Joko Anwar’s sixth directorial effort, Satan’s Slaves (2017), which was also the highest-grossing horror film in Indonesia, was deemed as one of the best and scariest Indonesian films to date. And it’s easy to understand why. The movie, a remake of Sisworo Gautama Putra’s 1980 film of the same name, is an unsettling and eerie — but also emotionally resonant for its exploration of grief and family dynamic — cult horror, with plenty of terrifying surprises here and there. Two years after that, Anwar follows it up with another atmospheric horror, Impetigore, now streaming on Shudder.
On paper, Impetigore looks just like a generic horror, taking references from Indonesian culture and folklore, particularly shadow puppetry (wayang kulit). But when you take a look at it more closely, you’ll realize that the story actually deals with more complicated subjects. Granted, Anwar’s films have always been deeper than what the premises suggest. In Impetigore’s case, Anwar deals with fear-mongering, family dynamic, and poor leadership — recurring themes in his filmography. We recently spoke to him to talk about the movie, the inspiration behind the story, and his opinion on the state of horror and Asian cinema right now.
Reyzando Nawara: Congrats on your big win at last year’s Indonesian Film Festival, and for being chosen to represent Indonesia in this year’s Oscar race. Is this the reception that you expected right when you first wrote the movie?
Joko Anwar: Actually, no. When I make a film, I never set a target, in terms of audiences, outside of Indonesia. So when I first wrote Impetigore, I made it only for Indonesian audience at first. But I always knew that apart from needing to have a good concept, a movie must have good storytelling, and with relevant issues explored as well so that it can reach more audiences. So yeah, it’s been such a blessing to see the receptions have been mostly positive, especially after it got into Sundance and released on Shudder this year as well. It’s unexpected. Feels like a big bonus.
I read somewhere that you first developed the script for Impetigore 10 years ago…
Correct, the script was actually finished in 2010.
Can you tell us a little bit about the inspiration behind the story?
Usually, when I make a film, the inspiration never arrives directly at one moment. It’s always piece by piece. For Impetigore, the inspiration first came from traditional shadow puppets. It’s a prominent part of our culture. We see it on TV. There’s a lot of puppetry shows too anywhere in Indonesia. And since I was a kid, I’ve always been fascinated by the craft of shadow puppets because, in my opinion, it’s so unique. They’re made with great detail and requires skills and high art. But when it is shown to the public, we only see the shadow. When I was around 7 years old, I was always wondering about that. And it’s a curiosity that I bring until this day.
There’s also one moment when my brother told me that the puppets are made of human skin instead of cow, and it terrified me. So Impetigore, in a way, is a combination of that childhood naïveté and the image of our society. Whenever I’m thinking about shadow puppets, it always makes me think of our society too, which sees something from its shadow only and never the full truth. So those two things combined with a number of social issues in Indonesia, especially how people are struggling to make a living, how there’s still plenty of people who live above the poverty line, are what inspired Impetigore. Also, when you take a look at all my films, you’ll realize that there’s one big recurring theme: a question of why do humans dare to bring children into this world, an unideal place for them to grow. That is also one question that I bring to Impetigore.
As you said previously, Impetigore, aside from telling a folk horror, also explores a number of social issues such as poverty, and even in some ways, leadership too. As a writer, how is your creative process for tackling these subjects organically in the film?
Oh yeah, leadership is also one topic that I address in the movie. Since I was a kid, I’ve always felt that our country hasn’t really had a strong leader. That’s a problem that has been happening since ages ago. When Jokowi, our current President, was about to be inaugurated for his first presidential, we thought that there’s finally a leader who we can really look up to, but now that’s debatable, what with the policies he’s made.
And as for how to make things organic, the key is in the characterization. I feel that all films will be much stronger and more interesting if the characters are believable and that their decisions have to be made based on their life history; how they were raised, how their families are, and all that. The characters in Impetigore, from Dini and Maya to Nyi Misni and Ki Saptadi, even to all the extras are written with strong characterization and backgrounds. As a director and writer, we need to really understand them inside out. And I usually accomplish that by making that by creating some kind of characters sheet, which then will be handed to the cast, so that when they’re playing them, they don’t just receive the characters from what’s written in the script, but also way before the story begins. I believe this process of crafting strong characters, learning and understanding them deeply, is what makes any film organic.
Yeah, one of the many things that I love about Impetigore is how compelling the characters are. They’re not just plot device, but they have liberties and strong motivations.
Yes, it’s true. A movie can have a crazy plot and structure, but what in the end will move point A to point B is the characters. Those things cannot be forced; they must be in accordance with the characters’ motivations and growth throughout the movie. That’s why when I write a script, then have all prepared all the plot points, things can still change a lot if I feel it’s not in accordance with the characters.
