Tuesday, August 6, 2013

The Friends of 4DK: Ghost With Hole, aka Sundel Bolong (Indonesia, 1981) by Carol Borden

The guest posts continue, this time with The Cultural Gutter's  Carol Borden providing an alternate take on a film that I reviewed for Teleport City way back when I was still one of you.

Director Sisworo Gautama Putra is smart enough to start Ghost With Hole with its two main draws, Suzzanna and the titular Ghost With Hole, in particular, that ghost's hole. Suzzanna is often called The Queen of Indonesian Horror, but it's an entirely different role than that of Hollywood scream queens. She's kind of like Ingrid Pitt or Barbara Steele if they were a huge chunk of the British or Italian horror film industries in their heyday. And Suzzanna has a stare that equals, if not surpasses, that of Barbara Steele. If Suzzanna and Barbara Steele had a staring contest, I am pretty sure that we would all die.

Ghost With Hole begins with a wolf howl, a shot of a a grave and Suzzanna briefly intoning, “My name is Alisa” and sharing the horror we are about to watch. Then Suzzanna uses her baleful stare as her name and then the title of the film come up to a snippet of “Night on Bald Mountain.” Then Sisworo gives us an eyeful of ghost hole, as the credits roll over the ragged, raw flesh and squirming worms in the (at least) eight inch hole in Suzzannah's lower back.

After giving us a good look, the film backtracks to recount the events that lead a young woman to become a vengeful, angry ghost with a wormy, exposed hole who utters the immortal line, “Satay. Two-hundred skewers. I'll eat here.”

Suzzanna plays Alisa, a young woman who had been a prostitute and left the life of a pro behind to marry handsome gentleman, Hendarto, played by Barry Prima. The film opens with their beautiful wedding reception. In marrying Hendarto, Alisa leaves all the nastiness of her pre-Hendarto life of smoking and wearing magnificent afro wigs behind. Suzzanna wears very respectable clothing and has very respectable hair. Everyone calls her, “Nyonya,” a very respectable, almost matronly title. Life is good. But Hendarto receives a mysterious and important letter at the wedding reception. Shortly thereafter, he sails away, perhaps as the captain of an Indonesian cruise ship dedicated to bringing love to couples (while he is tragically separated from his wife) or maybe to defeat the remaining vestiges of Dutch Colonial sponsored sorcery in the forest, since Sisworo shot Jaka Sembang the same year.

While Hendarto's gone, Alisa's madame, Mami, who really needs to blot some of her make-up, and her player sidekick, Rudy, move in. The name, “Rudy,” by itself, is a warning sign to me. There has rarely been a Rudy in film who hasn't been a jackhole. (I haven't actually seen one, but I'm willing to admit the possibility). Alisa is lured to The Rudy Boutique where Rudy becomes skeevy and Alisa has none of it. But Mami and Rudy are not the kind of people who respect marriage or consent. Rudy's gang of skeevy jerks park their mom's wood-paneled stationwagon across the road and feign an accident. When Alisa goes to check on the driver, they kidnap her. They will regret this so very much. They stuff Alisa into the station wagon's way back and drive to what appears to be a barn. She escapes when they unload her, knocking two men back into the car and kicks a third to run away in her bare feet. Then she hides behind a crate, her long hair making her look effectively like a hole. When she's finally noticed, she continues to demonstrate remarkably effective fighting before she's overwhelmed by numbers. Rudy eats a red delicious apple at her in a threatening manner. Mami refuses Alisa's pleas for help. Alisa uses her Suzzanna stare on Mami and Rudy, but, sadly, Alisa doesn't have supernatural powers yet.

Rudy rapes Alisa and then invites his band of skeevy jerks to rape her. Very little is shown beyond leering and sweating and Alisa tossing her head from side to side, which, in a lot of ways, make it more powerful. Rape and revenge is a tricky plot device for me. I've often had awkward conversations about rape in film being “upsetting.” I'm told, “It's supposed to be upsetting.” (And, just so you know, you probably don't have to remind women that rape is, indeed, upsetting). I just don't want already upsetting rape with a side of upsetting portrayal of rape. But because Indonesian authorities had clear controls on what could and could not be shown on film, we are left with Alisa, the person, suffering, and the cruelty of Rudy and his gang. Of course, I am certain it's not what Suharto intended at all.

Alisa reports the crime, but the men are acquitted at trial by a corrupt court and―despite her even more respectable and modest clothing, hijab, long sleeves and all―Alisa is publicly humiliated. And directly after the trial, we discover she's pregnant when she: 1. vomits; and 2. hemorrhages. Alisa sees a doctor who's very sorry that he can't help. The doctor apparently sort of fades into her consciousness, lecturing her even while she's at home. Alisa dreams a phantasmagoria of babies and, from the tone, it looks like she's been thinking of having an abortion. Between the lecturing, paternalistic doctor and the images of fake and real babies, some having genetic abnormalities, this part of the movie felt almost like a Fritz Lang film during his Expressionist period. When she wakes, the older woman who's been caring for her tries to buck Alisa up. But Alisa will not be bucked up. Instead, she listens and, when the woman leaves to bring her food, either dies during a miscarriage, attempts to abort the fetus herself or commits suicide in the bathroom. All are a sure path to becoming a restless spirit. And restless spirits and vengeance are what we come to Suzzanna movies for.

