Tapping into a rich undercurrent of poetic dislocation endemic to its setting, “Postcards From the Zoo” is a languid, dreamlike study of an abandoned naif taking a few tentative steps outside the wild-animal park that has been her lifelong home and refuge. Chinese-Indonesian writer-director Edwin’s follow-up to 2008’s “Blind Pig Who Wants to Fly” casts a melancholy spell in individual moments and tableaux, but there’s a distanced, self-consciously stilted quality to this contempo fairy tale that keeps it from entrancing entirely. A fest tour and niche distribution in select offshore territories look likely; the hippos could help.
Set primarily within the confines of Jakarta’s Ragunan Zoo, the film quickly establishes the sense of a story unfolding beyond the waking world. The nocturnal early scenes feature young Lana (Klarysa Aurelia Raditya) wandering the park after hours, calling out to the father who abandoned her there for unknown reasons. In the bright light of day, the girl spends her time visiting the various enclosures; Edwin, giving the animals as much weight as he does his human protagonist, offers extended glimpses of elephants, tigers, orangutans, pelicans, a few scene-stealing hippos and, getting the most screentime, the zoo’s lone giraffe.
A tour guide’s recurring voiceover notes the giraffe is stronger than its elegant appearance would suggest, a description that presumably also applies to Lana as she takes up permanent residence at the zoo and grows into a shy, pretty young woman (played by Ladya Cheryl). While her longing for close connection with the wildlife is limited by “Don’t touch the animals” signs, she finds a makeshift community among the many other drifters and daytime employees who call Ragunan home.
To better orient us within these semi-surreal environs and underscore the notion of viewer-as-spectator, d.p. Sidi Saleh blends observational master shots with intimate closeups, cut together at a studiously measured pace by editor Herman Kumala Panca. The lack of connective tissue between scenes serves the postcard-like structure hinted at by the title; we seem to be experiencing not a story so much as a string of discrete, self-enclosed moments, making for a continual sense of narrative discontinuity that ably evokes Lana’s isolated state.
If anything, the incursion of more robust plot elements at the film’s midway point seems to throw off its delicate rhythm. Lana is captivated by a handsome, wily street magician (Nicholas Saputra) who conjures fire with his fingertips and dresses like a cowboy. She becomes his assistant, and he in turn introduces her to the world outside the zoo, including mobsters, prostitutes and other denizens of Jakarta’s seedier side, all of whom Lana observes at a puzzled, childlike remove. Before long she gets a job as a spa masseuse, a development that’s moderately disturbing, in part, because the film remains fairly reticent about how far her interactions with her clients go.
Notwithstanding a scene of a tiger’s appetite issues that coincidentally echoes a subplot from “We Bought a Zoo,” Edwin’s film has points of connection with several recent festival titles, including concurrent Berlinale selection “Bestiaire” and Sundance prizewinner “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” also a self-consciously mythic tale of a girl’s menagerie-like upbringing (both “Beasts” and “Postcards” were workshopped at the Sundance Institute). Comparisons with the work of Apichatpong Weerasethakul, with its beguiling focus on human-animal interaction, are also appropriate.
Yet the film’s uneven narrative progress ultimately feels more willed than organic. Well before “Postcards From the Zoo” brings Lana’s story to a sweet, open-ended conclusion, its mood-piece stylings have begun to curdle into art-film mannerism, and Cheryl is scarcely given the elements with which to leave a more vivid character impression than most of the animals. Quirkily pedantic intertitles, offering definitions of zoo terminology such as “ex-situ conservation,” add a further distancing element.
By far the strongest element is the Ragunan Zoo itself, which, with its inherent tension between natural and unnatural, abundant greenery and man-made enclosures, makes for a gorgeous study in alienation. Pic is well-crafted overall, especially Wahyu Tri Purnomo’s sound design, although the alternately deep- and shallow-focus 35mm lensing would likely look better projected on celluloid than it did at the digital screening reviewed.