JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

The views of Jakarta, like most other locations in the film, are characteristically subdued. This semi-iconic statue is the only sure sign that we’re in the same vicinity as the clusters of skyscrapers, traffic-clogged streets, and masses of people that adorn the backgrounds of most other films set in the nation’s capital.

Ambar’s father addressing a group of male relatives. The party’s dialog and mise-en-scène efficiently establish the family’s upper-class status.

Ambarís powers of persuasion.

An impending vision of the settled, married life that repels Ambar.

Ambar contemplates an alternate, yet similarly anxiety-producing path: leaving Indonesia to study abroad.

The journey begins with decidedly uninteresting scenery.

Suf enters the scene in Bandung.

Bandung insiders look skeptically into the lens.

The camera takes on Sufís view as he slowly awakes.

View from the road: the cousins pass a low-cost, crowded “travel” van inscribed with precisely what they themselves appear to lack: Hikmah, an Arabic word for wisdom that is associated with the power to act decisively and properly. (Indonesian contains a number of words and concepts inherited from Arabic).

As a cautiously self-conscious product of this history, Tiga Hari Untuk Selamanya sets out to chronicle the experiences of two late/post-adolescents who could be thought of as among the most unscathed inheritors of the hushed legacy of violence and dictatorship: those whose families’ historical alignment with Suharto’s political and economic machinery has served them very well.  As mentioned earlier, within the spectrum of New Wave movie characters, the duo are anything but unique: Yusuf, or, simply “Suf,” is the thoughtful, reserved, responsible, yet curious nice-guy who studies architecture at the University of Indonesia (this does not, in the context of the film, preclude his possession and use of marijuana noted earlier).[5][open endnotes in new window] Ambar is a “Westernized” young woman whose recreational use of various drugs and active social and sex life provide escape from the strictures of parents and family, which, particularly in regards to gender, she has long found unreasonable and confining. While they are first cousins from an elite, extended family, the film makes clear that Ambar has grown up accustomed to a far more opulent lifestyle than the more economically and socially cautious Suf.

As a road movie or indeed a kind of travelogue, Tiga Hari begins in Jakarta, the capital city and the site (since Dutch times) of the government’s centralized control of media and representation, as well as of most other matters. In the present it is a modern, sprawling megalopolis with a population of well over 10 million. The film also takes as a point of departure the idealized, structural model for Indonesian society: the extended, patriarchal Javanese family. After a deceptively sunny, warm, and touristy credit sequence that establishes both the rural landscape in which much of the film takes place and the vehicles, cinematic and actual, that will bear the protagonists into it, the first scene opens during a large family gathering in the capital. The occasion is a pre-celebration for Ambar’s older sister’s wedding, which will take place a few days later roughly 450 kilometers to the East in the Central Javanese city of Yogyakarta. The location chosen for the marriage (and thus for the final destination of the cousins’ trip), like much of the film’s structure and mise en scène, calls on an ultra-familiar element of Indonesian national identity and official discourse; one that is, like many others, based on the historical/ political centrality of Java. Built around the ancient palace of the most powerful, pre-colonial Sultanate, Yogyakarta (and, to a somewhat lesser extent, the neighboring kingdom of Surakarta) has long been considered the heartland of Javanese culture, the source of the once-imperial Javanese kings’ legendary power. Given the particular emphasis Suharto placed on the importance of Indonesia’s “living” (yet purportedly unaltered since time immemorial) traditions, the presence of an elaborate ceremony in Yogyakarta as the film’s projected conclusion calls to mind a figurative journey, typical in Indonesian public discourse, between the geographically, politically, and ethnically defined tropes of modernity and tradition.

Night food vendors by the palace gardens in Yogyakarta, a popular hangout for youth. Men in traditional Javanese costume Marching toward the palace as part of the famous Grebeg Nabi, or the ritual celebration of the birthday of the prophet Muhammed. The ceremony, as the costumes, blend modern and pre-colonial Javanese, Dutch, and pan-Islamic elements. Photo: Koes Yuliadi
Men outside one of the palaceís many Pendopo, or Javanese pavilions, during Grebeg Nabi. Photo: Koes Yuliadi The dishes, indicative of the familyís longstanding class associations and the historical Dutch influence on Indonesia.