With all those issues you mentioned above, why did you decide to explore them using the language of horror?
Because I feel most eloquent telling stories in horror cinema language. Since I was 5 years old, I’ve been going to theaters to see horror movies. And that’s why I’m so familiar with horror. Even when I make non-horror films like Gundala, which is a superhero movie, or a romantic drama like A Copy of My Mind, there’s always thriller or horror elements in it.
We all know that, in the end, how a film is received will always be in the audience’s hands. But I wanna know, as the director and writer of Impetigore, what is the statement that you actually want to make from the story?
When I make a film, I either want to make a statement or raise a question. Like in my debut, Joni Be Brave (Janji Joni), I want to make a statement about how important it is to find a job that we love and passionate about. For Impetigore, I want to raise a question more than I want to make a statement. The question is still as same as the one asked in some of my previous films: why do people have the guts and the heart to bring children into this world?
Are there any horror movie references that you used in Impetigore?
In terms of storytelling, I take inspiration from Indonesian horror films in the 70s and 80s. A classic horror called Pursued by Sin (Dikejar Dosa), which I think is one of the best Indonesian films ever made, is a big influence in Impetigore. Style-wise, like the visual and cinematography, the reference is from shadow puppets show. We use a lot of one-light sources in the movie. Even the framing mimics that of shadow puppets, like in that scene when Ario Bayu’s character is facing two other characters in the left and right corners of the frame, then Christine Hakim’s character appears from the front. A lot of the shots in Impetigore mimics shadow puppets.
I wanna talk a little more about horror in general. What do you think about the state of horror cinema at the moment? Is the term “elevated horror” really marks another level of the genre?
Speaking of horror, I am, and I’m sure a lot of the genre filmmakers too, is still trying to get rid of the “caste” in all genres. All films, from any genre, I think, have an equal effort. Even sometimes in horror, the effort is higher because there are more technical details needed. And as I said earlier, horror is the language of cinema used by filmmakers who are more fluent in using this language in telling the stories that they want to tell. So if someone says that horror is now being “elevated,” I never really feel that it’s much different from old and classic horrors. But of course, I’m aware that right now, horror is not just used purely for escapism, but it also has something to say. Movies like Hereditary, Get Out, and Midsommar, all have something to say. And it should be; all films from any genre has to have something to say.
Recognition of Asian cinemas has also increased rapidly, especially with the Parasite victory at the Oscar last year. As an Asian filmmaker, how do you make of that? And what do you think really escalates this?
If we want to take a look at it honestly, there are not many boundaries in terms of culture nowadays, especially considering that people get to access films from any countries more easily right now. This then creates what we call assimilation. Everything becomes mutually influencing each other regardless of where the arts are originally made. If we take a look at Asian cinemas today, of course, it’s South Korea that shines the brightest. Their politics on culture are fully thought of. Back in the early 90s, the South Korean film industry was still being undermined, unloved by the local audiences. It’s only in the mid-90s where talented filmmakers start to step up to change the industry. And at that time, all the stakeholders, including the governments and the business community, as well as the education sector, were working together to support the industry by creating a mechanism meant to produce more skillful filmmakers.
So in essence, their human resources work harmoniously together to support the advancement of their film industry. And aside from that, their cultural strategy really controls and handles this matter seriously and comprehensively. They believe that as a nation, they can be the biggest pop culture exporter. That’s why right now South Korean pop culture industry, including film, is really well received and influential internationally, which is a good thing for Asian representation. Countries like Malaysia, Japan, Indonesia, and Thailand all have talented filmmakers. But the problem is, their and our cultural strategies are still not that strong; the effort is still individual, not a joint effort from all stakeholders.
So what’s important is the harmonization between all sectors, right?
That’s right. Attention pop culture growth from the government shouldn’t just be lip service. There has to be concrete action. I’ve been invited to plenty of meetings and FGD since years ago, discussing our film industry, but until today, the result hasn’t been really implemented into a specific policy. That’s just unfortunate.
Thanks for the very detailed answers. I want to close the interview with some fun question: if you could program a double feature for Impetigore, what movie would you pick?
I think Midsommar. A little intermezzo, when Satan’s Slaves was released in 2017, Ari Aster released Hereditary, which also explores grief and death within family and cult, not long after. Then when Impetigore was released, Midsommar was also released not long after, both are folk horrors and focus on female characters. So yeah, I think Midsommar and Impetigore would make a killer double feature.
Image credit: Ical Tanjung, I.C.S. and the Sundance Institute