Upon arriving in Bandung, Ambar and Suf are greeted by “Elvis,” a singer in a local band and one of the proprietors of the distro in which the party takes place.

Suf and Elvis’ guitarist get high.

Familiar visual pattern: Ambar, studied in long lens as reverse-shot to the looking Suf.

Relaxing in spacious luxury while Suf explains that Java is the most densely populated place on earth.

A rare, highly scenic birds-eye perspective is offered to viewers.

The wandering Tayub troupe performs with a small gamelan ensemble, immediately attracting a crowd of local men who participate in the dance.

The Tayub dancer’s infectious, powerful gaze.

A parade of animals suddenly crosses in front of the car.

Pak Haji Satimo, enthusiastic polygamist and owner of a roadside homestay inn, offers coffee or tea to his guests but instructs one of his wives in a local dialect to put the last of the sugar in his own cup.

Suf returns to the room to find Pak Satimo gazing lustily at Ambar’s exposed legs as she sleeps, much as Suf himself had done a few hours previously in the car.

Ambar awakens in the middle of the night, triggering another stylistic break with her look into the camera, which is here aligned with the gaze of viewers.

Suf is finally provoked by Ambar to speak his mind. They verbally attack each other while the disco ball creates overexposed flashes in the side of the frame.

After a brooding roadside meal in which no words are spoken, the furious Ambar takes over driving duties.

The specter of corpses reappears in the window, causing the cousins to pause and reassess their conflict.

Invoking melodrama: In the aftermath of their fight, Suf’s harsh, openly-critical words seem to have had a deep effect on Ambar.

Aborting a socially transgressive kiss at the very last moment, the scene instead triggers a massive structural break in the fabric of the film itself, which is paralleled by a huge earthquake ripping apart its point of destination: Yogyakarta as idealized site of living tradition and homogeneous Javanese purity.

An image from the final sex scene which was removed by censors.

The final image of Tiga Hari Untuk Selamanya: “9 months later” following the sex scene. No one is pregnant of course (including Ambar’s newlywed sister), but Suf and Ambar meet again at another family wedding while Ambar is home on Spring Break. Suf arrives with a girlfriend but seeks Ambar out and encounters her alone. Their sudden discomfort in each other’s presence speaks of a continuing desire that now lacks the context or words to express itself, and thus will most likely be kept inside if not forgotten. After a long, awkward moment of silence the screen simply cuts to black.

At first, like the initial foray into the Jakarta nightclub, Tiga Hari’s narrative stalls and stops are motivated by Ambar’s conscious desire to undermine the steady pull of their destination: the wedding. The earlier diversions, then, function as a kind of deconstructive exposition of what constitutes her world, usually from Suf’s less experienced yet fascinated perspective. But the initial club and party scenes that provide a more literal unpacking of the decadent, status-dependent nature of the youth “underground” serve primarily as a gloss on the film’s cosmopolitan points of departure. While the scenes are arguably a serious element conveying part of the film’s message (as is Ambar’s rant against her parents’ double standards in regards to gender), more important still, they function as a gateway to the film’s brushes with the rural nether-regions of the landscape, and with that which appears, symptom-like, from the psychic depths of the outwardly normal protagonists. We are thus subtly made ready for a shift: as the cousins enter the second party space (known as a distro) in the city of Bandung, themes in the dialog roughly mirror the tension between the film’s previous formal adherence to established convention and the initial deconstructive looks into the camera that lead to the first, jarring cut to black/hole. Everyone in the distro seems either obsessed with the newest and hippest methods of mediating perception and experience (employing various types of drugs), or alternately regretful and nostalgic for the lost ideal of pure immediacy. “Elvis,” an indie-rock singer and Ambar’s local fling, plies her with extravagant sounding pills — “This one is better than Red Ferrari.” He simultaneously proffers access to an exoticized, yet typically Indonesian excursion, inviting her to come along on a trip he’s planning to the island of Bali, where they can lounge, naked and undisturbed, on the beach attached to a private, $400-per-night-and-up hotel.

