Something invigorating and full-bodied is brewing in Indonesia, and it’s not a cup of mocha java. It’s a cinematic resurgence, the biggest since the early 2000s, when Rudy Soedjarwo’s 2002 teen romance “Apa ada dengan cinta?” (What’s With Love?) rocked the Southeast Asia market while in the same year Riri Riza’s “Eliana Eliana” stunned the festival circuit with femme-centric social realism.
In September 2016, “Warkop DKI Reborn: Jangkrik Boss Part 1,” a reboot of a police slapstick comedy by 1980s comic trio Dono, Kasino and Indro (DKI), became the most-viewed Indonesian film in history, with 6.8 million tickets sold. For the first time, the top 10 domestic films enjoyed more than 1 million admissions, with horror “Danur” taking the top spot in 2017. According to Korean industry giant CJ CGV, exhibition of local films at its theatrical chain in Indonesia rose from 5% to 23% last year.
The arthouse scene is also flourishing, with second-generation directors Edwin, Joko Anwar, Lucky Kuswandi and Teddy Soeriaatmadja turning up at top festivals alongside relative newcomers including Eddie Cahyono (“Siti”) and Yosep Anggi Noen (“Solo Solitude”). In fact, there is talk of a new wave, or neo-neorealism, that explores gritty contemporary subjects about politics or gender with stylized, poetic film language.
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A new height has been scored by the selection of “Marlina, the Murderer in Four Acts” in this year’s Directors’ Fortnight, the third Indonesian feature to bow in Cannes. It is also the third feature by Mouly Surya, whose sophomore feature, “What They Don’t Talk About When They Talk About Love,” premiered at Sundance 2013.
The 2014 election of President Joko Widodo arguably boosted a more self-expressive creative environment. The government is taking unprecedented steps to empower the movie industry. The Indonesian Agency for Creative Economy, which reports directly to Widodo, is pushing forward new policies, such as Regulation No. 44 in 2016, to ease bureaucracy and allow 100% foreign investment in the local film industry. Five film commissions have been set up and increased effort will be made to protect intellectual property. The agency is participating in Cannes for the first time to reach out to potential international partners.
Already, overseas companies have tapped into the market potential and geo-cultural diversity of the world’s fourth largest population, which exceeds 263.7 million. In January 2013, CJ CGV established itself in Indonesia under commission by local theater chain Blitzmegaplex, and has since opened 29 cinemas with 199 screens across the country. A year later, its film production arm CJ E&M began investing in local films.
Spotting Anwar’s “A Copy of My Mind” (2015) from the Busan Asian Project Market, the company gave the production a leg up through its clout in world sales, distribution and festival promotion. The romantic thriller with a political edge premiered in the Horizon section at Venice Film Festival.
For the next project, “Cado Cado: Doctor 101,” CJ played an even bigger role, working from development stage of the medical dramedy with director Ifa Isfansyah. The company’s next release will be “20 Forever,” the latest spinoff from the “Miss Granny” franchise, a hit Korean time-slip romance that was remade in China, Vietnam and Thailand. The Indonesian version is directed by Ochay and co-produced with Starvision’s Parwez and Reza Servia.
“Indonesian moviegoers, like Vietnamese ones, are digitally adept and quick to discern entertaining works,” says Mike Im, head of international at CJ Entertainment. “By drawing from strategies we use for developing and marketing Korean films, we hope to bring them surprises.”
The breakout of “The Raid” and “Headshot” in the west, embraced by fanboys of extreme Asian action, has boosted investment in this genre. Fox Intl. Prods. signed its first co-production deal with an Indonesian partner, Lifelike Pictures, to make “212 Warrior” — the first screen adaptation of Bastian Tito’s 185-volume Silat martial arts book series. The protag, Wiro Sableng, will be played by Vino G. Bastian, the writer’s son; Angga D. Sasongko directs, while the film is produced by Sheila Timothy, and choreographed by veteran action director Yayan Ruhian (“The Raid” and “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”).
Meanwhile, HBO Asia chose Jakarta as the setting of the first season of its “Half Worlds” TV series, a dark supernatural fantasy that pits humans against a secret society of demons culled from Asian folklore. Anwar rewrote Collin Chang’s script to incorporate Indonesian mythical creatures called Demit.
“I’m into ‘Narco’ and ‘Breaking Bad,’ but opportunities to make those kind of drama series haven’t come,” he says. “Horror is my passion, so I draw from folklore and urban legends in an effort to combine East and West.”
His latest project is a remake of “Satan’s Slaves” a 1980s film that is regarded as the scariest national horror movie ever.
Another company that’s keen on uncovering Indonesian talent and helping directors position themselves internationally is Asian Shadows. Its founder Isabelle Glachant, who co-produced the works of China’s Lou Ye, Wang Xiaoshuai and Lu Chuan, has since 2014 diversified from solely handling Chinese films via her original sales company Chinese Shadows, to sourcing films from Southeast Asia that have overseas, especially festival, appeal.
The first film the new shingle picked up was “Siti,” centered on a woman forced to work at a sleazy karaoke place to support her paralyzed husband and young son. Shot in pristine black-and-white, boasting a mesmerizing performance by Chelsy Bettido, it recalls the verite style of Philippine indies.
When Asian Shadows boarded its second Indonesian film, “Solo Solitude,” execs gave artistic input at the editing stage. Director Noen depicts the ennui of poet Wiji Thukul, while in hiding during a clamp-down by Suharto’s regime, embedding his humanist political message in personal details.
Both films travelled far to festivals including Locarno and Rotterdam, garnering awards before finally gaining acceptance back home.
The company engages with its slate at earlier stages. In addition to representing “Marlina,” Glachant is a co-producer through her French outfit Shasha & Co. Production. She’d been in discussion with Surya since the director brought her script to Atelier de la Cinefondation. The project is a joint production among Indonesia, France, Malaysia and Thailand.
Australia-educated Surya, whose auteur influences are Stanley Kubrick, Michael Haneke and Abbas Kiarostami, cites Garin Nugroho’s “Of Love and Eggs” and Sjumandjaja’s biopic of women’s rights champion “R.A. Kartini” as her entry point to national cinema. It was Nugroho, the country’s most distinguished filmmaker, who proposed her to direct “Marlina,” based on a treatment developed from his visit to Sumba Iswland, an isolated, arid territory that resembles Texas.
Taking cues from Japanese samurai and Chinese martial arts that fused Western elements, she refashioned the Italo-American genre into a vehicle to examine male violence and patriarchal dominance in Southeast Asian backwaters such as Sumba, while highlighting the indigenous women’s unique air of mystery, sensuality and reliance. The women in Surya’s films bleed in key moments and there will be blood in “Marlina,” too.
“In my debut ‘Fiksi’ [written by Joko Anwar], the heroine lost her virginity; in my second film, the blind protagonist had her first period,” Surya says. “Marlina doesn’t spill her own blood, but that of others, symbolizing the strength of women from Sumba. My female characters have grown up. Marlina is a full-grown woman, a widow who finds strength in grief.”