A Sight for Sore Eyes? – The Gift

This film nearly came and went in Indonesian cinemas, so Fikri Jermadi made sure to catch it and share it.

On many levels, ‘The Gift’ is an intriguing film. On the surface, the romance element of the story (between a blind man and a writer) have been played up, the base upon which the film’s promotion was launched. Such materials also did not miss opportunities to remind us of the director (Hanung Bramantyo) and leading man (Reza Rahadian), two highly prolific and well-regarded personalities whose last cinematic collaboration was released only a few months ago. Having said that, while the film may appear as a straightforward popcorn film, with a crowd-pleasing formula, a closer look reveals a more complicated process at play here.

The film tells the story of Harun (Reza Rahadian), the owner of a house in Yogyakarta. He is the aforementioned blind man, but no one told Tiana (Ayushita Nugraha), a writer who is under pressure from her publisher to produce the follow up to her previous work. She sublets a room in his house, an arrangement not uncommon in real life. Tiana is in Yogyakarta, regarded by many as the creative cultural capital of Indonesia, to seek inspiration for her next work. Of course, while inspiration comes from many sources, those looking for it may not find it through turned-up rock music blaring in the middle of the night. That is how Tiana is introduced to Harun, and this clash of styles inevitably begets greater interaction between the two. The closer they get, the closer they get together…

… or do they? On one level, and in terms of timeline, there is a puzzle element forcing upon you a more critical lens. I’m not saying that the film’s story is non-linear in nature, but neither should you accept it at face value. This is tied with the film’s theme, splitting the concepts of being blind and not being able to see. Trust your heart as much as your eyes. The opening scene may well have established this, as we see, from above, Tiana lying face down on the beach, almost as if she is washed up to shore, helplessly lost in the sea of life. You know what that imagery always reminds me of? The opening to ‘Inception’, practically the contemporary OG of non-linear puzzle cinema.

Through flashbacks and revelations, history is interspersed with the present, a gift (see what I did there?) Hanung no doubt hopes would be effective in creating a sense of feeling for our protagonists. What, though, would that feeling be? This is where things get a little hairy, largely because I could not decide whether I like them or not, and, if I do, by how much. Proponents may argue this to be human, but I feel that failing to root for the characters means half the battle is lost.

In ‘The Gift’, our protagonists are incredibly flawed in many ways. Tiana, for instance, seems like someone who is more than a little lost (see the sea shore scene above), seeking herself on this wanderlust journey as a temporary immersion of the soul, if you will. Yet in spite of this limited temporality, she eventually seeks, actively, to attract the attentions of a blind man who had shut himself off to the world. While I don’t disagree with the base philosophy (of living a life more fully), the fact is Harun had shut himself off for a reason, and to awaken it with love, at a time when she is not likely to hang around for more than a few months, perhaps, smacks of irresponsibility. At times, her voiceovers suggests this as part of the novel she is writing, yet to profit (creatively or otherwise) in such a fashion showcases a selfish personality. I am not saying that this is the complete bigger picture, but the lack of such civil uniformity does make me feel slightly uneasy.

Simultaneously, that same accusation could be aimed at Harun. While subsequent revelations would reveal otherwise, my initial impression is that this is a man who had isolated himself as a way of protection against heartbreak and disappointment. Preferring prevention over cure, inevitably it is this guard that Tiana brings down, but in spite of being given a second bite at the apple, he chooses spite it, biting the hand (not literally, though) the hand proffering said apple. Again, this is not without reason, but such wild swings and roundabouts makes it tricky for me to anchor my support for either of them.

Art plays an important role here. As mentioned before, Tiana’s journey is driven by her desire for creativity. Harun is not absolved of this; the fire Tiana awakens within Harun, at least momentarily, allows us to see what he is like without such inhibitions. Though his muse remains unseen in the most obvious sense, his sense of touch (a key scene between the two would see him trace her face with his fingers) is enough for him to literally sculpt that face as an artwork. For both Tiana and Harun, it is art through which both speaks clearly, the conduit through which true feelings (such as love) are expressed without inhibition.

Perhaps it is important that one factor of complication a man of science? Lest we venture too far off the beaten path, we shouldn’t forget that this is an Indonesian romance, and Hanung throws in the usual complications, with the ophthalmologist Arie (Dion Wiyoko) being a long-term admirer of Tiana. Bona (Ronaldy Zukarnain) would also make such a turn, being the one constant in Tiana’s life to have guided her through it. It is with him that Tiana would pour her heart out, engaging in long phone conversations, usually through her Bluetooth earpiece. I mention this with a purpose, for I had previously used such a device for a period of time. At the office, my former boss would comment that he thought I had gone crazy, because all my phone conversations appeared to him as one-way conversations with myself. That was a part of my impression of Tiana in the beginning.

Such slightly off-centre impressions is how ‘The Gift’ plays, by way of its story, the execution and its marketing efforts. Though not uncommon, the title alone (in English) could be misleading; some may think it as a foreign film. It certainly helps to make the familiar just that bit less so, by way of unconventional cinematic flourishes (some scenes see a great interplay between the fore- and background, with mirrors and doorways adding layers that wouldn’t have existed otherwise), puzzled-up timelines and other such elements.

At the same time, the film is also missing the little nuts and bolts that would truly stitch it all together; a few more scenes showcasing Tiana’s softening of attitude, from mild curiosity to romantic affection, would have been welcome. Hanung’s reworking of a familiar formula fails to prevent us from falling upon familiar grounds. Fans of Indonesian cinema may find the story’s development to be as obvious as the day is long for those fasting in Ramadhan, even if our protagonists (both of them) are blind to them.

And on that note, Selamat Hari Raya to all!

Featured image credit: Lithic Goods

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