Suf, on the other hand, left to his own devices, happens on a misty-eyed member of Elvis’ band who laments the lack of an immediate, “spontaneous effect” in his new, expensive, and highly sought-after guitar. Clearly the less-experienced odd-man-out in this situation, Suf’s trusted, eye-contact-mediating “party hat” (introduced in the previous club scene) seems insufficient protection here. Instead, he attempts to go native by indulging in a variety of smoke-spewing, mind-altering devices. (While drugs in general are of course not unfamiliar to him, those he is offered here seem to be of a different strain than the weed he regularly carries). Finally, after putting his lips to a massive bong of carved horn, he simply passes out, triggering the camera to do the same, resulting in the cut to black.

Suf, post bong. Suf awakens and peeks in on Ambar, who is in bed with Elvis.
Ambar looks into the camera, which here is aligned with Suf’s voyeuristic gaze. Suf’s looks at Ambar become more frequent and open during the course of the film.

Rising later, dream-like from his drug-induced slumber, he finds himself staring at Ambar through the half-open door to Elvis’ room. As if sensing the distant yet piercing look, she turns her head, and, looking directly into the camera, finally seems to read the presence of desire. As they lock eyes, a degree of separation is lost, and an actual step forward in the film’s “romantic” narrative is begun: Ambar wakes before dawn, suddenly restless with Elvis and his idyllic promises. She pulls Suf with her and makes a swift exit, this time apparently from the confines of her own beloved escapism.

Already a day late for their planned arrival, their departure into the still-dark city carries a certain urgency, yet as they wind through side streets past night markets and food sellers, eventually entering the vast sprawl of rural West Java, the landscape, its inhabitants, and its crisscrossing roads appear indifferent to the schedules of outside travelers. For example, as the two request the most direct route to Yogyakarta from an older couple at whose food stall they have stopped for breakfast, Suf and Ambar are instead party to a lengthy squabble between the man and his wife, who seem to have had little occasion to travel so far. The older couple’s loudly-aired marital issues, while providing a source of rather class-stereotyped amusement, ultimately leave the two travelers ignored and none the wiser in terms of directions: they are no longer in familiar territory. Lighting up a joint as they leave, Ambar retreats to the path she knows best, running above the fray and between isolated points of privilege and security. Deftly circumnavigating a police checkpoint, she lands them comfortably in front of a pool of hot, mineral water at an upscale, countryside spa. The setting, however, still places them in far closer contact with the surrounding landscape than the interior locations of club, distro, and car.

Peering at the semi-submerged, underwear-clad Ambar at the far side of the pool, Suf is suddenly wracked with an odd, insistent series of hiccups. It is almost as if, after immersing himself in hot water that has barely escaped the churning, invisible depths of the earth, something of his own, innermost, unconscious elements begin to make their way, spontaneous and symptom-like, to the surface of awareness. When Ambar approaches him, it only worsens matters, and Suf, caught without the protection of his hat, attempts to cover the emergence of the unexpected by invoking a tried and true form of knowing: he launches into a mini-lecture on the extreme population density of West Java. His words form something of a counter-narrative to the luxurious sparseness of the space in which they are sitting, shielding them from the intrusions of family, authorities and impoverished, misdirecting masses. Yet the attempted serious tone of Suf’s statistical analysis of Java quickly realizes itself as a joke, provoking only stoned laughter in both parties as it envelopes them, this time together, in another easy, protective layer.

At this point, the film takes on its closest approximation of an idyllic travelogue, inserting a lazy, extra-diegetic, reggae-inspired tune underneath the trip’s first real panoramas, finally giving in to a bird’s eye view, which reveals vast open spaces filled with sunny, green rice fields and few cars or people. In this context, being a bit lost seems inviting and desirable; anyhow, Ambar is soon given a map by a friendly shop owner, who oddly refuses to take her money. With it, Suf immediately sees where he went wrong, and the couple sets off again. These formal assurances, however, soon ring as false as Suf’s dope-infused statistical quips. Inside the car, the cracked specter of the disco ball continues to sparkle suggestively as if mimicking the passing landscape, which fills the windows with a fragmented outer reality ever more haunted by the presence of mortality, and of vanished, forgotten lives: half-finished structures, barren mosques and over-grown graveyards. Building on the thematic of the hot spring, the gaps and holes revealed in the earth’s surface now signal the ever-present threat of its unseen contents suddenly spewing forth and leveling everything in their path (not an uncommon occurrence in seismically hyper-active Indonesia). The car’s radio announces the impending eruption of Mt. Merapi, the notorious volcano that marks the geographic and spiritual center of Java as well as the final destination of the trip. As if in response, the film again veers away from its stated path — maps, destinations, and deadline structures be damned — coming to rest somewhere around its geographical halfway mark. Stylistically, it suddenly takes a turn toward something like magic realism, placing the protagonists in a series of increasingly dream-like scenes, bringing them into far closer proximity with the “oddities” of the local landscape and rural milieu. 

