Seasoned Indonesian director, Teddy Soeriaatmadja (helming the Trilogy of Intimacy, consisting Lovely Man, Something in the Way, and About a Woman) returns with something that feels odd and out of place to his repertoire with Netflix bound movie, Affliction (also titled Pulang). Unlike his previous films that emphasize grounded, intimate drama with careful pacing and subtle yet moving performance from the lead, the director, also writing the script, now experiments with a new narrative drive: horror. By casting his own wife, Raihaanun (27 Steps of May) whose on-screen presence always illuminates, in the process, the film might have a shade or two of the director’s signature prowess, but the end-result feels nothing like it.
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Affliction‘s story revolves around the family of a child shrink, Hasan (Ibnu Jamil), and his wife, Nina (Raihaanun). Nina has recently lost her own mother after seeing a doppelganger of her mother. When a caretaker (Dea Panendra), who looks after Hasan’s demented mother (Tutie Kirana), arrives and begs them to bring the mother to Jakarta, Nina has all the urge to convince Hasan to fetch his own mother, fearing that the same fate might bestow upon him. The problem is, Hasan is in the middle of a professional opportunity and seems uninterested; but, he goes anyway bringing along their children (Tasya Putri and Abiyyu Barakbah) to his childhood house. What awaits in the house is not merely something sinister, but as the title suggests, it might be something that afflicts pain from past waiting to be discovered.
Between career and family, the fight has always been in Hasan’s side; Nina, on the other hand, is an observer and moral compass. This is how Soeriaatmadja flaunts his prowess in crafting a compelling domestic drama—something that cements his reputation as one of the most poignant writer-directors in Indonesia—and that’s a powerful formula to lure suspicions. Kirana, the director’s frequent collaborator, adds peculiarity to the already heated up conflict posing as a liability to Hasan as she becomes more unpredictable as the story progresses. Her character will wander around the house and talk to the shadow, muttering a gibberish phrase, “ari kiba”, that becomes more enigmatic the more she speaks of it. Something is definitely off and it has nothing to do with the dementia as Nina begins to witness strange apparitions around the house.
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Raihaanun and Jamil both delivers above-average performance to complement Kirana‘s more restrained terror in the development. Raihaanun showcases just how wild her range is in the acting department, especially when harrowing moments start to unravel; but, the best part comes when she’s handling dramatic moments in which Affliction has in abundance. In fact, this film has all the solid dramatic materials to craft an unsettling psychodrama about mother’s unconditional love and contrasting it with child’s love. Yet, ghastly elements that separate this film from the rest of the director’s filmography somehow muddles the plot up with limping urgency for unhinged mysteries. It seems like Soeriaatmadja borrows elements from many other Asian family horrors and recreates them into his own craft juxtaposing the chilling atmosphere that lurks around the cold conflicts that become the story’s heart.
Soeriaatmadja is actually a decent director in his experimentation with atmospheric horror; but, horror is a niche. It takes a particular vision to craft an effective horror and the director doesn’t always have it. He’s more than capable to incorporate the murky atmosphere into the drama; but, he somehow slacks in planting the breadcrumbs to foreshadow any harrowing moments. Oftentimes, Affliction resorts to cheap jump-scare build-ups even when there’s no actual jump-scare launches. It’s after all a missed opportunity.