Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Nyi Blorong, aka Snake Queen (Indonesia, 1982)


Nyi Blorong is a film starring Indonesian horror queen Suzzanna and Indonesian action king Barry Prima that is thematically neither a horror or an action film, but rather more of a straightforward fantasy picture based in Indonesian folklore. Still, director Sisworo Gautama Putra (who earlier directed Prima in the hit Jaka Sembung, aka The Warrior) provides enough spooky atmosphere and ooky gore to at least please fans of the former genre, even if we don’t get to see Barry spin kick anyone in the mug.

The Snake Queen is one of those mystical figures who is known to grant wishes to those who honor her, but always at a price -- and usually that price ends up making the deal not worth it in the first place. But does that stop people? Consider, for instance, the one supplicant who, in exchange for her consideration of his wish, is forced by the Queen (Suzzanna) to eat human flesh, only to return home to find the partially devoured remains of his young child. (Most world cinema buffs will have already noted that Asian film cultures don’t harbor the same taboos about depicting harm to children on screen that those in the West do, and that the practice seems to gain in enthusiasm once you hit the Southeast Asian countries.)

Central to Nyi Blorong’s narrative is another such supplicant, a wealthy family man who, in his desire to increase his riches, has made a deal with the Queen that, as we see in the movie’s opening scene, has already cost him dearly. In that sequence we see this man’s wife wrapped in her funeral shroud, a gory, telltale bite wound on her neck. Soon thereafter, the Snake Queen rises up out of the ocean and deposits herself on the shore inside a giant pulsating egg, from which she emerges in human form, taking the guise of a female relative (I think) by the name of “Devi” to insinuate herself into the man’s family. Now at this point you might get the sneaking feeling that we have encountered the Snake Queen before in our journeys through Indonesian exploitation cinema, and you would be right. She is one of the many guises of that figure of Javanese legend also known as the South Seas Queen –- she who played such a delightful role in the lurid events of Lady Terminator.

And like Lady Terminator’s version of the South Seas Queen, the Snake Queen here is something of a randy old lass. As such, it’s not long before she has set her amorous sights on Andika (Prima), the hunky young fiancé of her host’s easy-on-the-eyes daughter Shashti (Nena Rosier). Andika in turn falls under the Queen’s spell, and is soon making what would otherwise be referred to as the beast with two backs with her -- if a half human/half snake creature could indeed be said to have a back. This freaky affair is eventually discovered by Shashti, which results in her becoming a target of the Queen’s supernatural wrath.

As films like Lady Terminator demonstrate, the Indonesian film industry was not above occasionally tailoring their product with an eye toward Western distribution -- a tendency that indeed accounts in part for the steady employment of Western-looking, Eurasian actors like Prima and Suzzanna. Nyi Blorong, however -- and despite whatever distribution history it may have had -- is clearly a picture aimed at the locals. As such, it’s one of those films that gives outsiders like myself the kind of voyeuristic thrill that can only come from feeling like you’ve been afforded a peek into another culture's dream life. The film handles its outré subject matter, not with the trashy, winking enthusiasm of the exploitation genre, but instead with a solemnity that adds considerably to its overall atmosphere of dread and disquiet.

This atmosphere in turn serves to smooth over those elements of the film that might otherwise seem laughably makeshift or over-the-top. In the case of the special effects sequences, which are indeed cheap and plentiful, the film also benefits from the fact that, in the best tradition of Indonesian horror, the cheesiness of those effects ends up being trumped by their weirdness. In one scene, one of Andika’s friends enlists the help of a bumbling mystic, and together the two confront a figure with a flaming head whose lower body detaches and does a shimmying dance independent of its top portion. Later, the Queen appears to Shashti in her true form, her head and torso towering stories above the girl perched atop an enormous snake body. And little I can say can communicate just how creepy was the sight of the Queen silently traversing the sky in a ghostly, golden hued horse-drawn carriage. All of this came across as so culturally specific that I found it a bit jarring when a later scene, in which Shashti is momentarily possessed by the Queen, paid an apparent tribute to The Exorcist. That didn’t make it any less spooky, though, when the blue faced Shashti levitated and started doing cartwheels on the ceiling.




As I’m finding is the case with a lot of the most effective Indonesian horrors, Nyi Blorong also makes good use of a very sparingly applied musical score, with many of the most dramatic and disturbing scenes eerily playing out against a muted backdrop of ambient natural sounds. It also doesn’t hurt that the score, when it does chime in, is a hauntingly atonal and minimalist one featuring traditional Indonesian instruments. In fact, the only Western sounding theme to be heard at any point is a woozy string quartet piece that plays during the romantic scenes between the Snake Queen and Andika -- the significance of which I won’t speculate upon, but which is nonetheless deserving of consideration.

