It is purely coincidental that this review is of an Indonesian film, just like the previous review was. It is also incredibly accidental that the same director, Hanung Bramantyo, directs them both. What is becoming evident in a lot of his films, including ‘Tanda Tanya’ which we reviewed some time ago, is a strong sense of morality, come rain or shine. I am not sure whether this is the way forward, but it is this sense of morality and certainty that we’ll have a closer look at in ‘Soekarno: Indonesia Merdeka’. Take into account that the previous episode of the podcast also looks at Indonesian cinema with an Indonesian interview subject, and I suppose I could, on some level, forgive you for thinking that it’s Indonesian Month here at TOF HQ, during which time we’ll only eat nasi rames and drink teh botol.
I wouldn’t be complaining if that were to be the case, though.
Back to the film. The complete title gives a very interesting subtext about the story to be presented. Of course, we will be looking at Soekarno, the man who was largely credited with bringing about Indonesian independence. However, almost as an aside, we’ll also be looking at the process through which Indonesia gained its independence from the clutches of those pesky foreigners, primarily the Dutch and the Japanese.
As ever, all things start with love, the throes of which Soekarno (Aji Santosa) is deep in with Mien Hessel (Mia). Charismatic even from an early age, he nearly gets to second base with her until their fathers intervened, his father more inventively by way of a slipper and Mien’s father more conventionally by kicking him out of the house. Interracial and interreligious love is one thing, but there’s also a hint of class distinction to be born in mind here, as well as the fact that Soekarno, like many other Indonesians, is officially a subject of the Dutch East Indies government.
That proves to be one barrier too many for a lot of people to accept, but it is the one barrier that serves as a fan to the flame of nationalism that starts to burn within. Soon enough, Soekarno allows this to grow; he himself would grow to become Soekarno (Ario Bayu), a charismatic leader in his own right. The Dutch, not too happy about this growth either, catches him and sticks him in their gaols in 1930. For daring to fight the apparent good fight, he was sentenced to four years in prison, but not before delivering a stupendous speech denouncing Dutch rule in Indonesia.
Then the Japanese comes barrelling into the country, and the Oranje was forced to flee. Soekarno is a free man, so to speak, but only as free as the Japanese allows him to be, for they did not get all the way there by being idiots. Realising that he could be a strong asset to their efforts to turn the minds and hearts of the locals, Soekarno is tapped by the Japanese authorities, dangling the carrot of eventual freedom and independence in front of him. It is around this time that he becomes involved with other important figures such as Hatta (Lukman Sardi) and Sjahrir (Tanta Ginting), the former with whom the international airport in Cengkareng he is named after.
Flying off (ho hum) in that direction would have made for a conventional interpretation of events, but the director spends just as much time, certainly earlier on in the film, concentrating on his more personal and familial relationships. His second wife, Inggit (Maudy Kusnaedi), is the loyal and undulating rock in their relationship as he spends his years in prison. She helps to organise efforts to release him, and to continue the good fight in his absence, something he repays eventually by…falling in love in a student of his, Fatmawati (Tika Bravani), and the daughter of Hassan Din (Matias Muchus), the head honcho of the local Muhammadiyah chapter. She is to be a key character, largely credited with the knitting together of the Sang Saka Merah Putih flag, but all the same, her portrayal and Soekarno’s interactions with her are…questionable.
This film has provoked all sorts of discussions and controversies for a number of very different reasons. It is to be expected, especially when a historical subject matter is at hand, but while we will get into a bit of that later on, first I want to look at the things that this film does quite well. The names mentioned above are all played by actors who I felt were fairly well chosen for their roles. By the film’s end, the end credits displays the actors alongside the actual pictures of the characters they portrayed, and by and large I think they all fit the mould fairly well. Putting that aside, the actual performance level from many of the actors was also very good. Looking at Soekarno in particular, I was very impressed with Ario Bayu’s performance. Soekarno, as many of the other leaders of the time in this region, has great oratory skills and a sense of presence that is difficult to replicate off screen, let alone on it. There are a couple of scenes when Soekarno is seen giving great speeches to great crowds, and I find myself being sucked in by his words and their delivery. I am not sure whether the cadences and intonation matched the real Soekarno in real life, and I am sure that many others far more qualified than me would be better-placed to make that judgment, but it works well for me.
The production design of the entire film was also fairly believable. I did find myself wondering whether Soekarno actually did wear only white shirts and jackets almost exclusively throughout his life, but when you find yourself wondering about such issues, and not about any of the other factors that contribute to the construction of the diegesis, then that says more about you than it does about the film itself. Again, others more knowledgeable about this would probably have more informed opinions, but the point is that it works in creating a reality I can immerse myself in.
Unfortunately, there are moments when we find ourselves being taken out of the reality a lot as well. A number of incidents seem sploshed together, creating a pastiche of images and events that do not necessarily gel together as well as one might have expected. For example, early on in the film, as Soekarno was getting turfed by Mien’s father, the scene directly after that sees him alone in his room, working on his anti-colonial speeches. While I can see how such feelings might have been engendered, I fail to see the direct correlation between his feelings and thoughts at the moment, and the method with which he chose to express his extreme sense of dissatisfaction. We are informed soon that he has been learning such skills from a learned person, but nevertheless, these examples are indicative of the missing connective tissue that could have made for a more complete experience.
