By the grace of God I bring you this film review tonight.
Last night I was not feeling well enough to write.
And so I am happy to give you my first review of an Indonesian film.
It is a wonderful piece of cinema and is available on Netflix in the U.S. currently as What They Don’t Talk About When They Talk About Love.
I will just say this.
Any film which includes a character sneezing his glass eye out of his head is ok by me.
Which is to say, this is a pretty strange film.
But it is not strange in an uptight, contrived, David Lynch sort of way.
Perhaps it is the basic situation which makes this film quixotic.
The bulk of the “action” takes place at a “special” school (as it is called in the subtitles).
The beautiful young people at this school all struggle with visual impairment.
There is, however, one very important character who is sighted yet cannot hear.
[We will get to him in due time]
When I tried to watch this film last night, I was not feeling very well (as mentioned previously).
And so in my debilitating moments of bubbling, dull panic I was trying to first situate this film culturally.
There was some blurb about a Dutch film fund.
And the real bit of text at the head of the film which threw me off the scent: a reference to the Busan film fund.
Knowing Busan, I figured, “Great! I am watching a South Korean film.”
I felt somewhat comfortable marginally knowing the cinema tradition in which I had just entered.
But as I saw women and young girls in Muslim garb, I began to question.
Indeed, even on tonight’s complete viewing, it was only 3/4 of the way through the film that I realized I was watching an Indonesian production.
Call me stupid.
But this is not a cinema (nor a language) with which I have any experience.
It was only when I saw Jakarta on the side of a bus that I felt fairly confident where the story had been set.
So yes, this is an Indonesian film in Indonesian (or dare I say Malay).
The scope and breadth of this language is not altogether clear to me, but it seems that Indonesian is a “register” (in linguistic terms) of Malay.
Being the dunce that I am, “register” seems an awful lot like “dialect”, but I’m sure most linguists would roundly dismiss this generalization.
Perhaps “jargon” is a better synonym for “register”.
In any case, Malay (of one type or another) is spoken by about 290 million people worldwide.
But we will stick to the term Indonesian (as per the language).
Our whole film is in that language (except for one line in Javanese).
Javanese, unlike Indonesian, is not a form of Malay.
It is quite distinct.
But on to the movie!
First we must pay our respects to the highly-talented director: Mouly Surya.
Based on a cursory search, this would be Mr. Surya (Mouly being far more common as a male name).
Ah…but thank God for research!
Our director, in fact, is MS. Surya.
She is a 36-year-old native of Jakarta.
But really, male or female, this is an obvious work of cinematic art.
What They Don’t Talk About When They Talk About Love isn’t perfect, but it’s frighteningly close.
Which isn’t to say it’s frightening.
But it’s a film which sneaks up on you.
Cineastes may be familiar with the term “slow cinema” which has been bandied about here and there especially in recent years.
There may be some of that here…like when the character Diana combs her hair exactly 100 times.
[I was sure she was going to stop at 88…that number being good luck in Southeast Asian cultures]
Indeed, we are with the character for a seemingly interminable session of hair-brushing at her “boudoir”.
However, that is one of the few times where the “slow cinema” idea has our film run astray temporarily.
Other uses of the technique (an extreme of Deleuze’s “time-image”?) are quite effective and evoke the loneliness of sightless life.
Granted, no two lives are the same.
But the Indonesia pictured in our film is not an economic wonderland.
Quite the opposite.
It is a rather humble school in which students have very basic accommodations.
And as is so often the case, economic struggles exacerbate and compound coexisting problems.
But don’t get me wrong: it appears that the students portrayed actually have it very lucky in the context of their nation (all things considered).
Arguably the star of the film is Karina Salim.
Her situation is one of ballet lessons…and a doting mother.
That said, her roommate has a family which is struggling economically.
It is a strange juxtaposition.
But let’s focus on Ms. Salim.
Her acting is really fantastic.
Whether she is blind in real life, I know not.
But her portrayal of the character Diana is in the great tradition of pathos which touched on the works of Beethoven and Tchaikovsky.
The French adjective pathétique.