The radio announces an impending eruption of Mt. Merapi, one of the all-powerful “leveling” forces that has periodically made its presence felt throughout Java’s history. The mountain is considered a source of the mystical power of Javanese kings. As the radio warns of disaster, the scenery evokes a landscape filled with bodies.

(Re)turn inward: the past within the present

Pulled to a stop at a beachside shack somewhere between Jakarta and Central Java, Suf and Ambar are struck by an uncanny feeling of familiarity. Fumbling for the right word, they simultaneously blurt out mystis, or mystical, a term that Ariel Heryanto has linked to New Order representations of certain traditional Javanese practices, particularly those involving folk dance (and thus not associated with the refined palace arts of Yogyakarta or Surakarta) which were officially viewed as “tainted by mysticism, backwardness, and sexual promiscuity” (2008 24).  As if on cue, a Javanese Tayub dancer appears on the beach with a small troupe of musicians and an appreciative group of dancing partners who place money in the folds of her clothing. (Tayub is a popular local dance form with pre-Islamic roots, usually featuring a female dancer who performs for a group of mostly-male onlookers whom she invites to join in the dance — in certain contexts it has been linked with prostitution) (Larasati forthcoming). Suf, who was shown urinating in an earlier scene, just as the film began to veer completely off course the first time, here relieves himself again in the sand. No sooner has he zipped his pants and turned around than he begins moving slowly toward the dancer, as if pulled by an unseen force. He appears totally entranced by her slow, confident movements and piercing gaze, which, like Ambar’s earlier, is aimed directly into the camera. Seeing his blankly staring face moving slowly across the beach, Ambar herself is moved to interfere, gently anchoring Suf at a safe distance from the other woman.

Suf, shot with a long lens, is both looker and looked at, subjected to the gaze of the Tayub dancer and unable to tear himself away. Ambar prevents the entranced Suf from advancing any further.
Back in the car, Suf’s eyes are drawn away from the road. As Ambar sleeps, Suf becomes increasingly lost. When he does periodically glance at the world outside the car, the scenery becomes more and more surreal.

The experience, while intimately tied to familiar, “quaint” elements of local history, nonetheless exceeds the ability to discern what is really happening, and thus seems impossible to contain within the simple backwardness suggested by the concept of mystis. Instead, via Suf, the exchange of glances appears to touch a point somewhere deep inside the lived present, structurally mirroring his voyeuristic fascination with the power of Ambar’s modern, “Westernized” movements. The connection is made clearer still as Ambar falls asleep in the car, and Suf’s eyes linger on her own opportunely exposed legs. Still dazed and repeatedly looking away from the road, Suf unknowingly circles back to the site of his encounter with desire: after driving for what seems like hours, he looks out the window, only to see the very same Tayub troupe, as if just leaving the beach on foot. The film, following the dancer’s continuity-challenging glances, begins again to visually, stylistically stutter and formally decompose, this time with white camera flashes underlining a series of jump cuts that mirror Suf’s interrupted state of consciousness. With Ambar still sleeping beside him, he suddenly skids to a stop and receives something like a vision: in front of the car, a pig, an elephant, and then a tiger emerge in sequence from the bushes, and then disappear after crossing the road. Symbolically, the elephant could be associated with the might of Java’s pre-colonial (and pre-Indonesia) past, while the tiger appears to be a warning for the future. A Javanese filmmaker friend speculated that the pig was meant to symbolize the notoriously corrupt Suharto, as swine often stand for excessive greed.