Nevertheless, we should also bear in mind that any project undertaking to portray the life and its events of a statesman of any kind is a massive apple to bite. Apparently, the film script went through nearly twenty drafts, a huge amount of drafts that might have indicated of a film in a big amount of trouble, with little sense of the direction the story is heading in. Here, that sense is not as messy, it’s just that the direction is not where people want to go.
For there is another problem, a familiar (non) friend for Hanung that rears his head again: verisimilitude. In the previous review, I had noted that this is a similar issue Hanung struggled with. I wrote “…for me, adherence to a sense of verisimilitude is important, especially in a film that is supposedly grounded in real life, and a blatant disregard of that, whatever your market and creative considerations may be, should be backed up with very strong reasons. This basically means that if you’re going to set your film in a certain reality, you should really try to respect this that forms the background for your audience to suspend their disbelief. For my part, I couldn’t really think of a reason or an issue that couldn’t be overcome by as strong a director as Hanung or as well-financed a production team such as the Punjabis.” In that review, the issue I had was to do with the language. Here, it is the portrayal of a leader as a playboy. Whether it is true or not is not entirely the point, as a certain amount of creative license could and should be taken into consideration. Nevertheless, I have to believe that there is a point to all this.
For example, Soekarno was portrayed as someone who was supposed to slowly fall in love with Fatmawati, and a certain sense of dilemma would then arise: which of the two, the strong and level-headed Inggit, or the alluring and immature Fatmawati (who, in one scene, was scene screaming and crying like a baby in bed because she was in love with Soekarno), would he pick? That would have been an interesting dilemma to consider, but instead, he was made to look like a pervert. We see him being attracted to Fatmawati, but we see little of the touches and the reasons that would have made Inggit the equally attractive proposition she surely is. The resulting imbalance makes him seem cruel and unkind to Inggit, a fact backed up even further by him offering to drive Inggit to wherever she wants to leave to…right after having decided to break her heart by…well, breaking her heart. I believe the Irish term for such a person is ‘eejit’.
Secondarily (though it is a matter of primary importance), the portrayal of how certain events went down is also that should be considered. I had always thought of Indonesians having achieved their independence in a way that is completely different to Malaysians. As we sat around the table negotiating with the Brits for such a release while enjoying a cup or two of Earl Grey, our Nusantara brethren were busy kicking the Dutch and the Japanese off the islands. Of course, that’s not quite so true in many ways, but the difference between what I had perceived and what was shown on screen was starker than I had imagined. A complete portrayal of history is, of course, rather impossible, but at the very least, a sense of the spirit might have been maintained. For my part, I did not necessarily get the sense that the independence long hoped and fought for was actually fought for.
In the film, Soekarno was portrayed as someone who was too tame, a little too concerned with kowtowing to the Japanese. They, of course, were dangling the carrot of independence if only he would help to smoothen the process, but he appears to be bending over backwards a little too much for my liking. He posed for photo ops for the Japanese, all the while as his fellow countrymen fell about like flies, having been overworked by the boys from the East. He provided prostitutes for them, yet he didn’t see to truly understand how the Japanese was prostituting him himself. Yet we don’t see how this truly could have been used as a fire in his actions. It’s just one scene, and it’s done, for he still goes on supporting the Japanese in their efforts. Again, it is the connective tissue that I felt could have helped to glue the story together. This lack of unity annoys me. It is not that I want to necessarily see a history being projected on screen in all its glory; rather, I want a protagonist I can actually root for, someone who, sooner or later, stands up for what he believes in, in spite of all his flaws. Here, it feels like what he wanted was something that was given to him, rather than something he truly worked for.
This is a movie that had its moments, his interactions with Hatta, Sjahrir and the parties involved in the Pancasila scenes perfect opportunities for him to expand upon his verbal skills, and for Hanung to throw out ideas in as direct a way as possible. It is just frustrating that he does not reach similar heights in scenes with other people. More to the point, the failure to follow up on these scenes resulted in a flow that is too inconsistent for my liking.
Other, smaller things, like the sudden shifts between a fictional narrative and a documentary-style text on screen happened a little too often for my liking as well. Ironically, it helps people like me to be more informed about what’s going on (like I said earlier, there is a lot of context that has to be understood for a more complete experience), but I want to watch this movie, any movie, not because of the history or the context, but because of the character and the story. If I had wanted a history lesson, I would have read a book. The good thing about all of this, however, is that such issues are always considered and challenged. I believe discourse is the way forward in many fields, and that includes discussions in what we believe to be history. Perhaps this can pave the way for more films on the subject matter.
There is, however, an inadvertent balance that was presented early in the film. Right at the very start, the Indonesian national anthem was played, along with a graphic of the Merah Putih flag on the screen. We stood up, listened/sang along, and then sat back down. Lo and behold, the opening scene had a diegetic recording of Terang Bulan, the song that served as the basis/inspiration for Malaysia’s own national anthem.
It was probably the most balanced thing in the whole film.
Fikri wants to write more, but feels that over 2,000 words are enough for now.
Featured image credit: CRC For Water Sensitive Cities