Monoglot Movie Club: Jakarta The Unstoppable Sex Machine

Part of an occasional series in which Spank The Monkey travels to foreign countries, watches films in unfamiliar languages, and then complains about not understanding them. This episode: Indonesia, November 2014.

Salah Bodi

Be honest: you’ve not seen that much Indonesian cinema. Because I spend a lot of time at film festivals like Terracotta, I’m vaguely aware of the contemplative side of the country’s movies, like the arty work of directors such as Garin Nugroho. But the Indonesian films that get released commercially in the UK tend to focus on guys elbowing each other in the face till one of them dies. (It’s possible that the upcoming The Golden Cane Warrior might be the next Indonesian genre film to break out worldwide: let’s wait and see.)

As I prepared to spend a week in Jakarta for work, I wondered: what kind of films exist in the gap between those two extremes? Initial research suggested there was a lot of domestic horror clogging up the multiplexes, like the grim-looking Cermin Penari Jaipong, or the slightly more ridiculous Hantu Juga Selfie. But by the time I’d arrived in town, both films had disappeared from the circuit, replaced by a couple of romantic comedies. Well, at least they work better with my title.

On my first day in Jakarta, I found myself looking at a building labelled SUPERMARKET 24 JAM, and briefly assumed that everything I knew about Indonesian cuisine was wrong. Once you see that phrase in another context – in this case, the film title 7 Hari 24 Jam – it all makes a bit more sense. Fajar Nugros’ movie follows the life of a married couple: Tyo (Lukman Sardi) is a film director with a short temper, Tania (Dian Sastrowardoyo) is something or other in finance. Tyo spends so much time in night shoots for his latest film that he barely gets to see Tania or his child. Something’s got to give, and eventually he collapses on the set with a bout of hepatitis A. (“He’s got the virus, HAV,” says Tania to someone on the phone, with hilarious consequences.)

Tyo’s admission to hospital comes at a bad time for Tania, who’s working flat out to impress her occasionally-English-speaking boss. Eventually she too cracks under the strain, and ends up confined to the hospital bed next to her husband. For the first time in ages, they’re forced to be in each other’s company 24/7, and tensions inevitably rise. Tyo tries to remotely direct his film from hospital, leading to an enjoyable scene where his colleagues screen him some rushes in the darkest room in the building, which turns out to be the morgue. Meanwhile, Tania runs video teleconferences from her bed, although if she really was so good at her job you’d think she would have made sure to keep her husband’s naked farting arse out of camera range.

As we see Tyo and Tania in their adjacent beds for the first time, and the caption HARI 1 pops up on screen, we know exactly where the film is heading – we’re not going to move far from this hospital room until we’ve got to HARI 7. In other circumstances, I’d applaud this as an interesting formal experiment. Here, unfortunately, it’s the sort of experiment that makes the film more heavily dependent on dialogue than usual, and we all know the problems I have with that. You end up scrutinising every frame for any item of visual interest, and end up spotting a couple that presumably weren’t meant to be looked at that hard – in particular, a surprising amount of product placement for a film that’s mainly confined to one set, including several prominent namechecks for a local medical insurance firm.

The daft bits of slapstick comedy that crop up at regular intervals feel like a token attempt to give people something to look at in between all the dialogue. Which makes it all the more surprising that one of those slapsticky bits – the aforementioned video presentation to an important client – becomes a major plot point, setting up a bumpy patch in the relationship between Tyo and Tania that won’t be resolved until the very end of the film. It’s slickly made, and feels like a pleasant enough way to spend an hour and a half, but the heavy emphasis on dialogue reduces the fun for those of us who aren’t listening.

7 Hari 24 Jam is, when you pull it apart, a very traditional story of a couple working through their problems. The other comedy out at the moment is Salah Bodi, and by comparison that’s anything other than traditional. Your first warning (assuming you haven’t spotted that the title translates as Wrong Body) is the poster art you can see at the top of this page, showing a man with what looks like an amusingly incongruous pregnancy bump. But once you get past the Benny Hill speeded-up frenzy of the opening sequence, you realise that the guy in the poster is a transgender man, who’s being rushed to the delivery room by his wife. Things are obviously going to get complicated.

We flash back from there to the childhood of Farhan (Zhi Alatas), female on the birth-certificate but living like a tomboy, always hanging out with the boys even if it means making a total mess when weeing standing up alongside them. In adulthood, to the distress of his parents, he crops his hair, straps down his boobs and goes out into the world presenting as a man. He takes on a job as a designer at a film company – SSS Pictures in fact, the company that’s making this film, which presumably cuts the costs of set dressing. He gets away with it too, despite a scare when the cleaner walks through the office brandishing a used sanitary towel demanding to know who tried to flush it down the gents.

Farhan has no real idea what he wants sexually. He tries going out with girls, but never really finds anyone he’s comfortable with. And then at a film meeting he’s introduced to the horror film director Inang (Miqdad Addausy), and finds her curiously attractive. They start hanging out, but sooner or later Farhan will have to reveal his secret. That’s going to be an awkward moment when it happens, unless it turns out Inang has some secrets of her own. ..

Director Sys NS (a man with a fascinatingly diverse past as a DJ, actor and politician) has put together a comedy with an almost Shakespearean attitude to gender confusion. Without wishing to spoil the plot for you, I did find myself wondering how soon we were meant to work out what Inang’s backstory was – there are a couple of obvious signposts laid out for you during the film, but I’d made a reasonable guess at it quite early on. The big revelation (when it comes) is presented as if it’s meant to be a big surprise, and certainly there were some gasps in the audience I saw it with. And once we’ve got past that point, it takes the film into whole other areas of comedy.

Salah Bodi’s playful attitude to sexuality came as a surprise to me: there’s a real bravery in terms of the areas it dares to cover, particularly when a major dramatic turn takes place in the middle of a Koran reading. It’s never in the least bit preachy, and its crowd-pleasing affection for its characters would make it a sure-fire hit at somewhere like the BFI Flare festival. Which makes it all the more disappointing that to Western eyes, the film bottles out in its final reel. Having twisted everything as far as it can go, and without any obvious dramatic justification for doing so, they hit the reset button to create a hugely sentimental finale that the film doesn’t really deserve. To me, it feels like a betrayal of everything the characters have done up to that point – but to a local audience, of course, it may be something else entirely.

Still, until that final swerve back to conventionality, it’s a hugely enjoyable piece of work, even with the language barrier firmly in place. If you wanted to generalise on the nature of Indonesian film based on these two examples, you could pick up on the use of product placement, with KFC being to Salah Bodi what medical insurance is to 7 Hari 24 Jam. But also, both films end with a moral message literally displayed onscreen as the final caption: either a banal statement (in English!) about the importance of family for 7/24, or a direct quote from the Koran for Bodi. If Mostly Film was the sort of site that ran regular competitions for its readers, we could possibly ask you to use your skill and judgement to decide what the moral at the end of The Raid 2 would be. No prizes, though.

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About Spank The Monkey

Spank The Monkey has been talking nonsense about popular culture on the internet since 1998. He can be found doing that in long form on his blog, and in short form on Twitter. He is a regular contributor to Mostly Film, where his specialist subjects are Asian cinema, cult movies and TV, and watching foreign films without the benefit of subtitles. He lives in London with somebody else.

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