How To Cook Marlina’s Sup Ayam

by: , February 6, 2024

Content Warning: This Video Contains Depictions of Sexual Violence.


The last place I expected to find a recipe was in a rape-revenge film. Yet, there it was, in the first act of the critically acclaimed Indonesian film Marlina Si Pembunuh dalam Empat Babak/Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts ( 2017) directed by Mouly Surya. When Marlina realises that the gang of men at her doorstep have come to rape and rob her, she knows that she must kill them as a pre-emptive act of self-defence. The men’s entitled demand to be served a hearty meal before they assault her becomes an unexpected advantage, offering Marlina a uniquely female way to exterminate them.

Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May 2017, only five months before the revelations of Harvey Weinstein’s systemic sexual abuse of women in Hollywood sparked the popularisation of #MeToo. By the time Marlina finally made theatrical rounds in November that year, audiences in Indonesia and around the globe had glimpsed a possible new world where the veil of patriarchal impunity had lifted, and men finally had to answer for their sins. Women, in particular, approached discussions of rape culture and systemic gender-based violence with renewed energy, and Marlina was consequently received with much enthusiasm.

Although the success of Marlina was spurred by the collective sense of female fury in the wake of #MeToo, it is important to recognize that the film preceded the movement and speaks to a wider history of rape and revenge stories in Indonesia’s folklore and cinema. As yet, there has been no substantive study of rape-revenge films in Indonesia, but they are by no means foreign to the country, even if the genre has hitherto not been studied as such. One of the earliest examples of the rape-revenge film in Indonesia can be found in the classic ghost film Sundelbolong (1981) by veteran director Sisworo Gautama Putra. Here, the titular protagonist, Alisa, avenges her rape when she is resurrected after death in supernatural form as a sundelbolong. The sundebolong is a female ghost from Javanese folklore who is said to be the ghost of a woman who died as a result of rape. She is identified by a gaping, rotten hole in her back (sundel meaning ‘prostitute’ and bolong, ‘hole’). Sophia Siddique translates ‘sundelbolong’ as ‘the hollowed bitch’ and likens the sundelbolong’s iconic, putrid void to the grotesque, ruptured body of the monstrous feminine during and after the act of birth (2002: 27).

Despite the supernatural elements of Sundelbolong, the film shares the rape-revenge genre’s sexual politics where institutionally sanctioned male violence cannot escape the extrajudicial vengeance brought by women seeking justice. Notably, Sundelbolong was written and directed by men, as is common during this period in Indonesian cinema and, more generally, in Southeast Asia. In fact, from the 1970s to 2000s, over a dozen films featuring rape and revenge elements were produced in Southeast Asian countries such as Cambodia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand. Yet, out of these, only one was directed by a woman. I note this not to claim that female-directed films are inherently feminist, or ‘more feminist’ than male-directed ones. Nonetheless, it is worth recognizing the intriguing juxtaposition between the rape-revenge genre’s dependence on female vulnerability and male authorial voices.

Made in the years shortly after the fall of Suharto’s New Order government (1998), Nan Triveni Achnas’s debut feature film Pasir Berbisik/Whispering Sands (2001) follows a mother and her daughter as they are forced to flee in-land after civil unrest breaks out near their coastal village. Contrary to comments made by men around them, the women are not safer when the father is present. He is not a benign and protective figure, but a self-serving and duplicitous man who trades his daughter for financial favours. The film strongly implies that sexual violence is a patriarchal contract shared between men—an idea made explicit in Marlina where men laugh over lewd conversations about gang rape.

Unsurprisingly, when Whispering Sands premiered in Indonesia, male audiences did not welcome the parallels drawn between patriarchal authority and gender-based violence. When asked about this, Achnas recalled:

I found out that men, especially Indonesian men, have problems watching Pasir Berbisik . . . men who have a problem with women, they don’t get it. They say, “What kind of film is it?” You know it is about abuse, it’s about an authoritarian figure of a father, it’s about the negative sides of a father. You know it is uncomfortable for men to handle this issue here in Indonesia. (Michalik 2013: 185)

Although Achnas does not explain what is meant by ‘a problem with women’ or what it means to ‘get it’, it is not difficult to guess that unhappy male audiences were responding to what they perceived as the film’s unfair and unflattering portrait of Indonesian masculinity.

Importantly, Whispering Sands and, later on, Marlina, have chosen to present sexual violence differently from their predecessors. In past decades, rape-revenge films were fixated on identifiable acts of physical assault where depictions of sexual violence comprised extreme performances of male aggression or female suffering. In other words, in these early rape-revenge films only graphic violence is coded as real. Achnas and Surya, on the other hand, expand the onscreen definition of violence to include the everyday psychological intimidation and negotiation women undertake when navigating in the world of men.

In my video essay, ‘How to Cook Marlina’s Sup Ayam’, I reimagine Marlina’s cooking of a poisoned pot of sup ayam (chicken soup) as a recipe for culinary self-defence. As a woman, and more pertinently, a young widow living alone in an isolated part of a rural town, Marlina must quickly adapt when the gang of men invite themselves into her home. Stoic and vigilant, Marlina expertly navigates the treacherous and claustrophobic space of her own home. She must steel her nerves, retrieve her secret stash of poisonous berries, mix it into a delicious broth, and calmly serve the lethal dish to her would-be rapists. Through visually isolating Marlina’s movements, it quickly becomes apparent that her sup ayam consists of so much more than tossing chicken and bones into a pot of boiling water.

The form of the video essay allows me to interact with the film in a direct manner. As I overlay the 10 steps of Marlina’s recipe onto scenes of her cooking, my intertitles become interjections that study her carefully choreographed movements. The spectator’s attentive eye follows Marlina as her distress gives way to cunning and watches as she sneaks around arming herself in plain sight, ignored by the gang who is ignorantly confident that they have the upper hand simply because they are men. As I have sought to demonstrate, Achnas and Surya ask that attention be refocused on the often invisible and intangible manifestations of male violence and demand that these subtle experiences of everyday intimidation and violence be granted legitimacy. In a delicious moment of poetic justice, the protagonists in both films chose to deliver their revenge in equally imperceptible ways—through poisoned concoctions.

Barely a year after Marlina’s premiere, a reference to the film was spotted at the 2018 Jakarta’s Women March. A pair of young participants were photographed smiling and posing with a large pink sign that read, ‘SUP AYAM MARLINA UNTUK PARA MISOGINIS AND PATRIARKIS’ (‘MARLINA’S CHICKEN SOUP FOR MISOGYNISTS AND PATRIARCHS’). Despite the dish only appearing briefly in the film’s first act, the participants’ poster eloquently captured the immediate cultural impact of Marlina’s to-die-for sup ayam. Like women around the world who were poised for a reckoning, Marlina may have only executed her plan in an urgent moment of desperation, but her recipe tells us that she has known of the need to prepare for this moment a long time ago.

They say that every woman needs a good recipe to keep in her back pocket. Memorise this one and pass it on.


Michalik, Yvonne (ed.) (2013), Indonesian Women Filmmakers, Berlin: Regiospectra.

Siddique, Sophia (2022), ‘Haunting Visions of the Sundelbolong: Vampire Ghosts and the Indonesian National Imaginary’, Spectator, Vol. 22, No. 2, pp. 24-33.


Pasir Berbisik/Whispering Sands (2001), dir. Nan Triveni Achnas.

Marlina Si Pembunuh dalam Empat Babak/Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts (2017), dir. Mouly Surya.

Sundelbolong (1981),dir. Sisworo Gautama Putra.

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