Two Blue Stripes (Dua Garis Biru, Gina S. Noer, 2019)

In less enlightened times, unplanned teenage pregnancy was sometimes seen as a grand tragedy involving the potential ruin of at least three lives. Thankfully, in many places at least, it isn’t quite like that anymore though for the young couple at the centre of Gina S. Noer’s sensitive yet lighthearted drama Two Blue Stripes (Dua Garis Biru) their impending parenthood exposes a series of divisions in a changing society as their families, one poor and religious, the other wealthy and secular though obsessed with respectability, react in quite different ways to the news their child is about to have a child of their own. 

At 17, Bima (Angga Yunanda) and Dara (Adhisty Zara) are a bashful high school couple eagerly planning their futures. While Bima is not exactly a top student, Dara gets good grades and is obsessed with K-Pop, hoping to travel to Korea for university. One day however they get a little carried away and some time later Dara begins to suspect she may be expecting. Originally opting for an abortion, she later finds she can’t go through with it and the young couple decide that if only they can keep the pregnancy a secret until after graduation they’ll be able to figure something out. Unfortunately, however, the ruse is uncovered when Dara is taken ill during a PE session and accidentally reveals the pregnancy while worried about the baby. 

The surprising thing is that Bima’s parents who are devoted to their Islamic faith are the most sympathetic, quickly accepting that what’s happened has happened and needs to be dealt with as calmly and sensitively as possible if also somehow disappointed in Bima while quietly proud of his surefooted though naive pledge to take responsibility. Dara’s parents, however, and in particular her mother Rika (Lulu Tobing) are far less understanding, intensely questioning their daughter in the grim “hope” that Bima may have forced himself on her and she is therefore “blameless”. This rather old fashioned, sexist notion of female purity is further borne out by the school who confess that they aren’t allowed to expel Dara because of her pregnancy, but all the same are asking her to leave meaning she won’t be able to take her exams with the other pupils while nothing will happen to Bima who will be permitted to go to class as normal. 

For Rika shame and confusion seem to be the primary motivators. Attempting to sweep the whole thing under the carpet, she begins talking to a pair of relatives who are desperate for a baby and weren’t able to have any of their own in the hope they will adopt. Affluent and seemingly secular, her worry is perhaps only partly reputation and the fear her own parenting will be called in question with the remainder a sense of frustration that a single moment may have undone all her daughter’s hopes for the future along with all the ambitions she had for her. 

Dara, meanwhile, continues to dream of going to Korea hoping somehow she’ll be able to make it work as young mother. For his part, Bima makes it clear that she should be able to fulfil her dreams if that’s what she wants, never trying to tie her down and always keen to shoulder his sense of the burden. Young and in love they want to stay together and try to make a family of their own, but they are also naive little realising both the differences between them and difficulties of supporting themselves independently. Bima ends up working in his father-in-law David’s (Dwi Sasono) restaurant, proving a good employee and perhaps earning his respect but simultaneously losing Dara’s as he slacks off on his studies, she somewhat disappointed to think he might end up waiting tables for the rest of his life exposing her slightly snobbish attitude further borne out by her reaction on arriving at Bima’s comparatively humble family home. 

In an interesting role reversal, however, it is eventually Bima who takes on the stereotypically “maternal” role pledging to stay home and raise his son while affording Dara the opportunity to pursue her dreams. The parents meanwhile also reflect on their failure to properly prepare their children for adulthood, wishing that they had been less bashful and talked properly about sex so that they might have made better informed choices. “How are we supposed to love, to breathe, to be, when it hurts?” asks the plaintive song running over the closing scenes ironically titled “Growing Up”, each of the youngsters perhaps wondering just that as they try to come to terms with their respective choices while embarking on the next stage of their lives no longer children but perhaps no more certain. 


Two Blue Stripes streams in the US until March 31 as part of the 12th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Queen of Black Magic (Ratu Ilmu Hitam, Kimo Stamboel, 2019)

“I’m not here just to punish you, I’m here to create hell” the vengeful tormentor at the centre of Kimo Stamboel’s contemporary remake of the 1981 classic The Queen of Black Magic (Ratu Ilmu Hitam) cooly intones. Reminding her victims that not to know is also a sin, the shadowy villainess has come she says to create hell on Earth because she is uncertain that mortal transgressions will be suitably punished after death and means to ensure those who have sinned suffer accordingly. Quite literally trapped in the space of their trauma, the heroes attempt to find a way out of their guilt and shame but are perhaps confronted as much by themselves as by a witch hellbent on justice as they try to find escape from the traumatic past. 

Hanif (Ario Bayu) and his wife Nadya (Hannah Al Rashid) have foregone their planned holiday to Bali to visit the man who ran the orphanage where Hanif spent much of his childhood who is now apparently close to death. This comes as a surprise to their three children who hadn’t realised their father was adopted or really ever thought about kids who don’t have parents, and though they are perhaps annoyed to have missed out on their holiday they are also a little excited to be going somewhere so unusual. Unfortunately however, the family’s cheerful mood is broken when they hit what they assume is a deer on their way to the orphanage casting an air of foreboding over their journey. 