Hendarto returns home and, I assume, drives immediately to the cemetery to lay a bouquet on his dead wife's grave. At home, he finds the very same bouquet on his couch. Hendarto fades into an Ennio Morricone-tinged reverie of meeting and then marrying Alisa, and ending with Alisa's trip and fall on the way into their new home. Pretty much about when the movie starts. Alisa's ghost visits Hendarto as he sleeps and he awakens just as she disappears. Feeling weird, he goes for a drive and sees a döppelgänger of his dead wife with a calico cat in the road. Her name is Sinta. Despite years of stories and now youtube videos of ghosts walking along the side of the road, Hendarto drives her home, by which, I mean, to his home to talk to her about how much she looks like his dead wife. She appears to be a more girlish version of Alisa, but has no memory of their life together. They talk for a while in Hendarto's living room, among his wedding pictures. When Sinta leaves, she disappears. Hendarto isn't concerned enough to stop seeing Sinta. Meanwhile, I don't know what happened to Sinta's cat and I'm concerned.

However, ghost with hole arrives to terrify and punish her rapists. She starts off felicitously giving her first victim, Ram, a single-fingered gesture meaningful in both English and Indonesian, before drowning him. But Indonesian movies like a little bit of everything in the mix and after Alisa's terrifying visage and the discovery of the drowned body, Sisworo moves to a little bit of comic relief. As Mami grows more and more concerned about a potential vengeful ghost problem, she approaches a ritual specialist who is one of the most interesting elements of Southeast Asian films in general―ritual specialist comic relief. This gentleman talks a big game, at least at the wet bar in Mami's armored bus, but is obviously not effective, or, to be kinder, not effective enough against a Suzzanna-caliber spirit. Mami is probably better off using the spiritual equivalent of margarita mix. The levity includes not only a ritual specialist and his minion, but a pedicab driver, who has harassed Alisa's ghost into accepting a ride from him. He also hasn't received any City of Jakarta Traveler Advisories about picking up women in white walking along the road late at night. She less intentionally terrifies the operators of an all-night snack stand. Presumably suffering a sense of emptiness, she orders, “Satay. Two hundred skewers. I'll eat here.” Staring fixedly, she eats stick after stick and, still hungery, asks for soup. She drinks their whole pot with the camera following the water as it flows out her maggoty hole and down to the ground, already covered in pieces of grilled meat, thus blending the comic relief satay and soup with the horror of a ghost with a hole.

The practical effects are both practical and pretty effective. Alisa's hole is nasty and horrific and even bears the scrutiny of nearly an entire opening credits sequence. And the effects hold up pretty well as Alisa spends the rest of the film hunting down her attackers. She's frightening when she appears before one of the rapists wearing her shroud, with her eyes, nostrils and mouth plugged with gauze. I found it particularly powerful when her arms burst through a brick (styrofoam, but still) wall to crush one of the rapists. But, really, Suzzanna could just stare people to death, and I'd be fine.

Of course, Alisa's return as a sundel bolong and these killings are all part of a chain of action that began with the rape and Alisa's anger at not receiving justice. And while her vengeance is satisfying, the ghost is a problem for everybody around and is herself suffering. Ultimately Hendarto realizes he needs to do something. First, though, he shows off his Barry Prima martial arts skills in a pretty good fight with the surviving members of the skeevy jerk gang who attack him at a dockside sugar plant. But he also talks to a local official and a ritual specialist who knows what to do. The ritual specialist confirms what we all suspected, Sinta is Alisa and Alisa is a sundel bolong. Everything comes together at the cemetery, when Rudy and the surviving member of his gang decide to put an end to Alisa and Hendarto and his friends arrive to put her to rest. The final battle between Alisa and Rudy, his remaining gang members and a more competent but still not up to snuff ritual specialist involves more vengeance, kris lasers, hand gestures and staring while the soundtrack becomes remarkably atmospheric as it sounds like a radio station fading in and out.

Alisa's end is sad, because she did nothing to deserve what happened to her. At best, Alisa is “at rest.” But then, that is a huge part of the appeal of Indonesian horror; that deserve's got nothing to do with it, that it's an unfortunate confluence of events, that the supernatural and the mundane can only exist together in very circumscribed and controlled ways. And that you best treat the lady ordering 200 satays politely because she could very well be a spirit.

1 comment:

Drew Grimm Van Ess said...

Very well-written! I remember this one! You're writing complimented it very well. Great job.

I just followed your site, I like what you got going on here! I look forward to seeing more of your posts. You have an interesting style.

If you wanna chat horror, swing by my page.