An Acquired Taste – Moon Cake Story

Have a taste of ‘Moon Cake Story’, a film Fikri Jermadi spent nearly RM100 to watch.

A table. A bloody table.

There is a scene, in which the family presented as this film’s central site of tension, involving the purchase and installing of the table as a new furniture in their living room. Asih (Bunga Citra Lestari), her 12 years-old son Bimo (Fathan Irsyad) and Sekar (Melati Zein) are enjoying this new addition to their family room. They are very much situated on the wrong side of the tracks, a working class family making ends meet on a daily basis.

A part of this is by Asih being a joki, for the longest time a very Indonesian thing of subverting the government-imposed regulation of 3-in-1. This concept would see a car needing to have three persons in it to be allowed to enter certain central areas of the city during rush hour. Given that many such vehicles are actually driven and enjoyed on a more private basis, to fulfil this requirement some drivers would pick up extra ‘passengers’, who make themselves known and available in areas just outside these zones by sticking out their thumbs.

This is the first contact made between David (Morgan Oey) and Asih. David is a young entrepreneur, and very much the ideal picture of success often associated with the Chinese community in Indonesia, at least on an economic level. There is a reason why his ethnicity is mentioned here, so I ask that you bear with me at least for a few paragraphs more. He is often driven by his driver, Pak Tri (Deddy Sutomo), someone who would serve more often than not as a father figure in his own way, as is the wont in many of these cases. While an outsider’s perspective may engender Pak Tri as an economic worker, the lengthy relationships often carried over from one generation to another ensures a more interwoven personal relationship, one that exists on a plane far above that of the driver and driven.

In fact, it is Pak Tri who helps David in seeking out Asih after she abruptly departed the first time; upon seeing Bima being chased by the police, Asih immediately leaves David’s car, leaving him feeling guilty of not having paid for her services as a joki. Money is not an issue for him, and David is often shown and depicted in situations far removed from Asih’s literally-ramshackle existence, yet there is a sense of unease and incompletion in his own life. A part of this is manifested by the moon cake he has often purchases and tasted, but without really coming close enough to replicating the sense of both taste and happiness gained through his mother’s own moon cakes. What’s interesting here is that David himself would come from such humble backgrounds, as he and his sister, Linda (Dominique Diyose), were raised by their mother, a context made happier by her baked treats.

The story is therefore posited as a clash of civilisations, one that emphasises the difference(s) between the haves and the have nots. This could be read on a number of different levels. The first showcases the economic divide between David, Asih and other characters surrounding this complex. David is shown to be rather uncomfortable, at least in the beginning, upon tracing down Asih and following her home. There, he discovers how she works hard to survive and support her family, not only by risking her own freedom in taking part in joki activities (which was actually illegal prior to the abolishing of the 3-in-1 rule a number of years ago), but also in working in a laundromat, cleaning the dirty laundry (both aired and unaired) of the neighbourhood. What was probably hinted at as a romantic relationship is more complex than that, as David appears to be more sincere and platonic in nature, perhaps even looking to Asih as a mother figure of sorts. This is something she is not in the mood for, given how different they are: “Our lives are different, and our losses are different as well. Our worlds are different.”

That serves as something of an allegory for the Chinese issue in Indonesia, and the second level of our analysis here. Often marginalised for the longest time, their renaissance as a more prominent feature of mainstream cinema is cemented recently with the bona fide blockbuster success in ‘Cek Toko Sebelah’. Prior to this, for the most part, and as far as I am aware, this community is not one often featured as central protagonists in such cinematic efforts, so ‘Moon Cake Story’ is a fine and important addition in that regard. Specific scenes even call direct attention to this, as some important dialogue exchanges highlights the sense of rootlessness felt by David (and perhaps the Chinese community as a whole) in feeling empty in spite of the so-called success that he has achieved in the business and economic sense.

One particular line, in which he talks about the Chinese being disconnected from their roots, is delivered as David is shown to be on the balcony of a high-rise building; the camera from below, the low angle takes in the background, filled with other similar blocks of building, a concrete jungle which accentuates further the disconnected between identity and nativity. Linda is one who is divorced of this, leading David to snap back in argument: “Have you forgotten that we once lived in the slums? And yet now you seem perplexed that I spend my time there?!” What is also unfortunate is the fact that he is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, slowly debilitating his memory and mental faculties over time. This tragic development would of course bring about another sense of dystopia, an irony in and of itself as juxtaposed between Linda and David: the ones who can remember chose not to, while the ones who wants to can’t.

Perhaps apropos to nothing, a recent dinner with some old friends revealed one of them, a Chinese-Malaysian from Miri (with a decent emphasis on the Chinese part), sharing the news he discovered recently that he is part Dayak, a grouping native to Borneo. Notwithstanding the somewhat hilarious and incongruous fact that this information was revealed by his father to his girlfriend instead of to him, he also mentioned how he feels somewhat… happy. It’s interesting to note that, for he has many years ago confided how he did not necessarily see a future for himself in the long-term in the country, and that it is a reflection of the travelling nature of the Chinese. I wonder now whether this sense of disconnect is one that is engendered by official state narratives, rather than a particularly organic feeling; while I can empathise to a certain extent through my own continuing otherness, it is not one that reaches the same extent.

So what about the table? I mention it at the very beginning because in spite of all that I’ve written, it is the presence of the table that’s most astounding. Certainly in the modern day context, many living rooms are arranged in accordance to the position of the television set. In more underprivileged areas, where such forms of media are a rarity, it is the table, one which was initially lacking in Asih’s home, which becomes a beacon of hope and interaction. The table is seen as the place where the family can eat, and where Bimo can sit to study for school. Perhaps this veers closer towards the field of anthropology, but it is certainly something that did not cross my mind a lot earlier. The family is formed around the table, a fact causing many to lament the greater disconnect and diffusion of eating habits once considered crucial.

That is essentially the main theme of ‘Moon Cake Story’. The film’s staged quality in parts helps to enhance the film’s experience, one which seems more like a theatrical production in parts. This helps to highlight how constructed such superficial differences are and can be, one which closer interrogation will reveal deeper and more universal truths than you may have bargained for. Perhaps less distraction by other characters would be useful, focusing this film solely on the trials and tribulations of our main characters. However, even that has its uses, as Asih’s neighbours add more colour and noise than David’s very comfortable but empty homes.

This is probably not what you would expect from a Garin Nugroho film, especially if you’re conditioned by his more left-field, auteur-directed efforts such as ‘Opera Jawa’ and ‘Di Bawah Pohon’. Nevertheless, it remains a tasty dish, even if what you discover as you sink your teeth deeper is more than you bargained for.

Featured image credit: Red Duck Post

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