And finally, there is Suzzanna’s performance as the titular Snake Queen, which is surprising for its quiet stoicism, as if she is portraying a creature so assured of her power that any overt expression of menace would be unnecessary. For his part, Barry Prima is really just here to provide the beefcake this time around, which he does more than sufficiently. In fact, I found it impressive that, despite the nature of Prima’s fame at the time, the filmmakers at no point in the movie provided any type of showcase for his fighting skills. What final battle there is, in fact, takes place between the Snake Queen and a crone-like old sorceress, both of whom fly about on wires quite wonderfully as magical explosions go off on all sides of them.

Of course, the world that Nyi Blorong presents is far too much of a downbeat and sorrow-filled place for Barry Prima to be allowed to simply come along and punch its woes out of existence. After all, as awesome as Barry is, the Snake Queen, her appetites, and her thirst for payback are eternal -- forces to be reckoned with again and again for as long as man’s greed drives him to write checks that his soul can’t cash. There’s just no competition.

12 comments:

silent said...

Man, I remember seeing this on video as a kid and it's really really scary. To me, and perhaps most Indonesians, I find that local horror movies is scarier than Hollywood horror flicks. I guess it's because the movies build on and at times exploit our foklore and legends that made the scary moments in the movies somewhat real and haunting. Plus, Suzanna has a very haunting stare.

Great post and great blog btw, didn't realize Indonesian movies has an audience outside of the country.

Todd said...

Thanks, Silent! I can't imagine watching this film as a kid. It must have been terrifying. I think there'd be an even larger audience for these films outside of Indonesia if more of them were available with subtitles. Still, they're filled with enough creepy atmosphere and striking visuals to be entertaining without translation.

silent said...

Hi Todd,

A bit of tidbit of the video rental industry. Back then 10 year olds can pretty much rent anything in the video store as long as you can pay for it. On paper, Indonesia has a simple rating system at that time. Back then it uses color labelling for ratings. Videos that have green label on it are the ones rated "SU", short for "Semua Umur" or in English "All Ages". Videos that have a red label are categorized as "17+" or suitable for persons age 17 up, 17 it the age of legal consent in Indonesia.

The video rental or perhaps the rental industry in Indonesia have died because of the influx of pirated dvds. Funny thing is, when you go to any stalls that sells dvds, all of their Hollywood dvds are pirated ones, except for Indonesian movies. Apparently, they respect local film makers enough to only sells original dvds of Indonesian movies :D

However, the Indonesian movie dvds that they sold are only new movies that are made from 2000s onwards, not old classic ones that you've written in your blog. So, it is relatively hard, even for me to find old Indonesian movies on dvds or vcds. I do come across vcds of these old movies from time to time, but the supply is very limited, let alone the interest to subtitle these movies. That's why I'm very surprised that someone outside Indonesia have access to these rare gems.

Great job on finding these movies!

Todd said...

Thanks for the information, silent. These particular Indonesian films that I've been reviewing lately were provided to me by a friend who found them on VCD while in Malaysia. However, if a trip to Malaysia isn't convenient for you, I found this place online that seems to have a pretty good selection.

Jack J said...

Great writeup, Todd!

Silent, I can assure you there's an audience for old Indonesian horror and action movies! :D

I have bought quite a few old Indo films (on VCD) from this great online store in Malaysia:

http://cinemashops.com/

.

Todd said...

Ooh, there goes the rent money. Looks like they have a great selection. Thanks for that, Jack!

Jack J said...

You're welcome.

I have ordered from them 6 or 7 times. Apart from one time, I received my stuff fairly quickly. The last time they were pretty slow because the stuff I ordered was sold out and they tried to get more copies. But other than that their service has so far been fine.

silent said...

Todd, Jack

Thanks for the links.

I wonder if there's an audience for old Indonesian comedy movies? My American friend asked me how to learn the local Jakarta/Betawi dialect, so I just told him to just watch Benyamin S. movies :D

Here's the link on an article in Jakarta Post on Indonesian movies

http://www.thejakartapost.com/news/2009/10/29/indonesian-movie-gems.html

Todd said...

I don't know. The common wisdom seems to be that comedy doesn't translate as well across cultures as the horror and action genres do (unless, as Keith from Teleport City has pointed out, that comedy involves a chimp in a fez slapping a guy). Most of the comedy I've seen in S/E Asian movies hasn't done much for me, but, than again, most of the comedy I've seen in S/E Asian movies has been limited to the comic relief elements in horror and action films. Indonesian horror and action films, however, don't seem to have a lot of traditional comic relief bits in them, which is awesome, so maybe I might be surprised.

Cyren said...

Hey everyone.

my name is Cyren and I am currently a research student at Monash University. I am currently writing my research dissertation on Reptile Women of Asia and would love to knwo where (if possible) I can find copies of this film to use in my work.

Todd said...

Hey, Cyren. I buy a lot of my Indonesian VCDS from esindo.com, although their site appears to be down at the moment. You might also try the site Jack J. mentioned above: cinemashops.com.

Cyren said...

Hi Todd, thanks for the help but after several months with esindo still offline and cinemashops.com not having it I'm at my wits end. :( Still searching for this film