The next scene appears to support this thesis, as it opens with a portrait of the former dictator, still hanging on the wall behind Pak Haji Satimo (played by the well-known comedian Tarzan), the owner of a small, “homestay” inn where Suf and Ambar — now sleepy, confused, and thoroughly lost — find themselves seeking a bed for the night. The title Haji is an honorific given to those who have completed the pilgrimage to Mecca, and it is meant to signify piety, altruistic leadership and privileged status in the context of local Islam. Often enough, it also indicates a successful local businessman: even with government subsidies, the trip to Saudi Arabia is not cheap. Pak Satimo indeed appears to embody the “business-end” of religiosity (although on a rural, decidedly un-opulent scale), echoing that of Suharto, whose calculated bouts of piety have often been seen as driven by his need to shore up support from Islamic groups when his power or influence was flagging elsewhere (Heryanto 11-15). (Suharto is also originally from a small Javanese village). Pak Satimo’s good standing as a Haji is thus sharply, although perhaps not surprisingly, contrasted with a complete lack of generosity toward his guests. If he is in fact at some level a stand in for Suhartoist values, his open practice of polygamy, which he describes to a captive Suf with sleazy, breathless pleasure, would seem to point to one of the many unexpected side effects of the loosening of certain social and political strictures after Reformasi.[14][open endnotes in new window]

The main point (particularly with local viewers in mind) in the inclusion of Pak Haji Satimo’s character, however, would seem to exceed a mere reference to the lingering influence of Suharto (nor is he played, like Elvis, the arguing couple, or certain other peripheral characters, as a one dimensional “straw man”). When taken together with his wives and apparently altruistic teenage son, Pak Satimo’s lack of any truly damning flaws with which to pin him down, lends him a potentially unsettling humanity. For Suf, Satimo’s “aberrant” staring at the sleeping Ambar’s exposed legs provides an obvious link to himself. Ambar as well, listening through the thin walls of the room to the loud, insatiable rhythm of Satimo’s late-night activities with his various wives, actually seems attracted by the audio spectacle, much to her own horror. Having stopped at Satimo’s for the night has also unexpectedly placed the cousins together in a single room. Along with eliciting a few more desire-ridden hiccups from Suf, the sleeping arrangement brings the revelation that Ambar has packed (and thus obviously kept for many years) the sarong that Suf wore during the healing process after his circumcision; “the silent witness to my suffering” as he calls it. (Circumcision is an important marker of adulthood that in Java normally takes place between the ages of 11-13).

The episode at Pak Satimo’s homestay has thus not only taken the two protagonists through another step “forward” in the realization and potential consummation of their desires for each other, but it has linked their arrival at this particular point in the present to a number of “uncomfortable,” and outright painful, elements of the past. The events, changes and tendencies evoked — both individual and collective — are linked to the psychic and material marks they have left on the cousins, on the surrounding landscape, and on its “peripheral” characters. The narrative step itself, like those preceding it, is once again marked by Ambar’s looking into the camera. Here, however, she faces away from Suf, who sleeps; the closeness of the entire scene — the small, dirty room, the lack of privacy or separation from either history or the “masses” it has produced — brings a sense of claustrophobia and, particularly in Ambar, open disgust.

Her extreme discomfort at the sudden proximity of things normally separated by rigid layers of class, mobility, and state-produced knowledge is thus turned onto the closest possible thing: Suf. Feeling put upon and immobilized (the car temporarily disappears at the hands of Pak Satimo, although the dishes remain) she blames Suf’s flagging sense of direction and unflagging, “un-manly” Javanese politeness in negotiating their exchanges with the locals for stranding them in what truly seems like the middle of nowhere. To Ambar, Suf has come to seem both overly flexible and rigidly overdetermined, a spineless traditionalist like the relatives waiting for them in Yogyakarta. Her intolerance and lengthy berating of him, however, finally provoke a rise in Suf, and the scene in the car becomes furiously polarized, as he in turn accuses Ambar of being spoiled, judgmental, and, in effect, dictatorial. If their trip so far has loosened up restraints on the desire to connect, know, and understand more deeply, it has now unearthed an unwanted layer of fraught historical baggage, sparking a crisis of understanding followed by a violent struggle for dominance.

