Imagining what “In the Mood for Love” might have been like had Apichatpong Weerasethakul directed it will land you somewhere in the vicinity of “Before, Now & Then,” Kamila Andini’s beguiling drama set in 1960s Indonesia. Anyone familiar with that country’s history, even if only through Joshua Oppenheimer’s devastating companion documentaries “The Act of Killing” and “The Look of Silence,” knows that there’s little happiness on the other side of this film’s end credits, but Andini’s literary adaptation is so transfixing that her characters never feel as doomed as we know them to be.
The “before” prologue finds Nana (Happy Salma) and her sister Ninsingh (Rieke Diah Pitaloka) fleeing for their lives, with our heroine convinced that both her husband and father are dead as the result of the country’s anticommunist purge — a fate that may await her should she refuse to marry an insurgent leader who lives in the forest. It’s no spoiler to say that the “now” finds Nana instead living a comfortable domestic life as the wife of a wealthy Sundanese man (Arswendy Bening Swara), but with survival assured, she’s now longing for something else from her past: fulfillment.
The dynamic between husband and wife is such that, when presented with evidence of her husband’s infidelity, Nana has little recourse but to maintain appearances and act as though nothing has happened — “I must be like water,” she says to herself in a kind of soliloquy/pep talk, adapting to the environment rather than pushing back against it. She may run the household, but not her own life. If all this sounds a tad conventional so far, it’s only because you haven’t been treated to the string-heavy score of composer Ricky Lionardi and the staticky radio songs that accompany cinematographer Batara Goempar’s occasional slow-motion indulgences — aesthetic flourishes that betray Wong Kar-Wai’s influence on “Before, Now & Then” and elevate it from bog-standard festival fare to the intoxicating sensory experience it is.
Happy Salma, who’s mostly worked in her native Indonesia until now, is revelatory in the role. As Nana, the actor evinces a quiet dignity in the face of mounting struggles both personal and political, as the anticommunists we hear news reports on the radio about come to the fore of everyone’s mind. As Nana explains to her daughter, a woman always has secrets, and they’re often kept in her hair. Salma, meanwhile, hides hers behind her ocean-deep eyes as she gazes just past whatever it is her husband expects her to be focused on at any given moment.
Nana often dreams of things that initially appear to be real, from a cow walking through her house to a young woman whose identity we won’t learn until the final scene; when she wakes from these visions, a sense of loss accompanies the realization that she’s awake. What other refuge does she have? Andini mostly leaves the political subtext merely hinted at, but the continuum of subjugation her characters have experienced and will experience — the Dutch colonizers then and the anticommunists now, you might say — is never far from mind. It’s a bit like watching a film set in Europe circa the early 20th century and knowing that the characters’ way of life is at risk of disappearing forever. “Why have we become like this?” is a question asked more than once in the film; tellingly, it’s never answered.
Andini plays with time, as hinted at in the title, and though we’re sometimes at sea in terms of the precise placement of certain scenes, the confusion is not unpleasant. “Before, Now & Then” moves with its own dreamy cadence, with narrative developments washing over the film like waves. Closing your eyes once it’s over, you might even experience the sensation of having been in the water all afternoon as those gentle waves lapped over you — and longing to return to them.