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Just like his first film Peculiar Vacation and Other Illnesses, Indonesian director Yosep Anggi Noen’s second feature depicts a couple contending with new experiences as they grow apart. Whereas that raw debut from 2012 cruises along on quirks — the wife kickstarting her new life by delivering furniture in the countryside, the husband whiling his time away on a diet of trash television — Solo, Solitude is a more solemn, socially relevant and skillfully executed piece.
Revolving around a politically active poet’s struggle with his self-imposed exile and his wife’s equally anguished yearning for his return, Solo, Solitude goes well beyond simplistic sloganeering in illustrating the trauma brought about by political tyranny. Indeed, even viewers without an idea of the film’s social context — that is, Indonesian dictator Suharto’s violent crackdown on intellectuals and dissidents in July 1996 — will be able to engage with its protagonists’ whirling internal turmoil.
After a sustained run around global festivals — bows at Locarno and Busan, for example — Solo, Solitude returned home to Indonesia last month and secured the top prize at the Jogja Asian Film Festival. More stops await abroad, however, as the film returns to Europe later this month with a berth in the Bright Future section at Rotterdam.
The film’s central character is Wiji Thukul, a poet well known not only for his literary endeavors but also his frontline role in combating Suharto’s U.S.-backed authoritarian regime: After leading a strike at a textiles factory in 1995, Wiji was severely beaten by the police. It’s a track record — unmentioned in the film — that feeds into the general social malaise gripping Indonesia at that time. As the film begins, an onscreen text explains the political schisms in the country, while official radio broadcasts are heard rallying pro-government thugs against “communists.”
As Solo, Solitude unfolds in July 1996, Wiji (played by veteran Indonesian thespian Gunawan Maryanto) is already a marked man fleeing for his life, as he tries to settle into clandestine exile in a city in Borneo. Meanwhile, across the Java Sea and hundreds of miles away, his wife Supon (Marissa Anita) is left at home in Central Java to contend with the authorities; the film actually begins with menacing police officers interrogating her and her daughter about Wiji’s whereabouts.
Bolstered by remarkable turns from his actors, Yosep manages to highlight how his protagonists are far from melodramatic martyrs of an age. These are just ordinary individuals with equally ordinary fears and desires. For all his ideals and his politically charged past, Wiji is consumed by his longing for home and a paranoia about being caught. He loses his bearings as he is forced to change his hairstyle and name, cowers in unease as he overhears soldiers’ conversations at a barbershop, and measures his dwellings to prepare for a quick escape. Similarly, Supon is stoic rather than heroic, as she tends to domestic chores while countering the intrusions of an adoring neighbor.
Then again, Solo, Solitude is about a poet, and Yosep has done his subject justice. Surreal images — Wiji contemplating life under a weaving depicting “The Last Supper,” or soldiers playing badminton inside a dilapidated cinema — punctuate those long sequences of quotidian life. Meanwhile, voiceovers feature Wiji’s reciting of his poetry, or his comrades’ accounts of their feverish and deadly dreams. With such a potent mix of melancholy and silent madness, Solo, Solitude — just like Thai director Anocha Suwichakornpong’s By the Time It Gets Dark — offers a poignant reflection of humanity drawn from the turbulent recent histories of Southeast Asia.
Production companies: Muara Indonesia, Partisipasi Indonesia, Limaenam Films, KawanKawan Film
Cast: Gunawan Maryanto, Marissa Anita, Eduwart Boang Manalu
Director-screenwriter: Yosep Anggi Noen
Producers: Yosep Anggi Noen, Yulia Evina Bhara
Executive producers: Tunggal Pawestri, Okky Madasari
Director of photography: Bayu Prihantoro Filemon
Art director: Deki Yudhanto
Editor: Andhy Pulung
Music: Yennu Ariendra
Sales: Asian Shadows
Not rated, 98 minutes
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