Though it appears Hanif has been “open” with his wife about his past, the same is not necessarily true for his “brothers” Anton (Tanta Ginting) and Jefri (Miller Khan) who have also brought their partners to meet Mr. Bandi (Yayu A.W. Unru), Jefri’s wife Lina (Salvita Decorte) complaining that she knew nothing about any of this until they were already in the car on their way over. Far from a happy reunion, however, the brief sojourn at the orphanage begins to highlight the strain on each of the familial relationships, Lina apparently experiencing a kind of body dysmorphia and preoccupied with her weight while Anton’s wife Eva (Imelda Therinne) is constantly applying moisturiser to guard against a mysterious rash she was convinced was down to flesh eating bacteria but others feel is simply “dry skin”. These will however be the least of their worries as the men vaguely hint on voicing their anxiety that Mr. Bandi’s biological children may sell the estate to developers unsure of “what they’ll uncover”.

This perhaps implies that the now grown up men know more than they’re willing to admit about the dark secrets the orphanage hides, something which Hanif has in any case not shared with his wife who has only a rosy picture of his childhood with Mr. Bandi who eyes her with nervous suspicion even on his death bed. Nevertheless, the men have each been drawn back to the source of their trauma and now find themselves unable to escape without a reckoning, recalling a similar occasion that they tried to run only to find themselves mysteriously brought back as if by some supernatural force. There are indeed dark, other worldly forces in play but also a healthy dose of patriarchal violence, entrenched misogyny, abuse of power, and as the villainess had hinted a wilful tendency not to see especially when it comes protecting the most vulnerable members of society, children without parents who are easily manipulated in the knowledge that, as Hanif originally puts it, they would otherwise die abandoned. 

Justifying a particularly ironic part of her revenge plan, the witch reveals that the orphans may in fact be better off dead than raised by a man like Bandi, something which Hanif himself echoes if not quite with the same intent. Creating her hell, she forces her prey to harm themselves and each other with a variety of weapons ranging from kitchen knives, scythes, and comparatively more modern projectile weapons to insects literally choking the guilty from the inside. The orphanage itself is a place out of time, frozen as it was during Hanif’s childhood, one of the two orphans to have remained behind as mystified by Hanif’s inquisitive son Haqi’s (Muzakki Ramdhan) references to such things as “the internet”, “wi-fi” and “streaming” as he is by the “scary” VHS tape she shows him featuring actual footage of his father and a mysterious figure of legend. Yet even in realising they have allowed themselves to serve poor masters, deceived by a man they trusted, there is a sense the men at least, absent from the final frames, may never be able to free themselves from their guilt, forever haunted by the spectre of those they have unwittingly harmed. An eerie, gory, dread-propelled voyage through human cruelty to supernatural retribution, Queen of Black Magic positions the evil that men do ahead of that performed by vengeful witches looking for spiritual justice as its misused heroes attempt to find accommodation at least with the traumatic past.  


The Queen of Black Magic is available to stream via Shudder in the US, Canada, UK, Ireland, Australia, and New Zealand from 28th January.

Trailer (English subtitles)

Letter to an Angel (Surat untuk Bidadari, Garin Nugroho, 1994)

A lonely, motherless child’s infinite “curiosity” threatens to destabilise the intensely traditional world in which he lives in Garin Nugroho’s melancholy Sumba fairytale, Letter to an Angel (Surat untuk Bidadari). Taking ownership of a borrowed camera, the boy seeks instant images in order to make sense of his existence and thereafter to explain the way sees the world to those around him, but often finds that his messages go unheard while his society finds itself pulled towards a fractured modernity anchored by corrupted male authority. 

At nine years old, Lewa (Windy) is in a way no one’s child and everyone’s. While his father works his land, Lewa rides his horse or spends time with the local women in search of echoes of the mother he lost in infancy. Somewhat literal, he finds it difficult to follow his Indonesian textbook, stumbling over the simple phrase “this is my mother” which might under the circumstances be an insensitive sentence at the best of times, but in this case because the illustration is of a typical Indonesian woman rather than a woman from his community and does not resemble him or the image he had in his mind of his mother. Asking his father about her elicits only partial history as he shows him the wreckage of the bus accident in which she died, Lewa becoming mistakenly fixated on the poster of Madonna (in name at least literally “the mother”) pasted on the side, snapping it with a polaroid camera gifted to him by a sympathetic travelling performer. 

