There is a lot to be said about Indonesian horror movies that are raising the bar for gory horror movies. All they lack is the ability to tell their stories in a more efficient and streamlined manner so that they don’t look choppy. The newest one in the trail of horror movies from Indonesia is Mantra Surugana, which brings up the topic of generational sexual abuse and weaves a narrative around that topic within the horror genre. The film is directed by Dyan Sunu Prastowo, and he tries to tell quite a unique tale, but his directorial obsessions become a hindrance to the smooth flow of the story.
The story begins when a young girl joins her university and befriends a couple of girls who happen to be connected to two disappearances at the university. There is a lot going on in this film, and the editing and cinematography of the film wanted to keep most of it hidden, perhaps to take us by surprise with all the gore. I have no issue with the gore, but past a certain point, it just seemed like the makers didn’t believe in their story. Tantri is the girl who comes to the university, and we are given a backstory about how her father killed himself. This might have given her psychic abilities, which are later abused by a girl named Asta in college. The story merges in quite a different subplot, which has to do with a book that was written by a victim of sexual assault. The magic had to be in the seamless weaving of the two subplots, but the film finds itself lacking there.
A lot of Mantra Surugana rests on us getting the exposition. But I must say, it’s betting on its obfuscation to seduce us. The editing of the film is very bad at conveying the passage of time. We are made to feel that Tantri has been in college for a very short amount of time, but she befriends other people too soon, and trust is built instantly, so much so that Tantri takes part in an occult activity that threatens the lives of everybody else. The other characters in the film are Asta, Fey, Reza, and the outcast Mahes. The two missing people—Luki and Arum—appear only later, but first, the film tries to build up a plot to create urgency.
I thought to myself, if this film wasn’t hell-bent on jump scares and body horror, it could be an exceptional mystery thriller. But for that to happen one had to flesh out the characters and not worry too much about the ‘exciting’ elements. Some of the elements in this film are straightforward cliches, like the ghost approaching from behind and terrorizing the protagonist. Recently, I saw a great film titled Talk to Me. That too began with a suicide (plus a murder attempt), but we were smoothly guided to the heart of the matter via one single character, who later affected many others. Mantra Surugana began with Tantri but branched out into a few too many characters too soon.
On the surface, we are witnessing a convoluted revenge drama, but beneath that, there is the simmering issue of sexual malpractices at college campuses, along with the generational trauma of sexual violence. Prastowo seems to be a bit traditional in his storytelling and doesn’t care too much about the opportunity that the script clearly offers. But what he does manage to do is rehash some old tropes quite cinematically. In Cabin in the Woods type films, there is often a straightforward formula of having a female protagonist, a couple that gets killed off when they get intimate, a goofy nerd type who helps the protagonist but dies, or an authority figure who dies before they could help. The reverberation of all these tropes is present in Mantra Surugana, but they aren’t on the nose. There was a hint of genuine exploration of sexual abuse in this film, but that was somewhat sacrificed for the allegorical horror story. The contemporary nature of this film therefore morphs itself as if desperately trying to ape a foreign sensibility of horror. This film could have been made in Hollywood without changing a frame; all the actors could very well be Caucasian, and it wouldn’t hurt the story. That tells me that the cultural subtexts were missing, and perhaps that’s why whenever the jump scares came, there was a funny feeling that there could have been something better in their place.
The special effects look very practical, and the ghastly makeup of the evil spirit is scary, though only up to a point. But I must say that the black and red eyeballs are rather disturbing. The performances by all the actors are believable, but the repetitive nature of the action in this film made me feel like the actors were caged in one or two expressions. Asta was always irritated, and Tantri was always shocked or crying. Reza played the ultra-serious stud, and Fey looked nervous all the time. Perhaps that is why they were cast, but the actors seemed like they wanted more out of their performances, and I did too. The choice of their actions is constrained by the story, but the focus on the gore disturbs the flow of the story. The actors had to give reaction shots to something they had seen, and there is a limit to the variety of expressions one can give. It’s the director’s fault and not the actors’ when one expression of mouth gaping wide open is used in the same manner too often. The thing that really fascinated me was the balance between the real and supernatural parts of the film. This type of mixture of palpable physical presence that is most definitely supernatural has been brilliantly achieved by filmmakers like Kiyoshi Kurosawa. This film, like many other Indonesian films, seems to be influenced by Japanese horror films, but Mantra Surugana wants to have that Hollywood flavor as well. The film does well in the beginning to try and build a world that doesn’t alienate the audience, but the convoluted plot doesn’t help.