Thursday, 14 August 2014

Soekarno: Indonesia Merdeka (2013)

Finally, a WW2 film made by the Allies that has a positive portrayal of the Japanese!

While the subject of Soekarno has never been banned from films during the New Order regime, his role in the sanctioned national narrative has been that of a historical hero turned dupe or victim of the cinematicallly monstrous PKI and communists, but never as the father of the nation. It is from the safety of two decades after the fall of the New Order that a film like Soekarno: Indonesia Merdeka can be made.

The premise is simple. Soekarno is a charismatic politician who can talk your socks off. All he wants is a bloodless, non-violent independence for Indonesia, and he will do anything to achieve that. Naive? Impractical? The opportunity presents itself with the Japanese occupation of the Dutch East Indies and the driving tension in this particular narrative centres on how much agency Soekarno really had, how much he was forced to compromise, and how far he would go before he passes through the moral event horizon.

Given its premise, this is a rare nationalist biopic that doesn’t lend itself to blatant hagiography and whitewashing. If anything, it veers on the side of heavy-handed moralising. Pak Karno is enlisted in a propaganda reel and asked to pretend he’s toiling happily for the “joint war effort” while a few metres across from him, he watches with guilt as forced labourers die from exhaustion. In another scene, Pak Karno procures prostitutes for the Japanese army to prevent the kidnapping of girls from villages. Rage and shame wash over his face as his torch casts light on the depravities that follow. Inggrid, one of the many wives that were discarded by the ladies’ man for a younger, more nubile candidate, is given the plum end-credits narration, ominously remarking how prizes that are won by compromise are themselves compromised and impossible to keep.

Amidst the moralising and the ideological speechifying, what stands out is the naturalistic approach of director Hanung Bramantyo, who completely eschews artificial lighting and employs diegetic music for much of the film. The resulting grittiness is something you can taste in your mouth, and takes it far away from the raft of overproduced nationalistic wartime films and television dramas coming out from say, China.

My complaint with the film’s rushed first act misses the opportunity to establish Soekarno as a modernist architect and visionary who practically invented his public self and image from scratch, and that the dynamics of the Soekarno-Hatta-Sjahrir triumvirate isn’t developed enough to set the foundations for the film’s sequel.

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