In English, we (if I may speak for us English speakers) tend to regard pathétique as descriptive of poetic pathos.
And that is exactly what Karina Salim exhibits in her delicate acting throughout this film.
Her character, Diana, is right on the cusp of womanhood.
And in a very moving set of sequences, we see her quietly preparing her underwear for the week.
The moment of her first menstruation is a cause for secret celebration.
Indeed, she shares this ascent to adulthood with only her mother…on a joyous little phone call which we overhear.
Which brings us to culture.
We almost feel embarrassed knowing this intimate detail of character Diana’s life.
But American films are so much more explicit in so many ways.
Perhaps we are shocked because the reality of womanhood is rarely addressed in Hollywood movies.
And so we see that Hollywood still has taboos.
In this age in which anything goes, honest depiction of mundane-yet-visceral life realities (such as menstruation) are all but absent (save from a film like Carrie ).
It’s been a long time since I’ve seen this particular kind of honesty about femininity onscreen.
But what the hell do I know? I’m a dude.
So let’s back to the film.
While Ayushita is very good as Diana’s roommate, it is really Nicholas Saputra who is the other star of this film.
His character is a deaf punk rocker.
[Let that one sink in for a second]
Every day he has a different shirt.
The Sex Pistols. Led Zeppelin (?!?). The Clash. Joan Jett.
He definitely has the best hairstyle in the film.
[A strange zig-zag bleach job which I’ve never seen previously]
His character Edo is a social engineer par excellence.
Yes, there is some trickery in this film.
But it is not malicious.
Or if it begins as malicious, it is transformed into something quite beautiful.
But here’s where things get really strange.
There is really no decorous way of putting this, but there are a few characters in this film which pop up from time to time…AND I HAVE NO IDEA WHO THEY ARE!
There is a rather tasteless meme going back generations that all Chinese people look the same to a Westerner.
[And, perhaps, all Brits (for instance) look the same to a Chinese person]
But, again, there are some characters in this film which seem to be playing out some subplot which escaped me completely.
Indeed, I have so rarely seen anything like it that I can only associate my confusion with that felt by so many in relation to the surreal Howard Hawks narrative in The Big Sleep.
Granted, in our film this is a very minor element.
But it is still disorienting.
Was there some series of edits which mangled this film?
Can I really not tell one Indonesian person from another?
I don’t know.
You’ll have to see it for yourself.
And explain to me exactly what is going on.
For instance, does the blind character Andhika somehow learn how to drive a Vespa around town?
And is he cheating on Diana?
Or is Diana cheating on herself?
Are there two Dianas?
Again, a few scenes completely lost me.
But they do not ruin the general continuity of this film.
If anything, they add a mercurial charm to the whole affair.
And so I wholeheartedly recommend this film which portrays a side of life on which many of us are completely uninformed.
Visual impairment. Braille. Hearing impairment. The difficulty of asking a clerk at 7-Eleven, “what kind of cigarettes do girls buy” in sign language.
And there is beauty in this world.
The appreciation for just a glimmer of sight (however blurry).
And yet, the difficulty of EVERY SINGLE TASK.
Most of all, this is a love story.
Two love stories (at least).
[not counting the extraneous players which pop up here and there]
But it is a very, VERY unique love story.
For me, it is an incredibly moving film because of the acting of Karina Salim and also Anggun Priambodo (who plays Andhika).
So take an adventure to Jakarta. Capital of Indonesia. World’s fourth-most-populous country.
While Indonesia is approximately 87% Muslim, this film portrays a diversity of religious devotion.
Indeed, while one student prays, another listens to a radio play (as one would have heard in the days of Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce on The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes [1939-1946]).
Indeed, this scene of overlap…with religion in the background (the praying student) and learning in the foreground (listening to a lesson? or just a bit of entertainment for the girls who live at this school?) is one of the most fascinating from a visual and cultural perspective.
I cannot pretend to know what is going on in all of the footage.
And so an expert on education for the visually impaired in Indonesia would perhaps be able to elucidate some of the more esoteric aspects of this film.
In the meantime, enjoy!