“Pictures show reality” he muses, talking to another of his maternal figures, Berlian Merah (Nurul Arifin), the village’s most beautiful woman. Beauty can, however, be a curse though she perhaps won’t quite know that. Evil local big wig land grabber and Elvis obsessive Kuda Liar (Adi Kurdi) desires her and so manoeuvres to have her husband killed. Not content, he later goes after Lewa’s other mother figure, the school teacher who told him of an angel who could heal the sick and bring the dead back to life. Muddling images in his mind, Lewa skips school and writes letters to the angel as if she were his mother, looking for comfort and guidance but finding little more than frustrating silence. Kuda Liar hassles his father for his land, and his mothers for their bodies, thinking nothing of throwing little Lewa himself off a cliff simply for the crime of existing. 

Yet Lewa is repeatedly saved by his village chief who insists that Lewa is a good kid and being “curious” is no bad thing. It’s that curiosity, however, that repeatedly gets him into trouble, especially when he takes a photo of something he shouldn’t and offends a neighbouring village, triggering a long dormant feud into a moment of mass violence. “I don’t understand why I’m told I’m a bad person when all I wanted was to show my father’s real face” he writes in a letter on another occasion, unable to understand why others are not curious in the same way as he is, unwilling to see his version of the truth as mediated by the “reality” of his photographs. 

Garin Nugroho too is determined to capture a certain kind of “reality” of the lives of the islanders as they practice their traditional culture, including footage of a series of rituals as they are performed complete with bloody acts of animal cruelty while Kuda Liar is at least forced into performative contrition in a “ceremony of forgiveness” for throwing Lewa off the cliff (into water, he is unharmed), demonstrating the way such ceremonies are used to mediate disputes within the community unlike the more “civilised” trial which occurs at the film’s conclusion, charged with discerning a more concrete notion of “reality” but in actuality setting out to prove a preconceived narrative, unwilling to hear the truths of others. It’s this contradictory authority that Lewa struggles to parse, looking desperately for his mother while inheriting only problematic visions of masculinity from his distant, angry father, to the “mad” uncle Malaria (Fuad Idris), and the cruel eccentricity of Kuda Liar. Eventually it imprisons him with the notion that he must be “rehabilitated”, presumably to become less “curious”, taking away from him the means to define his own reality for himself but allowing him perhaps to find that which he had been looking for.   


Letter to an Angel streamed as part of this year’s San Diego Asian Film Festival.

Trailer (English subtitles)

Gundala (Joko Anwar, 2019)

“If we see injustice before our eyes and do nothing then we’re no longer humans” the idealistic father of a future superhero instructs his young son, trying to impart a sense of humanitarianism as a basic moral good. It’s a lesson the boy will find himself unlearning and resuming later, his innocence well and truly destroyed by an often cruel and cynical society only to be reawakened to the idea that it doesn’t need to stay that way. Among the most recognisable names of Indonesian cinema, Joko Anwar turns his hand to the creation of a local comic book cinematic universe, adapting the 1969 comic Gundala by Harya “Hasmi” Suraminata for the present day filtering contemporary Jakarta through classic Gotham. 

Operating as an origin story for the titular hero, Gundala opens with the young hero Sancaka (Muzakki Ramdhan) unable to prevent his father’s (Rio Dewanto) death due to his fear of electrical storms when he is first set up by a duplicitous factory boss and then assassinated while leading a protest for fair pay and conditions. Soon after, Sancaka loses his mother (Marissa Anita) too after she is forced to go to the city for work and never returns. Ending up a ragged street kid, he’s saved from an attack by a rival gang by an older boy (Faris Fadjar Munggaran) who teaches him how to protect himself physically and mentally by convincing him that the only way to survive on the street is keep his head down and walk on by even if it looks like others are in trouble. 20 years later the adult Sancaka (Abimana Aryasatya) is an aloof young man working as a security guard at a print house where his sympathetic mentor Agung (Pritt Timothy) begins to remind him of his father in his conviction that “living is no use if you stop caring and only think about yourself”, while he also finds himself defending the woman next-door, Wulan (Tara Basro), and her young brother Teddy (Bimasena Prisai Susilo), from hired thugs sent to intimidate them because of their involvement in a protest against the forced redevelopment of a local marketplace.  

Events seem echo around him. The major villain Pengkor (Bront Palarae) is also an orphan but on the opposing side as the son of a cruel plantation owner murdered by his not altogether ideologically pure workers whose desire for fair pay and conditions he had resolutely ignored. According to cynical politician Ridwan (Lukman Sardi), Pengkor became a union organiser of his own, leading an uprising at the abusive orphanage he was placed into by a cruel uncle hoping he’d die and free up the inheritance, thereafter becoming a kind of godfather to the fatherless with a thousands strong army of eternally grateful orphans he saved acting as sleeper agents for a coming revolution. 

