When mouthwatering Indonesian cuisine and romance are on the table, “Aruna & Her Palate” is a bouncy crowd-pleaser. Less tasty is the backdrop of a suspected bird flu outbreak that brings a food-loving epidemiologist into contact with her secret crush. Adapted from Laksmi Pamuntjak’s 2014 novel “The Bird Woman’s Palate,” “Aruna” manages to overcome its sometimes awkward ingredients thanks to crisp direction and appealing performances from a top-notch cast. Though unlikely to travel as widely as previous features by talented mononymous filmmaker Edwin (“Blind Pig Who Wants to Fly,” “Postcards From the Zoo”) “Aruna,” should benefit from exposure in the Culinary Cinema section at Berlin. The film received widespread critical support and performed OK at the box office following a late September local release.
In breezy opening segments, Aruna (Dian Sastrowardoyo, “Whispering Sands”) establishes a warm and winning relationship with viewers by speaking directly to the camera. The device works splendidly, and it’s only a disappointment when it tapers off as the story proceeds. We discover she’s a happily single, thirtysomething employee at a Jakarta company supplying public health services. More important, she’s also a dedicated foodie who’s planning a culinary road trip with besties Bono (Nicholas Saputra, “Postcards From the Zoo”), a cheery, top-class chef; and Nadezhda (Hannah Al Rashid, “The Night Comes for Us”), a live-wire food writer with a string of unfulfilling affairs behind her.
The trio’s plan appears doomed when Aruna is dispatched by company boss Burhan (Deddy Mahendra Desta) to investigate reports of bird flu in cities throughout the Indonesian archipelago. Undeterred, she decides to combine work with the pleasure of discovering exciting regional dishes and street food with her pals. Turning the trio into a quartet and adding a nice dash of romantic spice to the tale is Farish (Oka Antana, “Killers”), Aruna’s former work colleague and long-time crush who’s been sent by a rival health services organization to monitor the same case.
Although the company is good and just about every dish they sample looks positively delectable, “Aruna” struggles at first to balance its fun-and-food aspects with the downbeat reality of a looming heath crisis. Daytime sequences involving sick patients and people in biohazard suits are well executed and shed light on social, religious and cultural issues but don’t sit comfortably with amusing romantic maneuvers and meaningful heart-to-heart conversations between the main players once the working day is done. The reveal about the reasons for the impending crisis take things down a notch and leave the coast clear for audiences to enjoy an entertaining ride toward inevitable yet highly satisfying romantic conclusions.
Titien Wattimena’s screenplay and Edwin’s direction deliver on their mission to please without tipping into sentimentality or cheesiness. There’s real bite in the girl-talk confessionals between Aruna and Nadezhda. Sastrowardoyo is terrific as the woman whose search for new taste sensations runs neatly in parallel with her discovery of true romance. Al Rashid plays it vampy but never hammy as the man-eater. Saputra and Antana hit just the right note as nice guys who deserve to find happiness — if only they could get the right words out.
Attractively shot on interesting Indonesian locations in Surabaya, Singkawang, Pontianak and Pamekasan by cinematographer Amalia T.S., “Aruna” zips along to a jazz-flavored score by Ken Jenie and Mar Galo that’s used a little more than necessary but is always easy on the ear. All other technical work is polished.