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Asmara Abigail in a still from Stone Turtle, winner of the Fipresci Prize at the Locarno film festival.

In Francis Ford Coppola’s footsteps: Malaysian winners of Fipresci Prize at Locarno film festival on their art-house film Stone Turtle

  • Stone Turtle, about a woman who illegally sells turtle eggs on a Malaysian island, is the first movie in the Bahasa Malaysia language to win the Fipresci Prize
  • Director Woo Ming Jin and producer Edmund Yeo talk about their time-loop revenge thriller, and how shooting it was a return to the ‘simple joys of filmmaking’
Asian cinema

A Malaysian film, Stone Turtle, bagged the coveted Fipresci Prize at the 75th edition of the Locarno Film Festival which concluded on August 14. It was the first time a feature filmed in the Bahasa Malaysia language had competed in the main category of the prestigious Swiss festival.

The Fipresci prize jury wrote on the festival’s official Twitter page that the time-loop revenge thriller impressed them for the “multiplicity of perspectives on urgent themes such as violence against women, the question of who has a right to citizenship, and the way we deal with our natural environment”.

“The Fipresci Prize by the International Federation of Film Critics is one of the most historical and prestigious awards available in many of the world’s most important film festivals,” Greenlight Pictures producer Edmund Yeo – himself a director, whose latest feature is 2021’s Moonlight Shadow – tells the Post.

Stone Turtle is also co-produced by Cheng Thim Kian and Yulia Evina Bhara of KawanKawan Media in Indonesia.

“The award is a great honour,” says Yeo. “Locarno Film Fest has been handing out the Fipresci Prize since 1958, and many of the great filmmakers I’ve admired, such as Francis Ford Coppola, Edward Yang and Lav Diaz, received it here before us.”

A mix of live action and animation by British designer Paul Williams, who worked with Japan’s Studio Ghibli, Stone Turtle is a dramatic time-travelling thriller about stateless refugee Zahara (played by Indonesian actress Asmara Abigail) who makes a meagre living selling turtle eggs illegally on a small and remote Malaysian island.
Bront Palarae as Samad in a still from Stone Turtle.
One day Samad (Malaysian actor Bront Palarae, well known for his role as the father Suwono in Joko Anwar’s Satan’s Slaves films) visits the island. Claiming to be a university researcher, he employs Zahara as his local guide. As the day progresses, the two grow more entangled in a dangerous game of duplicity and deception.

Stone Turtle was made with a small, intimate team of people and actors I had worked with before,” director Woo Ming Jin tells the Post. “For this film, I wanted to return to the simple joys of filmmaking, and it felt like  the crew was family throughout the entire shooting process.”

Also featuring performances from Amerul Affendi, Maisyarah Mazlan, Samara Kenzo and Alison Khor, the film was shot in January 2022 in the Malaysian east coast state of Terengganu.

Director Woo Ming Jin (right) and producer Edmund Yeo at the Locarno Film Festival.

After his dabbling in more commercial Malay-language films such as Zombitopia (2021), Stone Turtle marks Woo’s return to making visionary art films in the vein of his debut, Monday Morning Glory (2005), which screened at the Berlin and Locarno film festivals, and The Tiger Factory (2010), selected for screening at the Cannes festival.

Part of what film critics define as the Malaysian New Wave of the 2000s, those features were produced with Yeo for Greenlight Pictures.

“I had just finished another bigger and more complex shoot and wanted to return to the core of my artistic goal,” says Woo. “Because I had full control of the production, I decided to not be too concerned about the results.

“I knew we had something special when both actors – Asmara Abigail and Bront Palarae – had this intense chemistry on screen.”

Bront Palarae (front) and Asmara Abigail in a still from Stone Turtle.

Earlier in August, Chinese distributor Parallax acquired international distribution rights to Stone Turtle, and plans for a regional Southeast Asian release are in the works.

“We hope the film will have a theatrical release in China and different countries in Asia, since it’s better admired on the big screen,” says Yeo. “Ever since Locarno announced their competition line-up, and until our recent award win, we have also received invitations from numerous festivals.”

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