Muzakki Ramdhan as Jody, left, and Marissa Anita as Murni in 'A Mother's Love,' Joko Anwar's television film that forms part of HBO Asia's 'Folklore' anthology. (Photo courtesy of HBO Asia)

Joko Anwar's 'A Mother's Love' Humanizes Javanese Ghost, Criticizes Negligent Parents


SEPTEMBER 20, 2018

Jakarta. In Javanese mythology, wewe gombel is a female supernatural being with long hair and long breasts, who kidnaps little children. In Joko Anwar's "A Mother's Love," wewe gombel is still a child-abducting ghost, but she is desperate to be a mother, evoking empathy rather than fear.

"A Mother's Love" is part of HBO Asia's latest anthology called "Folklore," which consists of television films based on folktales from six countries. Joko, acclaimed director of "Pengabdi Setan" ("Satan's Slaves"), "Pintu Terlarang" ("The Forbidden Door") and "Janji Joni" ("Joni's Promise"), has been selected to represent Indonesia.

Joko previously worked with HBO Asia to direct the first season of "Halfworlds," a television series featuring human versions of local ghosts such as kuntilanak and genderuwo.

Joko said during a press conference in Jakarta on Sept. 14 that he specifically chose wewe gombel for "A Mother's Love" because the mythical character had emotional baggage that could be explored further.

"There are many origins of wewe gombel. She has different names in different regions, but wewe gombel is the most familiar name. Those stories are basically the same, about a demon who kidnaps children. But why does she do it? After I dug deeper, many said wewe is a ghost who couldn't have children when she was still alive then died before that wish could be fulfilled," Joko said.

He added that many urban legends depict wewe gombel as a woman who could not bear children, so her husband cheated on her. Then she committed suicide and turned into a ghost.

Joko concluded that wewe gombel is a figure who "has much love to give but can't do so because she has no children." Wewe is often illustrated to have giant breasts, which Joko also interpreted as a symbol of her excessive, yet suppressed affection.

In this film, wewe gombel only kidnaps children who are neglected by their parents. She shows her love by feeding them, though the food consists of dry leaves and human feces.

With that, Joko aimed to criticize modern parents. Though this film is set in Jakarta, he gave an example of children in Hamburg, Germany, protesting their parents' excessive use of mobile phones.

"It's so sad because, as I said before, there's someone who has that much love and perhaps has plans on raising a child, yet in society there are many people who brush their children off," Joko said.

His films mainly deal with family issues. In "Pengabdi Setan," the mother entered a cult so she could conceive a child, while in "Pintu Terlarang," a child is profoundly traumatized by the physical abuse he receives from his parents.

"A family is the smallest, most important unit in society. I've seen that there are many families who don't function well, especially because of the parents. This will lead to an unhealthy society. That's why my movies are mostly about dysfunctional families… 'A Mother's Love' is a wake-up call for people who have many children, but don't pay attention to them. So it's not just a horror movie; there's something to say to the society," he said.

In terms of the setting, he said that the city suits the story best.

"In the village, the community is more close-knit, so neighbors can watch over each other's children, while in the city, people are more indifferent toward each other," Joko said.

More Drama Than Horror

From left, Joko Anwar, Muzakki Ramdhan and Marissa Anita during a press conference for 'A Mother's Love' at Grand Hyatt Hotel in Central Jakarta on Sept. 14. (JG Photo/Cahya Nugraha)

"A Mother's Love" follows Murni (Marissa Anita), a poor single mother struggling to provide for her only son, Jody [Muzakki Ramdhan]. Murni takes a job as a cleaner at a big house in Jakarta when the owners are out of town. In the attic she finds children, who are held hostage by wewe gombel. The rescue of the children enrages the wewe, who then seeks revenge. The relationship between Murni and Jody is tested as the wewe attempts to make Murni abandon her son.

There are more emotional scenes rather than jump scares because Joko said relying on jump scares alone "will not make the film resonate with viewers after watching it."

Marissa said this film is essentially "a drama with horror elements."

Marissa, who also starred as a prostitute in "Halfworlds" and as Sipon, the wife of missing poet Wiji Thukul in "Istirahatlah Kata-Kata" ("Solo, Solitude"), said she is drawn to emotionally charged characters. She cried after reading Joko's script for the first time.

"When I read Joko's script, it wasn't the horror that I felt. This is a drama with a remarkable emotional rollercoaster that keeps going up and down. I like those kinds of roles that make me step out of my usual self. Maybe people see me every day on television as a journalist, but they now see me torn apart by my emotions because loving this child [her onscreen son, Jody] gets hard," said Marissa, who is also a television presenter and stage actress.

"A Mother's Love" is set to premiere on HBO, HBO GO and HBO On Demand at 9 p.m. Jakarta time on Sunday, Oct. 7.

Along with Pen-ek Ratanaruang's "Pob," another film in the Folklore anthology, "A Mother's Love" had its global premiere on Friday as part of the Toronto International Film Festival's Primetime program, which features projects intended for television. They are the first Asian television movies ever included in the Primetime program.