Sunday, April 29, 2007

Three Short Film Reviews from SE Asia

Garasi (Indonesia, 2006), Directed by Agung Sentausa (debut film)

Rock films are still happening – not so much in the United States anymore but in fascinating locations like Indonesia. Garasi translates into garage - where so much of the great rock and roll music began – some kids forming a band for the pure love of music and practicing in their parent’s garage till their fingers bleed. This follows the traditional and often used story line from the formation of a band to their coming out party. Within that basic framework though, the film works in some sweet coming of age moments, a little critical social commentary and of course lots of rough house music. This being Indonesia don’t expect any drugs or sex to go along with the rock and roll – but the film is by no means a big happy marshmallow. Admittedly, much of the pleasure for many of us will simply be the milieu - a small town in Indonesia where one might least expect to find a film of this kind – but as this demonstrates the world is coming closer and closer together all the time.

Aga (Fedi Nuril) has just returned to Bandung from Jakarta and wants to form a rock band. It turns out his old easy going friend Awan (Aries Budiman) who is a drummer is also back in town after having lived in Tokyo for the past few years – so that part is easy but he still needs a vocalist. He thinks he spots one singing in a club but right after the gig she quits the band and walks away. He meets up with her again in the local record store which is run by three characters who give their customers quizzes before they part with their loved records (ala High Fidelity). Aga asks Gaia (Ayu Ratna) if she would be willing to come by his house the next day and see if they work well together. They do as Gaia tells him this is exactly the set up she has been looking for to transmit her vision and songs. They begin the arduous task of putting together a catalog of a few songs to play at local clubs and to put out a cheap CD. The music goes well but other issues slowly creep in – Aga’s difficult relationship with his brother who is a traditional gamelan musician and feels his brother is wasting his talents on rock music and a tentative romance between Aga and Gaia that is intruding on their music – but the real crusher is when a newspaper condemns Gaia for being illegitimate and her neighbors turn away from her and force her to flee town. But of course in the end music overcomes everything. Very nicely shot with lots of exteriors, the film moves back and forth comfortably between light comedy, drama and music. It’s main point of weakness is the indulgence of the director who perhaps should have cut back on the musical montage interludes a bit and though the actors do a reasonably fine job their lack of experience shows through as well – but Ayu in particular has a real hard edge fiery presence on the screen that is a welcome departure from most young sweet Indonesian actresses I have seen.

The three actors most amazingly wrote all the songs and formed a band called appropriately Garasi to perform them. Vocalist Ayu Ratna was discovered on Indonesian Idol where she made it into the finals but had to quit due to illness before her performance. She has a voice that reminds me a bit of vocalists like Tory Amos.

You can check one of the songs here on Youtube.

My rating for this film 7.5

Opera Jawa (Indonesia, 2006), Directed by Garin Nugroho

This is the sort of art film that can either make you hit the floor hard after you nod off or fall into a hypnotic jaw breaking trance. Fortunately for my noggin, I was mesmerized by this visionary Indonesian folk opera tale that is all told in song, dance, stunning costumes, startling images and exotic designs. It is simply an amazing piece of work unlike anything I have seen anyway and there are moments of such beauty and imagination that they were transcendent. At times it is astonishingly sensual as well with dance movements and themes that would possibly be taboo in most Indonesian films but likely got a pass due to the artistic designs of the film plus I tend to doubt that this had a theatrical run. It is a telling of an ancient tale from the Hindi Ramayana - The Abduction of Sinta - that explores morality and fidelity. The story though is brought into modern times and brings in plot elements such as street demonstrations and corrupt businessmen. In truth it was a bit difficult for me to follow the story at first because I was hesitant to read the sub-titles and take my eyes off the big picture.

Previous to her marriage, Siti was a well-known dancer and interpreter of Sinta, but after her wedding she has to settle into a traditional wife’s role to her husband Seito. His pottery business is not going well and he has seemingly become impotent and begins to ignore his beautiful wife. Into this situation dances the sleazy but wealthy local businessman Ludiro who very much desires Siti – and one scene of him hiding beneath her skirt when the husband comes home is remarkable. Full of costumes, masks, miles of cloth, hundreds of extra’s and endless imagination this can hold you in rapt attention though I would be the first to admit that many may be bored to tears if this doesn’t sound like their cup of tea. But quite honestly I was expecting to be one of the latter and found myself held completely captive by the constant undulating beauty of this film.

Singapore Dreaming (Singapore, 2006), Directed by Colin Goh and Ten Yen Woo

Sometimes your reaction to a film can be strongly influenced by what you were expecting versus what you end up seeing. I was thrown off here in the most simplest of ways – the picture on the DVD cover of an apparently happy smiling family led me to believe this would be a warm hearted comedy of sorts with a family pulling together to make good. Not exactly. In fact, the two directors (husband and wife) seem intent on angrily puncturing a hole in the supposed Singapore façade of an orderly society where everyone lives well. This has become a common theme in recent years with directors such as Jack Neo and his gentle satiric comedies or Royston Tan showing a seamier dead end side of Singapore that didn’t please the authorities all that much. Here the family unit is used as the pretext to explore and condemn the inherent class hierarchy and overt class consciousness as well as the materialistic nature of the Singaporeans. The five C’s are what Singaporeans aspire to – cash, condo, credit card, car and a country club – and if they don’t achieve these status symbols they look upon their life as a failure.

The Loh family would be classified as lower middle class, living in public housing but by no means poor. Living under the same roof is the debt ridden father (Richard Low), an old fashioned uneducated mother (Alice Lim), their son (Dick Soo) who has just returned from university in the United States burdened by high family expectations and his sweet fiancée Irene (Serene Chen). There is also the daughter Mei Loh (Yeo Yan Yan) who is married and lives in her own public housing apartment. This is a stew of barely contained frustration always simmering with class and family resentment, but it really only boils over when suddenly the father hits the lottery and becomes wealthy. With all that money at stake the grasping nature of this family – in particular the son and daughter - shows its true colors and the infighting begins. Even here the viewer might likely expect that at some point the family will become reconciled and realize that family is more important than material goods, but the directors stick to their message and things go from bad to worse. Only the mother stays apart from all this – a seemingly simple woman who doesn’t have much to say other than offering food and drink to her family. In the end though she turns out to be the moral ballast of the film who understands everything all too well and deals with her family accordingly. The passive kindly performance from Alice Lim is marvelous and nearly saves the film from becoming too harsh, but overall the film paints a much too one sided nasty depressing portrait of Singapore. The film needed more of an even handed balance, but it becomes such a bitter polemic against the city state that it becomes hard to listen to. And harder to enjoy.

My rating for this film: 5.5

The trailer - banned apparently - can be found here.

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