Pengkor’s nefarious plan involves fostering a conspiracy surrounding contaminated rice said to make the unborn children of the women who eat it turn out “immoral”, a generation of psychopaths unable to tell right from wrong. Fairly unscientific, it has to be said, but playing directly into the central questions of the nature of “morality” in a “immoral” society. Can it really be “moral” for bosses to exploit their workers and get away with it, for politicians to cosy up to gangsters and remain complicit with corruption, and for a man like Pengkor to be the only hope for orphaned street kids otherwise abandoned and ignored by a wilfully indifferent society? Pengkor decries that hope is the opiate of the masses, but that’s exactly what Gundala eventually becomes for them in his “electric” ability to resist, eventually rediscovering his humanity as he designates himself as the embodiment of “the people” pushing back against the forces of oppression and seeming at least to win if only momentarily.  

Young Sancaka’s fear of lightning is, in essence, a fear of his power and his social responsibility something he is quite literally shocked into accepting. In a world of quite striking social inequality, he finds himself the lone defender of the oppressed whose very existence spurs others, including previously cynical politician Ridwan, into rediscovering their own humanity in the resurgent hope of a better future. As someone puts it, peace never lasts long but you keep fighting for it because every moment is precious. Not so much a battle of good versus evil as a battle for the meaning of good, Anwar’s Gundala recalibrates the anxieties of the late ‘60s for the modern era and creates an everyman hero not only to resist them but to foster a spirit of resistance and humanity in the face of heartless cynicism. 


Gundala streams in Poland until 6th December as part of the 14th Five Flavours Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Memories of My Body (Kucumbu Tubuh Indahku, Garin Nugroho, 2018)

Memories of My Body posterYou view life through a tiny hole, as the narrator of Garin Nugroho’s Memories of My Body (Kucumbu Tubuh Indahku) so often observes. Loosely based on the life of Lengger Lanang dancer and choreographer Lianto, Nugroho’s 19th film examines the physicality of history as bodies become maps of trauma and dislocation while its itinerant hero is pushed from pillar to post through a series of abandonments and upheavals that leave him at the mercy of a society permanently on the brink of eruption.

We begin with the older Juno who narrates his story to us as if it were a piece of ritual theatre. The camera pans left and we meet Juno (Raditya Evandra) as a child – or more precisely, the child of the older Juno’s memory. Abandoned by his father, the boy begins hanging around a troupe of Lengger dancers for whom sensuality is all. Though Juno was originally attracted to the show for this very reason, peeping at the ladies through another “tiny hole” in the wall, he eventually becomes disillusioned with the dancers when he sees the group’s leader viciously beat an underling for having sex with his assistant at her instigation.

Sex, violence, and dancing continue to define the young Juno’s life even after he is taken in by an aunt when it becomes clear his father will never return. Following a brief obsession with chickens, Juno is then sent on to live with an uncle who trains him as a tailor where he develops a friendship with an ultra macho, soon-to-be-married boxer (Randy Pangalila) who too longs to be free of his bodily constraints but has become indebted to gangsters. Before long he finds himself in motion again before coming full circle as a costuming assistant with a troupe of travelling dancers where he becomes a favourite of the “Warok” (Whani Darmawan) but also the object of unattainable affection for the local military representative (Teuku Rifnu Wikana) of a corrupt regime whose insoluble jealousy seems set to burn the world around him.

As Juno’s uncle later tells him, bodies can go anywhere but they take their traumas with them. Even so, you have to love your body or all is lost. His uncle goes on to add that this family is particularly burdened, explaining the reason for his brother’s coldness to his son which turns out to lie in a rational distrust of family born of seeing his own massacred in a river, a sight he couldn’t seem to forget and eventually decided to erase by leaving his home and family far behind for the anonymous vistas of an unfamiliar island. Juno’s own traumas, as he seems to remember them, imprint themselves on his physicality and give weight to his dance as he tells his own story, filled with abandonments, rejections, transformations and rebirths in the intensely repressive atmosphere of a nation trapped in perpetual revolutions.

Juno’s own, slow path towards delight in his own body takes place against a series of external reformations obliquely referenced in a red terror threat to have the dancers denounced as communists, while primacy of religion remains paramount – the local military officer running for office, or more particularly his eminently practical but perhaps also compromised wife, is panicked by a photo in which he unwisely took Juno’s hand in public. Merely grasping a hand becomes suspect in an atmosphere of intense suspicion and any hint of impropriety potentially enough to destabilise an already volatile situation.

Illicit romantic jealously spurs on a greater tragedy, and Juno is soon on the road again. As Juno says, you see life only through a tiny hole – in this case through the rhythmic history of an itinerant dancer whose stage is perpetually ripped away from him as external freedoms shrink and all that remains is the unification of the contradictory elements of one’s own soul and the authenticity of touch and movement. Poetically told and boasting a wonderful selection of classic Indonesian pop music, Memories of My Body is a beautiful exploration of “muscle memory” as lived history and the tangible effects of a life lived in turbulent times.


