Lightning Strikes – Gundala

Adi Iskandar believe that Joko Anwar’s film lives up to the hype, even when it doesn’t.

It is difficult to believe that the film ‘Gundala’, directed by Joko Anwar, could be any more hyped prior to its release. Even after an oversaturation of entries, the superhero genre has proven more durable than even the likes of Steven Spielberg had initially thought. In a time where Norman Yusoff has called for us to consider more homegrown alternatives as a way of batting back the cultural imperialism of Hollywood, it is pleasing to note this film as a viable piece of wood with which to swing at the mainstream ball.

Based on Harya Suraminta’s comic books, ‘Gundala’ tells the story of Sancaka (Muzakki Ramdhan), a young boy forced to swiftly mature beyond his years. He would eventually become a security guard in adult life (Abimana Aryasatya), an irony masking his tendency to cower in the face of intimidation. This denial is challenged over time by Sedhah Esti Wulan (Tara Basro), one of his neighbours, as well as his own consciousness as seen through several scenes; his is a reluctance heavy on his soul. Heavier still is the fall which basically rendered him dead, only for strikes of lightning to bring him back to life, imbuing him with superpower.

At the same time, and from the top of the figurative tree, Pengkor (Bront Palarae) is a ruthless mafia boss, an underground personality comfortable mixing it with the nation’s politicians. Brief scenes would showcase his willingness to cross lines as if they’re not there. Among the politicians he attempts to influence is Ridwan Bahri (Lukman Sardi), whose increasing disquiet makes him wonder whether anyone can stop Pengkor and his nefarious influence and corruption, to step up as the hero Jakarta needs, even if he’s not what it deserves right now.

Kudos if you had spotted the reference to ‘The Dark Knight’. This is a film that walks along paths we’ve all been down. Zoom out, look at the film’s narrative arc and structure, and you will see familiar signs. A hero’s journey kickstarted by a reconstituted family unit? Check. A past involving parental trauma? Batman called, he wants his history back. An old man preaching about responsibility? Uncle Ben, is that you? Even the soundtrack evokes the same impact as Hans Zimmer’s work for ‘The Dark Knight’. Not that this is meant as a slight, mind you; the composition by Bembi Gusti, Tony Merle and Aghi Narottama really helps to maintain the tempo and push the story along.

Yet even when you get the same paint-by-numbers bigger picture, the colours Joko Anwar and his team paint with are new. There is a strong reliance on more local mythology (I love the shift in music that accompany Swara Batin’s character). This makes ‘Gundala’ a unique entry in the context of global cinema. Of course, it could be argued that Marvel Studios’ films are also based on stories inspired by once-local lores. Yet the ubiquity of such cultures have rendered it Western, making films like ‘Gundala’ stand out for the right reasons.

This is particularly if you are invested in the history of Indonesian socio-economic and –political discourse. Watching the film, it is difficult to not think about the May 1998 riots. In particular, there are scenes of unrest with shops in the background going as far as painting ‘Bukan milik pendatang’ on their shutter doors. Meaning that they are not owned by non-natives, this is symbolic precisely of identical signifiers which scarred the nation near the end of the 20th century, when mass pressure erupts in violent aggression and anger against the Chinese.

In fact, ‘Gundala’ is quite the political powder keg, as there is much to connect it to current affairs. Around the time of the film’s initial release in Indonesia, the country’s media is abuzz with the role of the Corruption Eradication Commission, and how the current president Jokowi may rework it. Tensions have been there for a while, but all the same, and much like ‘Bumi Manusia’ (accidentally) tapping into the nation’s (sub)conscious as per its dealings with Papua, the film fortuitously plays out a ‘what if’ scenario many may wish for. To that end, ‘Gundala’ feels very much the gunslinger rolling into town, going for the jugular in the administration of vigilante justice. Perhaps this is why over a million people have seen it in Indonesia?

In that same core also reside critical representations of class. Again, this could be connected to the above (lest we forget, May 1998 had as much to do with the [inter]national economic malaise of the time). There is a distinct class discussion infused into the film’s narrative, as represented by the variety of characters flitting in and out. In addition to connoting a bigger picture beyond what we see (much that could be explored by way of sequels, spin-offs and prequels), it feels like many of characters here represent different elements of Indonesian hierarchy. They all populate a dystopian Jakarta, which unfortunately has a greater visual fidelity to its real-life counterpart.

Herein lies a little of the dissatisfaction. I see a character, I get a feel for it… then it’s gone, as swiftly as the wind in the night. Another set would come into the equation, messing up the expected sum you had in mind, before again being deliminalised. I can see how this sets up a cinematic universe of sorts, but viewed through the lens of a singular filmic experience, there is a sense of incompletion. This is why I wrote earlier that ‘Gundala’ doesn’t quite live up to the hype, even as it does; in its ambition, it marks an important step forward in not only Indonesia’s cinema, but also in regional box office contexts. If you can have the patience for that, then you’re in for a treat.

Perhaps this is the sacrifice that we need to make, at least for now. In and of itself, ‘Gundala’ works very well, dripping with all sorts of meaning that locals will make, while remaining relatively accessible for those who are not. It may not be the complete narrative experience one may have hoped for, but in going big by going home, Joko Anwar has proven how to mine domestical cultural capital for international kudos and credit.

I look forward to the future chapters of this story.

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