Woo Ming Jin Interview – Director of ‘Stone Turtle’ / Available On Streaming Rental or Purchase


When a woman is executed by her community, her sister becomes custodian to her child. The sister is Zahara (Asmara Abigail)—an Indonesian turtle poacher on an island rich in folklore—and her efforts to integrate her niece into society are blocked with complex obstacles. On the island, the sudden, alarming appearance of a conservationist (Bront Palarae) is a cause for alarm—a problem worsened by Zahara stuck in a time loop of the day she met him.

Stone Turtle, directed by Woo Ming Jin, confidently weaves an underhanded, bewitching tension, eager to submerge its audience in a strange tone and heightened reality. It asks how people can become consumed by mythology, and the demands land makes of those who profit from it. We spoke to Woo at the 2023 Glasgow Film Festival about how he imagined and crafted this striking film.

Projektor: The film takes place in a very specific, distinct location. How did you land on setting a film here? Was there a specific place that evoked the right mood that you wanted to get?

Woo Ming Jin: Absolutely. We shot on the east coast of Malaysia in a state called Terengganu, and it’s a place that I’ve been going to since I was in secondary school. I’ve always been fascinated by the clothes, islands, and people there. A few years ago I was there for another project, right at the cusp of COVID, and I met turtle poachers at this village and also the people running the turtle conservation center. I don’t know whether it’s a tourist attraction, but there’s this stone structure that looks like a turtle that’s a symbol of the area’s folklore. When I was there for a few months, I thought, I absolutely have to make a film here. And then when COVID happened, I wrote a smallish chamber piece, mostly two characters set in this remote place. I wanted to highlight the Malaysian, the Nusantara, the Indonesian folktales which are quite similar.

Within our region, in countries such as Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, and even Thailand, we have similar folklore but all a little different.

Stone Turtle has this heightened, slightly eerie, strangely tense mood that becomes more eerie as we go further into the story. How did you decide on that? Did that relate to the setting?

I had been inspired by the area and by the fact that they were people who were operating under the shadows doing this turtle poaching. And at that time it had been semi-sanctioned by the government; they know it exists, it’s a livelihood for them, it’s not legal, yet they are allowed to operate and the conservation people just buy the eggs. So it feels tense, and they still operate in clandestine areas late at night. 

The one film that inspired me was the Japanese classic Woman in the Dunes [by Hiroshi Teshigahara]. In Woman in the Dunes, the guy gets tricked going to this house in this sand pit, and you don’t know whether the woman is in on it. Is she good? There’s this mysterious thing to that whole area. That was an inspiration and a starting point for me, which is why the film is sort of this mysterious multi-genre piece.

It’s not just the same location with the same two characters; some sequences happen multiple times. What did you want to evoke with retelling events and repeating time?

Before writing, stories were conveyed over time orally. So the story of the stone turtle was orally passed on from generation to generation, but each retelling is a little different. And within our region, in countries such as Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, and even Thailand, we have similar folklore but all a little different. When I play this film in Indonesia, they tell me their version. There’s this idea about whether a narrative is real or true depending on how one person sees it, from your point of view or my point of view. Are you guilty of something or am I guilty? It has this sort of parallelism to it. When the character experiences the same day over and over again, she’s sort of stuck in this mythical story.

Asmara Abigail’s lead performance is tremendous, and she’s crucial to the film’s mood and atmosphere. What was that working relationship like?

I had not worked with her before, but my lead actor Bront [Palarae, who plays Samad] had worked with her on four films. They were in my friend Joko Anwar’s film Satan’s Slaves, and she was in an Indonesian film called Setan Jawa, and I had seen clips of it. I cast Bront first, and I was like, “I’m gonna find an Indonesian actress, what should I do?” and he suggested her. When we talked to her, we had to do it all online because it was COVID. The borders were really closed. It was so hard to get her into the country, even though it was like two hours away. The hardest part about the entire film was getting a visa to enter the country because of the COVID restrictions.

We only did rehearsals on Zoom, but I was fairly confident she would pull it off because I’d seen her work with Bront, and there was this chemistry, both in terms of sexual chemistry and this tension present on screen. Asmara really took to the character and did research about turtle conservation.

The film is visually striking, but equally important is the sound we hear throughout—a mixture of natural but also mystical sounds. What was your process with the sound design?

So visually, it’s pretty simple: the place looks beautiful. We brought in a cinematographer that I had been working with for a while, and I knew he would be able to capture the beauty of it. But the sound was very, very specific, I did want a lot of natural sounds, but also this magical realist, fantasy-like feeling. I worked with one of the sound designers who has done a bunch of Apichatpong Weerasethakul, and to be honest, I let him do it because he’s the expert. 

It’s not merely a Malaysian-Indonesian film, but a collaboration with other Southeast Asian experts. I worked with a Thai cinematographer, a Thai composer, and Thai sound designer to give it—I don’t want to say a Southeast Asian feel—but if a Malaysian watches it, it wouldn’t feel like just a Malaysian film, or if a Thai watches it, there is some familiarity, but also a little difference. And if somebody from Europe or an English-language audience watches it, it’s different all around.

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