Not surprisingly, then, this is just what the family aims to do: take the one hour flight from Jakarta to Yogya (dozens of which depart daily), during which the vast, and somewhat less fabled expanses of Western and Central Java are collapsed into a brief, cartographic view from the airplane window, punctuated by a few smoking volcanoes. The two protagonists, of course, have been given an alternate directive: Suf, the family’s hardworking, trustworthy young man, is charged by his Aunt (Ambar’s mother, played by Tutie Kirana, a well-known Indonesian actress from the 1970s) with safely delivering a delicate set of porcelain plates and cutlery, which, as she explains, has been passed down through multiple generations and is always used in the weddings of young women in the family. The dishes — as a central, symbolic component marking the family’s stature and privileged historical lineage and connecting them ceremonially to the family into which their daughter will marry — must be preserved at all cost. Suf’s aunt worries that the precious china might break if checked on the flight, and thus entrusts him with driving the plates, in their custom-made, protective travel case, and ensuring their arrival at the ceremony on time and in one piece. That night, Suf’s father gives him explicit instructions for the trip: stick to the most direct route along the relatively straight contours of the island’s coast. Suf is then ordered to bed early, and reminded sternly that he must not disappoint the family. The opening of the narrative thus sets up a social context that viewers, especially Indonesian ones, might find unremarkable, including a spouse from a good background, a supposedly quick, uneventful trip across Java, and a properly traditional wedding in Yogyakarta with the dishes on prominent display.

Narrative and counter narrative:
Ambar and the dishes.
Ambarís family home employs a typical tropical modernist design seen in contemporary films, hotels, and vacation rentals for upscale tourists.
Ambarís sister expresses frustration at the stiff atmosphere at her pre-wedding party. The DJ elicits loud cheers from the crowd at the Jakarta Club.

Despite his best intentions, however, Suf is immediately drawn off course, as if by a Siren song. While nodding dutifully at his father’s speech, he receives a text message from Ambar reading “Mabuk, Yuk,” a slang phrase that in Indonesian carries a double meaning: “Let’s get drunk,” and, perhaps more important, “Let’s get lost.” With an inviting smile, Ambar appears before Suf, apparently in need of a sympathetic companion with whom to make a quick escape from the family gathering. For her in particular, the pre-wedding party serves to mark the beginning of a process in which history must repeat itself: Ambar, like her older sister, will soon be expected to follow “orders” and get married. Resisting the apparent inevitability of a future so closely defined by the past, the cousins take a brief interlude into the space of a Jakarta club, which succeeds in altering perception and slowing time, stretching night into early morning. The result, predictably, is that both oversleep and Ambar misses her plane. Consequently, Suf acquires an additional responsibility: he must now deliver the bride’s errant younger sister, whose presence — along with the dishes — will serve to verify the enduring intactness of both tradition and of the family unit itself. The plot trajectory around travel is thus set and, via Ambar, at once placed in tension with an impending loss of direction that establishes itself as a latent counter-narrative, the implications of which remain unknown.

As the responses of viewers and critics suggest, the cinematic invocation of a ubiquitous mode of youth rebellion — a challenge to the strictures and structured time of family and society — may strike a variety of audiences as unremarkable (save for the Western reviewers who predictably comment on the apparent novelty of this discourse appearing in cinema from “the worlds most populous Muslim nation”). [6] Yet as it progresses, the film attempts to undermine and question both the social standards challenged by the cousins’ youthful hijinx, as well as the potentially decadent youthful standards of sex, drugs, techno, and generational conflict as a response to authority in itself. (This is not to say, however, that in presenting such activities as relatively commonplace, the film is not still pushing understandings of what constitutes acceptable behavior among young Indonesians, but rather that modes and contexts of such challenges are called into question). In this sense, the film does not truly get going until it can slow down and stretch a bit, having temporarily evaded the formalized boundaries of both time-honored rituals and “wild” parties.

