By JAMES TUCKER
Starring Suzzanna, W.D. Mochtar, Teddy Purba
Directed by Liliek Sudjio
Produced by Rapi Films
Ever see a movie that wants to have its cake and eat it too?
I was originally going to do a back-to-back review of the original QUEEN OF BLACK MAGIC and Kimo Stamboel’s recent remake. I have decided, after watching the first film, that there is no way in hell I’m going to be able to pull that off. I mean, I could, but it would be unjust to the material I’m covering; there is so much substance to this first film alone, and I would like to be able to dive deeply into the material without worrying how much space I have left before my editor has an aneurysm. So for now, we’re just going to talk about the original. The remake has gotten so much coverage recently anyways that I feel like going back to it’s root, which has significantly less coverage out there, is a little closer to the purpose of this column. Besides, from the synopsis alone, the remake seems like it loosely draws from the original, but maybe not enough for a side-by-side analysis.
Anyways, enough explaining myself. Let’s get on with it.
The original QUEEN OF BLACK MAGIC (1981) markets itself as an anti-patriarchal revenge narrative with Murni (Suzzanna) as its protagonist. The antagonist of the film (or ONE of them, anyways), Kohar (Mochtar, maybe? It’s hard to find cast info for this movie), seduces Murni and takes her virginity, promising her that he will eventually marry her. Unfortunately for Murni, he’s an incorrigible piece of shit who turns around and marries the headman’s daughter instead, leaving Murni broken. On his wedding day, his bride becomes the target of black magic; predictably, he blames Murni and rallies the villagers, who burn down her house before throwing her off a cliff and leaving her to die. Unfortunately for him, she is saved by a strange old man living in the cliffside, the black magician himself, who urges Murni towards a path of vengeance and promises to make her nothing less than… the Queen of black magic. Dun dun dunnnnnnn.
It seems like a story we should know well, a narrative which comes around and vindicates it’s antiheroine by, well, her mere presence in the story. Instead, the film introduces a bunch of different moving pieces which complicate both the typical template of a revenge narrative and the film’s messaging on femininity, religion, the works. Murni believes that by using black magic she is obtaining sexual liberation, revenge on her aggressors, and freedom from her past circumstances, and she IS; but by doing so, she’s putting herself at the mercy of a whole new form of manipulator. The old man who saves her has his own reasons for teaching her black magic, and he uses his own magic to trick her into acting against those she loves. He even tries to curb her attempts to find happiness after her revenge is complete, because HIS goals haven’t been met, so how DARE she move on and try to find happiness? There is also a devout Muslim in the mix, one of the few instances I’ve seen lately in a movie like this where the religious character actually has power. He poses a frequent threat to the old man’s plans, and is able to single-handedly keep him from gaining further strength in the village. He also happens to be Murni’s one hope for escape, her soon-to-be lover… and her brother. Yep, this movie goes full Lannister on us. Well, not quite FULL Lannister, but almost.
The thing that most threw me for a loop with this movie however might be its coding of black magic. I am accustomed to seeing black magic as a power outside of patriarchy, a set of abilities that the dominant culture labels as “wrong” to oppress people who might otherwise rise up and change the way things work (see: The Witch). And the first half of the film plays with black magic that way; you’re rooting for Murni as she EVISCERATES the villagers who played a role in her supposed “demise,” and her revenge arc is more or less complete by that point. But the film does a complete 180 by the halfway point, blaming Murni’s mother’s death on her because she wanted revenge and insisting that “the dark side” is a force that will drive her to further and further acts of “evil,” that if she does not turn her anger on someone else, it will consume her instead. As the end of the film reveals, black magic is just another tool that the patriarchy uses to manipulate women into acting within its own interest. While Murni does eventually turn that power against her new oppressor, throughout the last half of the film she constantly seeks freedom from it, and the film’s ending leaves it ambiguous as to whether she will find it or if her anger has consumed her, leaving ME unsure as to what the fuck I’m going to say about it. The film agrees that Kohar and the villagers are unjust, and revels in their destruction, then punishes Murni for the very acts it once applauded. Will Murni have a new life, free from patriarchal obligation and condemnation, or will she run right back to the constraints of her past? Turns out, the answer is “why not both?” Rian Johnson, take notes. (Just kidding, he already did.)
Anyways, a few quick notes: the gore here ranges from “wow, actually that’s kinda cool” to a little silly and outdated, but still entertaining. Despite all my misgivings about the messaging in the film’s ending, I did actually enjoy the many turns the narrative took. They kept me glued to the screen, especially after Murni’s revenge arc had run its course: I kept wondering where else the film would take me, and it didn’t disappoint.
I’m giving QUEEN OF BLACK MAGIC a seven. Confused (or outright harmful) messaging aside, it’s a fun watch.
Tune in next week for a review of Hulu’s Tentacles.