror
A few years after the widely-acclaimed Satan’s Slaves, Joko Anwar returns to the horror genre by bringing to life a story full of violence, suspense and folklore, all the while proving that Indonesian horror is here to stay.
In Impetigore's opening scene, Maya -played by Tara Basro, who could already be proclaimed as Joko Anwar's favorite scream queen- works the night shift at a toll booth on a highway in the middle of nowhere. She is talking on the phone with her friend, Dini, when all of a sudden a man starts harassing her, parking his car just a few feet away from her cabin and coming over to ask her personal questions. The tension grows rapidly as we see that the man retrieve a machete from the car and start chasing Maya along the street to kill her, until he is finally stopped by a gunshot from a police officer.
Thus begins Impetigore. Bluntly and without any unnecessary preambles. It gets to the point and straight into action. It is a quick and disturbing start that plays with real and tangible fears of our daily lives -a woman alone in the middle of the night being harassed by a man she does not know, does that ring any bells?- while instantly capturing the attention of the viewer, who will inevitably want to continue watching the movie in order to answer the question: "What on Earth did I just witness?". However, the answer to this question will not arrive anytime soon, because immediately after the start sequence, the film's pace drops to give way to a slower yet still captivating development. In Impetigore, Anwar plays with a multiplicity of rhythms that works greatly in his favor, speeding up and slowing down, jumping back and forth between the intensity of a chase sequence in a slasher, and a much slower tempo that allows him to add suspense and ambiance to it all.
All of this is achieved thanks to a story that mixes elements from different subgenres and passes them through the lens of folklore. Impetigore (in Indonesian, Perempuan Tanah Jahanam, which literally translates “the woman from the cursed land”) follows Maya as she returns to the hometown of her parents, of whom she knows nothing more than the possession of a house, which she will believe will solve all of her financial problems. But what Maya doesn't know is that the villagers in this small town are awaiting her return to hunt her down and finally lift a curse that has been imposed on them since the moment she left. It is a classic example of folk horror, with a story that takes place -almost entirely- in a rural setting where Maya will discover the secrets that lie behind the most precious traditions of these villagers. The provocative premise and the setting in which the events take place allow Anwar to explore a series of interests that had already been identified in Satan's Slaves, a remake of a 1982 Indonesian cult film. Pacts with the devil, cults and curses acquire a predominant place once again, mixing supernatural elements with a more human form of terror, and thus managing to anchor horror in a determined cultural framework.
This is perhaps Impetigore's greatest achievement, going past its effective use of horror -which sometimes works more than others-. What stands out the most about Anwar's second foray into the genre is the way in which the Indonesian director takes a sub-genre that has been mostly used in Western cinema, and uses it to present a horror story closely tied to the customs of an Eastern culture. Because it is the wayang kulit tradition, an ancient Javanese art form that consists of shadow puppetry, the element that will mark the common thread of the film, from the conflict presented to its eventual resolution. It is an element that, on the one hand, allows a seductive aesthetic to be printed on the film's visuals and, on the other, gives it the power to tell stories and find horror through an exploration of its own culture.
With his sophomore piece of horror, Joko Anwar has managed to position himself even more within the genre, accompanied by other Indonesian directors who in recent years have given life to equally remarkable pieces, which thanks to platforms like Shudder have been able to be disseminated and recognized in a global scope. Therefore, it is worth asking: after almost two decades since the rise of J-Horror, and the subsequent K-Horror, are we facing the birth of a third cult movement around a different Asian culture? It may be too early to say, but truth being said, with such vindictive and subversive proposals as Impetigore, it is almost impossible not to dream about it.