Indonesian director Joko Anwar had a busy 2019. In January, he penned the screenplay for the comedy Orang Kaya Baru (The Newly Rich) while juggling the shooting schedule for Indonesia’s first home-grown superhero blockbuster Gundala. Although Gundala was released less than two months ago, Joko Anwar is already back in theatres with the supernatural thriller Perempuan Tanah Jahanam (also known as Impetigore), which he wrote and directed.
Given Joko Anwar’s reputation as one of Indonesia’s preeminent masters of both the horror and thriller genres, audiences and critics highly anticipated Perempuan Tanah Jahanam. Advertising for the film pushed the link with his 2017 smash horror hit Pengabdi Setan, emphasizing that the creative force behind both films is one and the same. But movie-goers expecting the same kind of white-knuckle jump scares and haunted house setting might be disappointed—Perempuan Tanah Jahanam is very consciously not a traditional ghost story, and certain scenes deliberately mock the kind of jump scares and ghostly silhouettes we have come to expect from the genre.
A Different Kind of Ghost Story
Perempuan Tanah Jahanam is more grounded in realism, using atmospheric tension to create a kind of psychological terror that moves it beyond rote jump-scares and into more complex and arguably more chilling territory. Joko Anwar, as he did in the Javanese neo-noir Kala, again invokes local symbols and imagery to tell a story that is superficially about an ancient curse, but is also about how the spectre of past choices can haunt the present and force otherwise good people to do terrible things.
Perempuan Tanah Jahanam begins on a toll road in Jakarta, where friends Maya (played by frequent Joko Anwar collaborator Tara Basro) and Dini (Marissa Anita) man their booths and casually chit chat in the Jakarta dialect. A sinister-looking man drives through Maya’s gate, then chases her down the road wielding a traditional Indonesian machete-like weapon called a golok. During the scuffle, he slices open Maya’s leg and a piece of paper containing a cryptic Javanese scrawl falls out.
This prompts Maya and Dini to leave the dense urban confines of Jakarta and travel deep into rural Java looking for her ancestral home. Along the way Maya realizes she is the key to unlocking a curse that has hung over her old village for decades. I won’t spoil the plot, but wayang kulit – which literally means “skin puppet” and is a traditional form of Javanese shadow puppetry – features heavily in the imagery and events that follow.
You Can’t Go Home Again
Perempuan Tanah Jahanam is a study in contrasts. The opening highlights some of the familiar trappings of life in crowded, congested Jakarta – a toll road, the cramped hallways of a local bazaar, and one scene even takes place inside a toilet stall. Maya and Dini’s circumstances would be instantly recognizable to the millions of Indonesians who leave their rural homes to travel to Jakarta in search of better lives, and Maya returning to her village to reconcile with her past would also be a relatable character arc. Yet as Maya gets further from the hardscrabble grind of life in urban Indonesia, the world becomes more expansive and mysterious, but also more dangerous.
This shift is conveyed visually, as the cramped spaces of Jakarta give way to the more open, lush surroundings of the Javanese countryside. There is a beautifully shot scene of a horse-drawn carriage ambling through the woods filmed with a wide-angle lens that captures both the sense of unease and the beauty of the place. As the duo move deeper into Maya’s past, the dialogue also switches away from the casual Jakarta dialect used in the opening scenes and the characters increasingly speak in Javanese. Traditional Javanese imagery, such as that of wayang kulit, also begins to dominate the film as the horror of what is really going on in the village is revealed.
This is classic Joko Anwar style. Throughout his career, Joko Anwar focused on making genre films that are steeped in the ideas, history, and symbols of Indonesian culture and society. Pengabdi Setan invoked the imagery of Muslim burial practices to tell a chilling ghost story, while Kala made the ancient legend of the Ratu Adil a major part of its narrative. In Perempuan Tanah Jahanam, Joko Anwar goes back to this well, imbuing the practice of wayang kulit with malice and turning the rustic beauty of rural Java into a claustrophobic horror set piece. In this way he again draws on the images and symbols of Java, and cleverly deploys them to highlight the beauty and the richness of the culture, while also hinting at deeper, darker, and untold things.
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Perempuan Tanah Jahanam—Indonesia. Dialogue in Bahasa Indonesia. Directed by Joko Anwar. Running time 1 hours 46 minutes. First released October 17, 2019. Starring Tara Basro and Marissa Anita.
This article is part of a series that will take a critical look at the work of Indonesian director Joko Anwar, with a focus on the ways in which he has used film to promote Indonesian mythology and explore social issues.