This change is also signaled by the film’s shifting adherence to and adaptations of genre and style. As I will explain in greater detail below, there are four, fairly clearly delineated “holes” in the readable continuity of the film’s formal structure, each of which indicate the symptomatic emergence of unconscious desires that subvert the film’s pre-established goals and genre-based narrative economy. Its apparently smooth “surface,” then, could be viewed as having been set up precisely to be cracked: in both the initial family gathering and club scene, the mise-en-scène exudes a certain blandness, almost a mediocrity. It is not in the acting, which is consistently plausible and expressive, but rather in the settings themselves. They seem like mechanical overviews or collections of just what a viewer (in this case a posited, “glocal” viewer) might expect to find in each situation, from nostalgic aunts bearing old porcelain to sassy daughters to cigar-smoking, golf-playing uncles to a DJ excitedly pumping his fist in time to a monotonous techno track. Building a similar sense of hyper-normality, in the mise-en-sc~ene directly preceding and following these scenes, the opening sequence and the cousins’ initial foray into the empty sprawl of West Java also employ a static, unexciting take on roads and travelogue, the former being accompanied by a happy, acoustic guitar-driven ditty with lyrics in accented English.

This extremely “generic” set up, however, appears to be a calculated strategy (albeit one that may have cost the film a certain amount of critical and audience acclaim), giving the film a formal starting point from which to subsequently distance itself. Thus, as Suf and Ambar leave the confines of Jakarta, the imagery soon becomes so bland as to appear oddly nondescript and as such begins subtly to draw attention to itself. As we briefly land in another youth-filled party in the city of Bandung, filled with a fluent combination of commercial and “countercultural” elements (hipsters, thick smoke, Iggy Pop posters and t-shirts on sales racks bearing the logo of The Clash – by day the space is used for retail), the film indicates the emergence of the first structural hole: here, it begins to softly stutter, as if surreptitiously trying to break with its own overly-practiced continuity. As extras walk through the frame, they direct their glances into the camera seemingly questioning its presence, foregrounding the technical apparatus. Later, as the camera takes on Suf’s perception of the scene, it mimics his inebriation, eventually finding itself lying sideways on a bench. The entrance of the first “hole” then comes just as the film itself seems to be passing out: the screen suddenly cuts to black and for a few seconds, the soundtrack is totally silent, as if there were simply a gap in the cinematic text’s material base. The first instance of this technique, instituting an obvious cut, signals something of a new beginning, or a least a more concerted pattern of attempts to break form with that which has come before.

After leaving behind the carefully mapped-out ideological, geographic, and countercultural points of reference indicating where its protagonists should belong (according to their class, age, and status as teen-idols) the film begins to open up. While still a bit stoned, it lazily yet steadily pulls at its own bland deployment of convention until its sense of direction unravels, and we end up in less familiar territory. Arguably, its themes and slow pacing, compared by some Indonesian bloggers to the Mexican film Y Tu Mama Tambien (2001 Cuarón),[7] would still seem to place Tiga Hari fairly comfortably within the global, festival-oriented discourse of independent counter-cinema, where, along with “slow” movies from other non-Western parts of the world, it has generally been treated to a warm reception.[8] Tiga Hari was indeed produced in part with festival-linked funding from Europe and elsewhere,[9] and the technique of slowing its pacing and stretching its narrative and genre conventions, presumably a big part of the film’s global indie credibility, must then be seen as one of the economic conditions of its existence.

Yet the resulting temporal and geographic space opened within the film’s diegesis nonetheless functions to foreground a wealth of smaller details whose meanings are far more resistant to universalization, and whose historical context is far less well-known internationally than that of many of the festival hits from places like China, India, Hong Kong, or Mexico. I will argue that these pointed, albeit often briefly flashing elements perform the crucial task of (re)attaching the film’s economies of narrative and desire to a set of local, national and personal discourses that are firmly rooted in the experience of contemporary, Javanese youth (and, by extension, various other groups of young Indonesians who watch the glut of local films made in and on Java and Jakarta). At stake in particular is a widespread hesitancy toward genuine engagement; not only with families, peers, and other classes, but, perhaps more important, with the actual “contents” of Indonesian history of the last half-century.[10]

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