Memories of My Body screens as part of the eighth season of Chicago’s Asian Pop-Up Cinema on April 23, at Joffrey Ballet Tower Studio A, 10 East Randolph Street, 7pm.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

May the Devil Take You (Sebelum Iblis Menjemput, Timo Tjahjanto, 2018)

may the devil take you posterTop travel tip – if you encounter a door which is plastered with Buddhist sutras, it’s generally a very bad idea to open it. In this case, just not opening the door is a valid and very sensible option. Sadly, it’s one the protagonists of Timo Tjahjanto’s May the Devil Take You (Sebelum Iblis Menjemput) decided not to take. Following Joko Anwar’s Satan’s Slaves, May the Devil Take You also has a few hard questions to ask about the nature of “family” and how strong those bonds really are when the supernatural presses on already exposed nerves.

The film opens with formerly successful property entrepreneur Lesmana (Ray Sahetapy) entering some kind of agreement with a demonic shamaness whom he later kills and hides in the basement of his remote country villa. An undisclosed amount of time later, Lesmana is struck down with a mystery illness which forces his fractured family back together. Alfie (Chelsea Islan), Lesman’s estranged daughter from his first marriage, is called back to the bedside along with her step-siblings Ruben (Samo Rafael) and Maya (Pevita Pearce), famous actress step-mother Laksmi (Karina Suwandhi), and half-sister Nara (Hadijah Shahab). Forced politeness eventually gives way to resentment, especially when Laksmi begins to ponder selling the villa which is technically in Alfie’s name even if still thought of as a “family” property. When everybody unexpectedly turns up at the same time in search of things of value, they have very little idea of what it is that awaits them there.

Once again the threat is a bad inheritance in which the children are forced to pay for the crimes of their “father” who has let greed get the better of him and allied with dark supernatural forces in order to make himself fabulously wealthy. Lesmana’s sensational success is less due to his business acumen than to selling his soul, well not actually “his” but those belonging to his loved ones, to the Devil. His business empire apparently in tatters, Lesmana has both a problem and a solution, but the Devil is always wanting more and there may lines Lesmana won’t cross even when he is apparently willing to sacrifice the lives his wife and children just to be accounted a “success”.

There may be horrors lurking in the cellar of every home, but in this one they are quite literal and very, very angry. Family, as a concept, is the weapon the Devil chooses to wield, poking into all the dark and uncomfortable corners that basic civility usually leads most to avoid. Alfie, angry and carrying the trauma of her mother’s death, is resentful of her father’s new family and most particularly of her imperious step-mother whom even Maya later describes as “not a good person”. Yet for all that she can’t quite bring herself to “hate” her step-siblings, especially the kindly Ruben who seems to have embraced his role as a natural peacemaker. Their bonds will be tested by insidious evil which presses hard on their insecurities of their awkward family set-up in which no-one quite feels accepted, or wanted, or loved by almost anyone else.

Then again, family itself becomes a source of salvation when the buried past is unearthed and then reburied having been properly dealt with. Rather than a comment of Lesmana’s rejection of traditional religion and misuse of black magic, May the Devil Take You is an exploration in the desperation of a greedy man whose desire for infinite instant gratification is matched only by the Devil himself. Lesmana was willing to sell his family for gold only to change his mind and lose them anyway. The supernatural horror is all too real, but rooted in the sins of the father and in the broken familial connections which continue trap each of the protagonists in the stereotypically creepy remote rural mansion complete with creaking floorboards and leaky ceilings. Tjahjanto’s awkward tone, over-reliant on genre norms to degree of parody but distinctly serious, makes for a strangely uneven experience but there is certainly enough hellish imagery to fuel the nightmares of many a susceptible viewer.


Screened at the 2018 BFI London Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Buffalo Boys (Mike Wiluan, 2018)

Buffalo Boys PortraitIndonesia is embracing the western in grand style. Following hot on the heals of Marlina the Murderer, Buffalo Boys picks up Hollywood’s most idiosyncratic genre and repurposes it to attack the thing that it ultimately stands for – colonialism, while also reasserting its perhaps more positive messages in the quests for honour, justice, and above all personal freedom. A tale of vengeance, Buffalo Boys makes unexpected revolutionaries of its two returnee heroes as they eventually come to realise that their personal quest must take second place to that of their nation as they attempt to liberate their people from the cruel oppression which has so directly affected the course of their own lives.

California, 1860. Brothers Jamar (Ario Bayu) and Suwo (Yoshi Sudarso) have been raised by their uncle Arana (Tio Pakusadewo), brought up in the precarious frontier environment since travelling to the New World as infants. After a shocking incident on a train leaves Arana injured, he realises it’s time to take the brothers back to their homeland to address the long buried past. Twenty years previously, Arana’s brother and the boys’ father, Hamza, was a Sultan who thought he could placate the Dutch colonisers by acquiescing to their demands, but was cruelly cut down by a vicious Captain, Van Trach, who executed him in cold blood. Arana fled with the children, leaving his wife behind and taking with him only the ancestral dagger to remind them of their legacy.

