The Rainbow Troops -- Film Review

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HONG KONG -- Films that celebrate underprivileged kids striving to be educated under deplorable conditions are familiar enough, from the classic "The Corn Is Green" to assembly-line propaganda films from China. "The Rainbow Troops," which chronicles bittersweet memories of schooling in a '70s Indonesian mining town, is no different in its motivational stance and appeal to a mass audience. What saves it from cliche is the spontaneity that radiates from the guileless yet irrepressible young cast and writer and director Riri Riza's tender evocation of a bygone rural community.

The film has become the No. 1 domestic hit in Indonesia. Its infectious charm is a treat for young and old at international kid feasts and festival family sidebars.

With the same mixture of fond amusement and compassionate social concern that Zhang Yimou regards his naive and wretched young subjects in "Not One Less," Riza makes his narrator Ian look back on his childhood. He recalls how his enlightened teachers Harman (Ikranagara) and Muslim (Cut Mini) sacrificed everything to keep their tumbledown shack of an elementary school open for 10 children from the poorest families in the tin-mining town of Belting.

His memories abound with the class' light-hearted and quirky escapades, like music buff Mohair's fickle flings with jazz and indigenous percussion, math genius Lining's ongoing transfixion on a lugubrious crocodile and his own fetishist infatuation with a Chinese girl's fingernails.

While Harfan reiterates his pedagogical dictum that intelligence is not measured by grades but by piety and moral fiber, Riza pulls out the feel-good plugs by having the class beat the rival elite school in tests of artistic and scholastic aptitude anyway.

Clashes between the schools highlight the town's social inequality. However, in his eagerness to please the crowd, Riza only inserts passing images of the pupils' destitute households and skims over the labor unrest and violent exploitation -- harsh realities that were not filtered out in the original novel from which the film was adapted.

The splendid technical package casts the countryside in a pastoral, burnished light. The children frolic among golden fields and in sapphire seas. Music, rich in Southeast Asian flavor, is often sweetly melodic.

Production companies: Miles Film, Mizan Prods.

Cast: Cut Mini, Ikranagara, Tora Sudiro, Zulfani, Ferdian
Director: Riri Riza
Screenwriters: Riri Riza, Mira Lesmana, Salman Aristo
Based on the novel by: Andrea Hirata
Producer: Mira Lesmana
Executive producers: Bakhtiar Rakman, Haidar Bagir
Director of photography: Yadi Sugandi
Production designer: Eros Eflin
Music: Aksan, Titi Sjuman, Nidji
Costume designer: Chitra Subiyakto
Editor: W. Ichwan Diardono
Sales: Miles Film
No rating, 125 minutes
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