As what had begun to seem like the film’s real narrative goal, romance, is now also subjected to deconstruction (here the white flashes produced by the disco ball in the sides of the frame mimic previous structural stutterings). The stakes of a clash between two opposed, yet powerful, ideological positions are projected, in allegorically expandable terms, in the windows of the car. The audience’s view, however, is temporarily separated from that of the protagonists as we are shown a member of the rakyat kecil (the poor or literally “small people”), unseen by Ambar or Suf, leaping out of the way so as to avoid being rundown by the arguing cousins’ speeding Peugeot. With Ambar at the wheel, the car blazes its own path through the landscape, weaving through trucks, people and horse-drawn carriages at high speed. Not until a scene of carnage suddenly opens in front of the two youths are they forced to rein in their velocity and compelled, once again, to look. Just outside the window, several bloody corpses are laid out at the feet of a crowd of shouting villagers, covered only in newspaper. The smashed vehicles that would indicate a traffic accident as the cause of their demise are absent, appearing only as an invisible counterweight to a rope, which stretches below the line of vision defined by the roadside. Finally shaken by the literal appearance of death just outside the car, the cousins’ anger turns to grief, the gory images inspiring a somber introspection, particularly in Ambar. Is she to blame for the inherited position of privilege she occupies? The moment produces from both protagonists a silent commitment to follow the journey’s inward spiral to its potentially uncomfortable, transgressive conclusion, away from imposed familial, cultural, and personal boundaries. Desire and romance, such as they are, are slowly put back on track.

Stopping to rest in a peaceful field after their fight, Ambar dons Suf’s shirt and embraces him as they exchange apologies. In a symbolic moment, they wander barefoot into the grass, finally allowing themselves to touch the landscape, the map left affixed to the hood of the car by the weight of their abandoned shoes. Yet despite the flowery imagery, the intimate space now re-opened between the cousins does not provide an easy road to peace and love but becomes something closer to a dialogical forum for the careful probing of sharp topographies of difference. In this regard, the importance Ambar places on her own, more contemporary take on sexuality leads her to question Suf, teasingly at first, about his standards of behavior. She assumes that his “polite, obedient” Javanese exterior precludes fluency in the shifting languages and practices of modernity: she affectionately suspects him of a level of inexperience that might prevent a successful physical engagement with her. While Suf remains guardedly ambiguous about his virginity, he gives something of an answer to the larger question of Javanese character by suggesting they visit Sedangsono, a large, carved-stone Javanese-Catholic temple.  

The Sedangsono complex, a striking monument to Java’s historical, syncretic ability to absorb and incorporate myriad, outside religious or cultural practices without losing its own collective sense of identity, seems to take the highly skeptical Ambar by surprise. Waiting outside, Suf also reveals an unexpected interest in astrology, psychology, and mysticism that is both wide-ranging and rooted in the importance of history from a local perspective. He compares the age — twenty seven — at which Kurt Kobain, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison and Jimi Hendrix either died of an overdose or decided to commit suicide, to the same moment in the life of Sukarno, who chose instead to start the fight that brought hundreds of years of Dutch domination to a close. He explains that at twenty nine, however, the planet Saturn, which he claims controls the unconscious, aligns itself with Earth in the same way as it does when a person is born. The result is the sudden outpouring of one’s innermost urges and instincts, which are momentarily rendered readable before returning to obscurity. Entering the temple at 5 a.m. after a night of listening to Suf and consuming the last of her pills, Ambar seems finally to let herself go and begins to speak candidly, weeping; first she addresses herself in English to a statue of Mary and then to a surprisingly thoughtful and understanding Suf.  Her feelings of emptiness and disconnection have filled her with worry about a blank, unfulfilling, and lonely future.

Syncretism: Muslim, Javanese Ambar has a lengthy conversation in English with a statue of Mary at Sedangsono, presumably making the final decision to leave for college in England. While contemplating the possibility of life in the West, Ambar forms an ever stronger emotional bond with Suf, her “traditional” male Javanese cousin.