The boys have returned to avenge their father’s death by killing Van Trach (Reinout Bussemaker), but they find that things have only become worse in the twenty years they’ve been away. The Dutch are cruel masters who brand the native Indonesians like cattle, torturing those who won’t play along with their demands, and displaying the bodies of those deemed to have disobeyed their masters in the streets as examples to the others. The bodies which currently line the trees, belong to those who refused to clear their rice fields to grow opium poppies as the Dutch demanded, preferring to feed their families instead. Not content with beatings, torture, and executions Van Trach has now progressed to mass starvation which begs the question who he thinks will be tending to his poppies with half the population weakened through malnutrition.

As soon as the boys arrive they find themselves embroiled in a small conspiracy which leads them straight to Van Trach when they rescue the daughter of the local village head, Sri (Mikha Tambayong), from a lecherous collaborator. Thinking only of their individual revenge, the boys and their uncle plot and watch Van Trach but are increasingly touched by the plight of their people who struggle to survive under such a corrupt and oppressive regime. Poignantly reuniting with an old friend who has suffered years of brutal torture directly at the hands of Van Trach, the boys are reminded that their father was an honest and just man who would not want them to waste their lives in a pointless quest for vengeance, but to dedicate themselves to the wider cause of justice on behalf not just of themselves but of their people. 

Ironically enough, Jamar and Suwo are two returned “cowboys” who find themselves becoming legendary figureheads for a resistance movement on the behalf of the native local population against the cruel and oppressive colonial occupiers. Heavy stuff aside, Buffalo Boys is less an authentic exploration of the colonial era than a pulp fuelled Eastern western filled with exciting bar fights, adventure and romance. The boys are loosely paired off with the rescued Sri and her feisty sister Kiona (Pevita Pearce) who is the original “buffalo girl”, defying her father to ride buffalos and fire arrows at moving targets though sadly reverts to damsel in distress mode for most of the picture save for smashing a bad guy over the head with a bottle and then being allowed to do a little beheading of her own. Nevertheless, Buffalo Boys is a perfect encapsulation of the positive values of the “cinematic” western in its insistence on individual freedom from political oppression but makes sure to temper its central quest with humanistic virtues, making a case for forgiveness and altruism over coldhearted vengeance as the best way to move forward having made peace with the past.


Buffalo Boys was screened as part of the New York Asian Film Festival 2018.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Satan’s Slaves (Pengabdi Setan, Joko Anwar, 2017)

Satan's Slaves posterBad things happen in houses where they don’t pray. So says a kindly Imam in Joko Anwar’s chilling horror remake Satan’s Slaves (Pengabdi Setan). Taking inspiration from a 1982 classic, Anwar updates the tale of supernatural dread and familial breakdown for the new century while maintaining the early ‘80s setting and pushing back still further into the superstitious, gothic past. The family, threatened by financial, social, and spiritual pressures is stretched to breaking point by supernatural unease. Advised that the cure for their ills is religion, they begin to conform but, unlike the original, godliness cannot save them from a greater evil and if the family chooses to save itself, it will be through acts of selfless love rather than brutal adherence to a set of outdated social codes.

As the film begins, eldest daughter Rini (Tara Basro) – a 22-year-old former college student, has given up her studies and become the defacto maternal figure to her small family while her mother, Mawarni (Ayu Laksmi ), remains bedridden after a long illness. Mawarni was once a famous singer and the family’s breadwinner, but having been out of the spotlight so long her music has begun to go out of fashion. Royalties have dried up and there is little prospect of any further income. Lacking the funds to pay for ongoing hospital care, the family have brought Mawarni home to care for her themselves though the father (Bront Palarae), worrying about feeding his children, secretly urges his wife to be on her way to a better place, as a disturbed Rini hears him say from outside the door. Soon enough, Mawarni is gone, but not forgotten. Strange noises fill the old mansion as Mawarni’s bell continues to tinkle in the night, her records play without warning, and radios reset themselves to play her song. When dad leaves the siblings – 16-year-old Tony (Endy Arfian), 10-year-old Bondi (Nasar Annus), and 7-year-old Ian (M. Adhiyat) who is deaf and mute, in Rini’s care to head into the city in search of money, the kids are left to deal with the legacy of his moral cowardice all alone.

Adopting the trappings of the classic European gothic chiller, Satan’s Slaves sets itself in an old fashioned villa located in a forest some distance outside of the city. If the house were not creepy enough on its own, it is also conveniently located next to the local graveyard where Mawarni has now been laid to rest (in theory, at least). Moving in “next door”, a kindly Imam and his spiritually open minded son Hendra (Dimas Aditya) promise to provide pastoral care to the bereaved children but find themselves engulfed by the house’s increasing power to isolate and terrorise.

