Steeped in theatrics, fantasy and psychology, “The Seen and Unseen” is haunting in its evocation of the supernatural communion between twin siblings, as Indonesian writer-director Kamila Andini interprets the minds of children facing pain and loss through the timeless language of Baliness arts and spirituality. With its drifting rhythm and peculiar aesthetics, this tale of young characters was made with adult audiences in mind and should be a choice item for highbrow festivals.
Andini’s much-lauded debut “The Mirror Never Lies” also centered on a teenage girl coming to terms with death. After her father’s death, the young protagonist of that film sought answers in nature and in her imagination, before puberty forced her to seek guidance from outsiders. Andini’s second feature goes in the opposite direction, retreating into the child’s private world to bask in its secrets. The effect is hypnotic as the film unfolds in measured and highly stylized movements, but not as widely accessible as her earlier work (which also includes mid-length family drama “Following Diana”).
Perhaps in a playful echo of the heartwarming children’s drama “Of Love and Eggs” directed by Andini’s father Garin Nugroho, eggs and birds serve as motifs that expand and mingle in mysterious ways. The first images are of young Tantri (Ni Kadek Thaly Titi Kasih) visiting her brother Tantra (Ida Bagus Putu Radithya Mahijasena) in hospital. As she hovers in the doorway sensing the seriousness of his condition, her hand crushes the raw egg in its grasp, causing the yolk to drip onto the floor with ominous impact.
From there, the film flashes back to the siblings’ happier days frolicking in the fields back home. Tantra loves to steal eggs offered at shrines for his sister to cook. She hates the yolk, whereas he leaves the whites on the plate. This is just one sign of their yin-yang symbiosis as “buncing” (boy-and-girl) twins, which in Balinese culture symbolizes “balance” because they “complete each other.” In a surreal and ominously foreboding scene, Tantri peels a boiled egg, but can’t find any yolk inside.
As Tantri and her parents move to the city to take care of Tantra, she grapples with separation anxiety, all the while trying to reunite with her “other half” in dreams and fantasies. With almost no storyline, the narrative resembles a series of formalist dance pieces, or perhaps avant-garde silent filmmaking, beginning with Tantra staging a shadow-puppet show behind the curtains of his hospital bed for his sister. He sings about the myth relating to moon goddess Ratih and headless demon Kala Rawu — a tale about the origin of the eclipse and the pursuit of eternity gone wrong whose relevance to the boy’s own mortality is accentuated by his eerily plaintive voice.
Anggi Frisca’s camera glides seamlessly between hospital room and a moonlit outdoors stirring with supernatural activity, rendering the lines between reality and imagination imperceptible. It is as if Tantra’s mind is set free to roam the more his body deteriorates. Drawing on Indonesian mythical birds and monkeys and their representation in dance, some fantasy or dream sequences are choreographed by Ida Ayu Wayan Arya Satyani with grotesque grace, like Japanese Butoh, whereas in others, the protagonists tumble, crawl and leap with such mundane realism one forgets they are in their own invisible realm.
The twins, one dormant, the other active, symbolize duality on many abstract levels. But it is also a personal story of bereavement. The choice of young actors favored a pair of ordinary-looking kids, rather than cute child-star types. Plain, lanky and not terribly eager to please, Kasih and Mahijasena are neither shy nor self-conscious before the camera. In juxtaposition to the stylized enactment of Tantri’s sublimated feelings, Ayu Laksmi, who plays the mother, expresses her grief with a simple gentleness that proves most devastating.
Frisca’s sidescreen lensing captures fields and seaside views in arresting ways. Much of the film takes place at night, and the darkly lit scenes suggest a ghostly ambience, some of which might be lost when watched on small-screen formats. An ensemble of animal and insect sounds offers another dimension to Yasuhiro Morinaga’s trance-like score.