‘Stone Turtle’ Review: This Stunning Malaysian Mystery Puts a Supernatural Twist on Real-World Trauma

America has “Groundhog Day.” Now Malaysia has “Stone Turtle,” a beguiling, all-around gorgeous reimagining of Southeast Asian folklore that finds its characters caught in a loop of vengeance, lust and violence from which they cannot escape. Here, it’s a dead-serious political statement rather than rom-com karma that forces island-dwelling refugee Zahara (Asmara Abigail) and an intrusive outsider (Bront Palarae) to play out repeated versions of a cautious standoff: She deals in precious leatherback turtle eggs, he claims to be a wildlife researcher, but pursues her with a passion that suggests other priorities.

“Stone Turtle” marks a welcome comeback for Woo Ming Jin (“Woman on Fire Looks for Water”), a leading voice in the Malaysian New Wave who spent the last decade working in more mainstream waters, churning out a mix of zombie flicks and popcorn movies. Now, having picked up a prestigious FIPRESCI prize at Locarno, he’s back on the international festival circuit with a project that intriguingly applies elements of genre filmmaking to a more anthropological art-house format. The result is a loony marriage between “The Wicker Man” and “Woman in the Dunes,” as an enigmatic siren in scarlet robes traps a man on the beach for all eternity, building to a dangerous ritual where lives are sacrificed and a straw effigy is set ablaze.

The movie opens with a jolt, as a woman (Masyarah Mazlan) surrenders her child to Zahara and then submits to a shocking ceremony, which appears to be some kind of feast, but ends with its guest of honor having her head smashed in from behind with a boulder. More upsetting still is the implication that the woman has willingly accepted whatever punishment this represents. Her sacrifice is intended to restore her parents’ honor, now that the victim’s daughter Nika (Samara Kenzo) is old enough to be raised by someone else.

Woo focuses on Zahara and Nika’s horrified faces at the window when the fatal blow is delivered, making clear that whatever crime the woman has committed, her death serves as an example to the rest of this cut-off community. Later, we learn that the injustice was far greater than we could have imagined — whatever shame the woman may have caused was nothing compared to the sexual assault by which Nika was conceived — in a film that confronts issues such as rape and immigrant rights not as didactic talking points but dramatic hurdles to the characters’ happiness.

Nika is now Zahara’s responsibility, and though the girl had learned to read in relative isolation, it’s time to bring her to the mainland for a more formal education. Unfortunately, the local bureaucracy insists that the girl present the appropriate documentation first, which creates another kind of circularity: Without the proper paperwork, Nika can’t enroll in school, and without school, she’s stuck on the margins of society. “Stone Turtle” never reveals where Zahara and her sister originally came from, taking its name from the island where they’ve been hiding out, presumed to be uninhabited — which gives the place an almost haunted quality, as if its residents might be ghosts.

Along the Malay Peninsula’s east coast, there really are people who squat off the grid like this, and though it’s illegal for them to harvest the eggs of endangered species, authorities turn a blind eye to such behavior, since it’s practically their only means of survival. Woo could have spun this black-market activity into a gritty thriller, but instead he opts for something more mysterious and poetic, bolstered by the rare beauty of his environment — and the film’s attention-grabbing star. The whole film rides on the performance of Abigail, who has the tricky task of conveying strength gained from past traumas without revealing too much about what Zahara has been through.

When a man, Samad (Palarae), shows up on the island in a small boat, his arrival jeopardizes the refugees’ already fragile existence. Samad says he’s looking for leatherback turtles, but seems more interested in Zahara and the girl, with whom he shares a local folktale about two turtles. Woo presents this legend via hand-drawn animated sequences (overseen by indie animator Paul Williams, who worked on tropical-island toon “The Red Turtle”). Although the children’s story was intended to teach kids about greed, the film that contains it serves as a more adult-oriented cautionary tale.

Quite unexpectedly, considering the seductive build-up, Zahara and Samad wind up killing one another in a cave by the beach, and the film resets. From here on, “Stone Turtle” grows increasingly abstract. Still, tricky as it can be to untangle, everything that follows does add up according to a kind of mesmerizing dream logic, whereby the looping format plays off culturally specific ideas of karma and reincarnation. By nature, folk stories have been told countless times before, and though Zahara seeks to break the cycle of the one in which she’s trapped, the “Groundhog Day” format fits Woo’s project well: It’s both a fresh way to present that old “violence begets violence” message and a reminder of the infinite variations certain stories have in that region, where the details change but the lesson always remains the same.

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