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Eddie Cahyono might have graduated from the television department of the Indonesian Fine Arts Institute, but there’s hardly anything small-screen about his latest outing, Siti. Shot in black-and-white and – even more audaciously – on Academy ratio, the Javanese filmmaker has produced a vivid, intense character study of a smalltown working-class woman unraveling as she struggles to balance her role both as a mother and breadwinner, with two lines of work – hawking crab crackers during the day, and entertaining clients at a karaoke parlor at night – bringing her different personalities into a simmering conflict.
Having just received its international premiere in competition at the Singapore International Film Festival – a week after making its bow at Cahyono’s hometown of Yogyakarta, at the Jogja-Netpac Asian Film Festival – the film is perhaps too modest and niche-oriented to create ripples beyond Southeast Asia, with its future possibly lying with specialist, independent showcases dedicated to women’s emancipation in society. But Siti deserves more beyond this narrow framework, however, as Cahyono has proven his eye for grace amid the grit.
Then again, Siti doesn’t seem like a vehicle in which Cahyono makes a big statement about the corruption of social values in a broken, oppressive society. The use of monochrome is telling: by draining the film of tropical and possibly gaudy colors, the director has sharply reduced the possibility of the film being interpreted as yet another entry in the so-called poverty-porn sub-genre.
There’s not even a glimpse of melodramatic characterization: it’s all whiter than white as generosity and righteousness abound around the titular character (Sekar Sari), as she receives support from a surprisingly sympathetic mother-in-law (Titi Dibyo) at home, helpful colleagues at work and a suitor (Haydar Saliz) who actually pushes her away when she offers herself to him and would readily alleviate her cash problems with no strings attached.
With the lack of caricatured villains, Siti is therefore all about the central character’s internal conflict and meltdown, a process that started a year earlier with an accident at sea involving her husband Bagus (Ibnu Widodo). It left him paralyzed and his fishing boat destroyed, and Siti struggles to repay the man who lent the couple money to construct the vessel – thus the young woman’s two very different ways of earning a living, plus the task of ensuring her elementary-schoolboy son Bagus (Bintang Timur Widodo) keeps up his work and his appearances at school.
The interweaving of short and lyrical sequences featuring a disheveled, barefoot Siti wading into the sea provides the viewer with a glimpse of her inner frustrations and the tragedy to follow, but more subtle symbolism comes in the juxtaposition of the bed-ridden Bagus retreating into silence after being condemned to immobility on one hand, while Siti is forced into earning money with her voice and her physique at the karaoke joint. With a near-uninterrupted shot of her singing a musical number for her customers, Cahyono pictures the rustic woman’s perhaps hard-pressed transformation into a worldly flirt.
Venue:Singapore International Film Festival
Production company: Fourcolours Films
Cast: Sekar Sari, Bintang Timur Widodo, Ibnu Widodo, Titi Dibyo
Director: Eddie Cahyono
Screenwriter: Eddie Cahyono
Producer: Ifa Isfansyah
Director of photography:Ujel Bausad
Art director: Luki Janarko
Costume designer: Dhaniek Ratna
Editor: Greg Arya
Music: Krisna Purna
Sales: Fourcolours Films
No ratings; 95 minutes
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