Tipped off by Hendra, Rini discovers a dark and disturbing secret regarding her mother’s former life and her own origins. Devolving into a vast conspiracy involving satanic fertility cults and their apparently omnipresent spy networks, Satan’s Slaves revels in its oppressive atmosphere of supernatural dread and human impotence as the children find themselves surrounded on all sides by faceless, umbrella wielding zombies lying in wait to tear their home apart.

Rini is told, by an old friend (Egy Fedly) of their grandmother’s (Elly D. Luthan), that the fertility cult requires child sacrifice but that the cult cannot take the child unless the family gives it up. She is being asked, quite literally, to put her life (and those of her siblings) on the line in order to save “the family”, yet “the family” or more particularly hers already has its problematic elements. Rini’s grandmother, recently deceased in mysterious circumstances, was not originally accepting of her daughter-in-law because of a class difference and also because of her occupation as an “entertainer” which was not considered respectable at the time. She only warmed to Mawarni once the children were born which was already some years into the marriage as Mawarni, finding it difficult to conceive, became desperate for a child and for her mother-in-law’s acceptance.

Rather than the lack of spiritual rigour which the Imam blames for the increasing demonic presence, it is these social taboos which seem to have opened the door to evil. The kids try the religious solution, but unsurprisingly it doesn’t help them. Literally haunted by their late mother who feels herself “abandoned” by her family, her loving husband hastening her death now that she is no longer economically useful and has become an unbearable burden, the only way to defeat this curse is to reverse it through unconditional familial love and solidarity even given what Rini now knows about her history. Oppressive in atmosphere yet filled with an eerie beauty as shadowy figures slowly colonise the misty Indonesian forest, Satan’s Slaves challenges the idea of “the family” in the face of strict patriarchal social codes and finds that in order to survive it must salvage itself through acts of defiance and self identification.


Screened at the 20th Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts (Marlina Si Pembunuh Dalam Empat Babak, Mouly Surya, 2017)

Marlina posterIf a widow poisons a bunch of bandits before decapitating their leader but no one bothers to investigate, has she committed any crime? Adopting the trappings of the spaghetti western, Mouly Surya’s Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts (Marlina Si Pembunuh Dalam Empat Babak) is less a tale of revenge than of survival. Marlina’s world is out to get her – a lone widow with property (and debt) is a magnet for the unscrupulous who think they can take what she has with little resistance. They are very wrong. Marlina has had enough of stoically putting up with the various trials fate has seen fit to send, and this time she intends to fight back with whatever resources are available to her.

We first meet Marlina (Marsha Timothy) one evening, home alone (except for the mummified corpse of her late husband sitting silently in the corner) on the small ranch she now operates without assistance. An unexpected visitor arrives by motorcycle and lets himself in, literally invading her property safe in the knowledge that she lacks the strength to eject him. The man, Markus (Egy Fedly), informs her that his men will soon arrive and if she’s “lucky” and they have time, they intend to have their way with her in addition to making off with her cattle and anything else that will fit in the van. Markus also asks Marlina to make him some chicken soup, which is something he’ll later regret. Or would have regretted if Marlina hadn’t hacked his head off with a machete while he raped her. Having poisoned all but two of the bandits and beheaded Markus, Marlina neatly tidies the bodies away into a cupboard, trusses up Markus’ head, and takes it with her on a journey to the police station to report her crime (and hopefully gain their protection against the other two bandits still on the loose).

Marlina has had her share of troubles. Having lost a child and now her husband, Marlina is a lone woman which makes her particularly vulnerable in an intensely patriarchal society. The bandits think she’s easy pickings because she is undefended. Entirely alone with no close neighbours and no apparent family members to fall back on, Marlina has only herself. This has however made her tough and resourceful, acutely aware of her precarious position and instantly wise to the bandits’ plans. Terrified but biding her time, she attempts to placate them until she manages to retrieve her poison berries (carefully stored for just such an occasion?) and slide them into the chicken soup Markus has been so kind as to order.

Unsure what to do next, Marlina looks to the police for guidance. Her friend, Novi (Dea Panendra) – 10 months pregnant, reminds her that the police won’t do anything about the bandits and she’ll only get herself in trouble. Novi advises her to come to church instead and gain peace of mind by confessing her sins, only Marlina doesn’t think she’s committed any. Novi’s prognostication about the police proves (partly) correct. Marlina sits in the waiting room, anxious and irritated, while the policemen continue their game of ping pong. When one finally does take her statement, he listens patiently and asks relevant questions, but eventually declares that they won’t be able to investigate because they don’t have any cars today and, being underfunded, won’t have the proper tools for weeks. Likewise, they can’t investigate the rape because they don’t have any rape kits or access to doctors and without evidence there is no crime. Marlina leaves a free woman but one with seven bodies in her cupboard she doesn’t know what to do with and two crazed bandits after her to retrieve their boss’ head.

