I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again, but more people should watch foreign horror films. Between unexplored mythos and folklore, a whole slew of creative talent that we’ve haven’t yet embraced, and refreshingly creative stories, there’s so much to gain from it. Especially if you can get over your dislike for subtitles. It’s a huge part of the reason why I got a Shudder subscription. Their foreign horror films selection is on point and they are continuously expanding it. Their latest acquisition, Joko Anwar’s IMPETIGORE, is no exception. Starting off with sharp intensity, we are taken through an eerie, bloody tale of self-discovery centered in a remote Indonesian village, and by the film’s end, the existential tension and dread you’ll feel will be well-earned.
There’s no time wasted launching us into terror in IMPETIGORE. We’re introduced to Maya (Tara Basro) working in a toll booth talking with her bestie Dini (Marissa Anita). Within minutes, a creepy man who has been watching Maya for days confronts her. Before he is killed, he drops a major bomb on her: “We don’t want what your family left behind.” That already clues on in that some major shenanigans is going to go down. With no real knowledge of her family, her potential inheritance, or the village she grew up in, it’s not long before Dini convinces Maya to go to her home village to claim whatever it is might be hers. However, once they arrive there, they are met with a frosty reception and a giant web of bloodied mysteries in need of unraveling.
This is not Anwar’s first horror film that explores the complexities of motherhood. Nor is it the first work of his that we’ve seen explore how a parent’s actions come back to haunt and impact the fate of their children. His interpretation of Satan’s Slaves and even his installment in HBO’s Folklore (which also features Marissa Anita) takes an aspect of motherhood and the far-reaching impact actions have on children and rip it apart to explore its insides. IMPETIGORE follows in these similarly thematic footsteps. The curse that impacts the village ends up cursing children in the womb. Not much care is taken of the women as they continuously birth child after child, hoping that the curse might be lifted. No, it is the men who take up arms to hunt down what they think is the source of the curse. However, the origin of the curse stems from infidelity. This act spurs the enaction of the curse, prompting a ripple effect further instigated by the actions of men. It takes an outsider, someone mostly removed from this perpetuating cycle, coming in to shine a mirror at these people to showcase who is truly at fault here.
While the story and its execution are strong, the cast of IMPETIGORE sells every inch of their characters. Tara Basro, an Anwar favorite, delivers a standout performance as Maya. She captivates that innocence required for the role, especially as arguably the original victim of the curse. Her innocence allows the audience to project ourselves onto her as we too are unraveling the mystery with her. Marissa Anita provides comedic relief as Maya’s bestie, Dini. Anita and Basro’s chemistry sells the friendship conveyed onscreen. Ario Bayu’s performance as the village elder is a bit mixed as I don’t think he had as much to do in this film, but he captures the aura of a man in a position of power who is weighed down by the burden of his position. Christine Hakim’s performance will have your hair on edge. There’s no clocking the stone-cold heart of that matriarch onscreen. Asmara Abigail’s Ratih will leave you guessing her character’s intentions almost the entire time you see her onscreen.
I would be remiss if I didn’t touch upon the visuals of IMPETIGORE. From the narrow streets of the city to the slowly closing in feeling that we get when we travel to Maya’s secluded village, the setting of the film lends itself to evoking that creepy feeling. You literally visually feel like you’ll be swallowed whole as you follow Maya throughout the village. Maya’s family house also looms forebodingly; its unique design alienating itself from the rest of the village with purposeful intent. Anwar’s usage of shadows, in particular, heightens that otherworldliness required for the story while also serving to tease the audience with potential looming scares. We see this in the utilization of candles and torches to light up the village, creating that further sense of dread and anxiety needed as we follow Maya throughout the village. When electricity is subtly re-introduced later on, it serves as a misguided beacon of hope before being quickly snuffed out. Highlighting the shadow work is the usage of Wayang in the film, which not only strongly showcases an aspect of Javanese culture, but serves as a wonderfully executed plot device (and serves up a breathtaking, yet sad murder scene).
Joko Anwar knocks it out of the park again with IMPETIGORE. From the visuals, the remote village setting, the supernatural elements, and an impeccably strong cast, it’s hard to find imperfections in this latest work. It’s a real treasure to follow along in solving this supernatural mystery, where we try to figure out who is trustworthy and who are the actual monsters in this piece. After the backlash regarding subtitles with Parasite, I am going to remind you guys that this is a subtitled film. But I suggest you try to overcome the distaste towards subtitles and dive right in. Because, in my opinion, this is not a film you should skip out on.
IMPETIGORE is now available for viewing on Shudder.