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)

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)