If anyone’s going to save Marlina, it’ll have to be Marlina herself. Unfortunately a literal busload of other people including Novi and an older lady trying to get some ponies to her nephew’s wedding to rectify a shortfall in the dowry have got mixed up with the bandits’ ongoing vendetta. Where Marlina has become tough and independent, Novi is intent on getting her useless husband to listen to her and not the voice of superstition which attributes the late arrival of their child to “breech birth” as a symptom of promiscuous infidelity. Despite her devotion to him, Novi’s husband kicks his heavily pregnant wife to the ground and leaves her in the hands of mischief making bandit Franz (Yoga Pratama). Alone with Franz in Marlina’s house, Novi fights back horror to grab one of the dead bandit’s machetes but finds herself unable to strike until struck by the twin pains of labour and the screams of another woman in distress.

Beautifully photographed and filled with the wide-open plains and middle distance perspective of the 70s exploitation-leaning western, Marlina the Murderer is also a marvel of magical realism where headless corpses contribute to the soundtrack and pester our heroine for a restitution to which they are not entitled. Absurdist humour undercuts the grimness of Marlina’s plight and allows a kind of warmth to shine through as our two heroines find the strength to save each other, united in female solidarity. 


Currently on release at selected UK cinemas courtesy of Filmhouse.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Postcards from the Zoo (Kebun Binatang, Edwin, 2012)

postcards from the zoo posterThe thing about zoos is, how can you be sure which side of the bars you’re really on? The heroine of Edwin’s whimsical adventure, Postcards From the Zoo (Kebun Binatang), finds herself at home among the animals after being abandoned by her human father with the consequence that, to her, the outside world is the inverted mirror of her theme park home. Themes of exploitation, exoticisation, innocence and experience run side by side but then perhaps Edwin has tried to pack too much into his day out lending a degree of incoherence to his meandering itinerary.

As a young child, Lana (Ladya Cheryl) is abandoned in the zoo by her father. All alone, trapped in the park overnight, she wanders around exploring and calling out for her dad to come and get her. He doesn’t, years pass and suddenly Lana is a beautiful young woman, still living in the zoo after having been taken in by a giraffe handler, Oom Dave. Her life changes when a new authority takes over and immediately sets about trying to evict the collection of people who’ve made the zoo their home without the proper permission. Taking off with a handsome magician (Nicholas Saputra), Lana begins to explore the world outside but quickly finds that there are invisible bars everywhere.

Edwin ties Lana to the figure of the zoo’s solitary giraffe – a herd animal forced to live alone in Jakarta’s zoo as the sole representative of its kind. Certifiably nuts about giraffes, Lana rolls off various animal facts and expresses the long held desire the touch the giraffe’s stomach. Her status is confused; she’s both visitor and exhibit, caretaker and resident. The zoo is all Lana has ever known or wanted to know, and so when she must leave it, she does so with curious eyes, examining the regular world like a traveller on a journey to untold lands.

Becoming the magician’s assistant – a Tiger Lily to his cowboy, Lana travels the city as a co-conspirator in his life of hustling. Their odyssey brings them into the seedy underbelly of the modern capital with its heartless gangsters and oppressed women. Once again abandoned, Lana finds herself sinking into this world as one of many generic young women dressed in white, given a number (33), and placed behind glass waiting to be called forth by male visitors. Now literally an exhibit in a human zoo, Lana finds that things on this side of the enclosure are no different. While her customer asks her to dress up in a “tiger” suit (it’s a leopard, she quickly corrects him), a family with young children pose with a “tamed” python at the zoo. The twin pictures of exploitation neatly ram Edwin’s point home even if he allows Lana’s experiences to remain in the realms of whimsy, only hinting at the darkness of the “massage” industry in an early humiliating scene in which a naked, frightened woman is awkwardly sat with a grinning gangster as a kind of living trophy.

Broken with a series of title cards explaining zoo-related terminology each of which relate to the latest stages of Lana’s journey – “ex-situ conservation”, “reintroduction”, etc, Postcards from the Zoo maintains a kind of distanced affectation which undermines the whimsy of its magical realist stance. Lana’s journey is one of youthful exploration in which the adolescent must venture away from home in order to become adult and return home with wiser eyes but Lana’s quest, with her series of abandonments and mysteries, may perhaps never be finished. Edwin finds the whimsy of the zoo with its dinosaur shaped carts and strangely designed cowbus mimicked in the outside world with monkeys wearing doll masks and wandering magicians selling snake oil claiming to provide “instant youth” and cure roundworm, fungus, and stab wounds,  returning him to the “all the world’s a zoo” ethos which seems to pervade but even if he fails to bring his tale full circle he does at least allow a kind of harmony in the reunion of his twin symbols of the solitary, imprisoned giraffe and the curious little girl.


Original trailer (no subtitles)