You 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.
Original trailer (English subtitles)