Leaving the temple, the two get back on the road, although the wedding seems entirely forgotten. But when they pause again and their eyes meet, as if finally ready to reach their romantic climax, they are pre-empted by another sudden cut to black, the gap this time almost giving the impression that a censor’s scissors had intervened. The resulting blank, silent space is finally filled with sounds on the audiotrack of rumbling and people’s screaming in a collective expression of terror.  It is somewhat unclear at first if the black screen is in fact a censor’s rejection of a kissing scene, an avant-garde filmmaking tactic, or something else, although with all the preceding structural stutters and shifts, it seems not entirely out of place. The structural “hole” it imposes, however, is far larger than previously, and the screen is black for approximately 30 seconds. The only cue as to what’s happening is the continuous noises of destruction on the soundtrack.

As it turns out, the landscape of Yogyakarta, rather than erupting as threatened, has suddenly opened up, turning on itself in a violent, self-destructive rage, shaking and cracking the surface of the island’s traditional center. (The event is based on the devastating 2006 Yogyakarta earthquake, which claimed the lives of 5000 people). When the two cousins finally reach Yogyakarta, they are just in time for the wedding vows, but two days late for the mitodareni, the ceremonial dinner requiring the set of plates around which their trip was originally conceived. However, the failure to deliver the cultural goods on schedule has ironically succeeded in safeguarding the dishes — the vessel whose wholeness symbolizes the family’s idealized unity through time[15] — from being reduced to a cracked relic by the forces of history and nature. But the family, their practice of tradition, and the landscape into which they trace their origins are all now visibly fragmented. The post-quake rubble of traditional opulence mirrors the present state of affairs in which the stability of position and privilege, dependent on the even surface of Suharto-ism, must inevitably become shaken in order for any sort of real change to occur.

The final ceremony: Islamic weddings in Indonesia usually involve a formalized (often mostly symbolic) transaction between the groom and the father of the bride. The bride-price is announced publicly, and the two men shake hands to complete the exchange. Afterward the crowd is asked voice their approval (“Sah”) followed by a brief group prayer. Tutie Kirana as Ambar’s mother surveys her family after the wedding. Ambar’s father appears to be texting another woman (earlier in the journey, Ambar described their marriage as an inwardly unhappy shambles).
The dishes remain intact, but everything whose wholeness they are meant to symbolize is in some way broken or fragmented. Rebuilding Yogyakarta.

In Tiga Hari the ruins of Yogyakarta, like the churning, semi-excavated earth revealed in the car windows, are not beautiful but rather hint at the presence of unacknowledged past malevolence that lies between the present and any access to an ideal unity. With her world so shaken, even Suf’s aunt, Ambar’s mother, appears to have loosened her nostalgic attachment to the dishes. She seems resigned to looking at her family through the cracked realism of the wedding as a somewhat fictive grouping of disparate elements. However, Tiga Hari ends on an ostensibly more positive note, with the hope of a rebirth, if not a “beautiful longing for unity,”[16] triggered by a journey whose hidden goal, the romance between two cousins, is in fact something of an aberration. Beyond its standing against generally accepted concepts of behavior within families, the impending act, and the critical, reflexive turn it represents, serves to disrupt the empty, timeless, and naturalized appearance of wholeness in which the present still cloaks itself.

The concluding, empirical union of Suf and Ambar takes place after the wedding is over, reinforcing a trajectory that transcends genre limitations or a script’s imposed completion. The act itself hardly represents a generic happily-ever-after. It seems to offer another type of ending, a fleeting moment of passion, which erupts magnetically through the weakened surface of caution after all other mediation has been removed. And it may never occur again. In allegorical terms, such an anti-romantic ending does not truncate hope that the work begun within the confines of the film might continue. That hope lies rather in the impression of a larger fragment — the hint of an ideal wholeness — born over the course of a journey toward each character’s central core and now firmly imprinted in both. In this context bodily interpenetration serves as a final glue, an action which brings the union to an objective point, ending the film with a place to begin.

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