Pusan International Film Festival

BUSAN, South Korea -- "Kala," PiFan's closing film by writer-director Joko Anwar was financed by Jakarta-based Indian company MD Pictures to be a commercial schlock horror that's the staple of Indonesian audiences. Instead, Anwar delivered a sophisticated noir whodunit in homage to Fritz Lang's "M." The supernatural elements, which can be corny or camp depending on audience taste, only start to grate two-thirds into the film. By then, one is so carried away by the cool packaging as to grant some suspension of belief.

Since its presentation at Cannes market, "Kala" has already received invitations to several well-known Asian festivals, including Bangkok International Film Festival, Osian's Cinefan Festival of Asian and Arab Cinema in New Delhi, and Golden Horse Film Festival in Taipei. There is theatrical release potential in nearby Southeast Asian countries like Malaysia and Singapore.

Joko Anwar has been rewriting the formulas of mainstream Indonesian cinema since his directorial debut "Joni's Promise" and through his screenplays for Nia Dinata's "Arisan!" and in a less conspicuous way for Lance's "Jakarta Undercover." In "Kala", he fuses contemporary political allegory with a Javanese myth, remolds it into a Messianic message with Apocalyptic overtones, and sets it in an unspecific time and place that could be Prague or Paris anytime from the 1930s. His two male leads are not the typical heroes that appear on Indonesian screen. Not only do they have wickedly evocative names like Janus and Eros, they are narcoleptic and gay respectively.

From the Continental sets (authentic Dutch colonial buildings shot in Java), to the sensuous cinematography; from the songs with a Brit-pop sound, to the mellow-as-mocha lighting, right down to the designer creases of the male leads' rolled up shirts, "Kala" is an impressive feat of mood and style. Kudos for D.O.P. Ipung Rahmat Syaiful, who worked with some of Indonesia's most-acclaimed directors (Riri Riza, Nia Dinata, Joko Anwar on "Joni's Promise"). He enhanced the hard-boiled sensibility by maintaining a consistent nocturnal tone even in indoor and daytime scenes.

Like in most noir films, an elaborate plot unfolds to reveal that nothing is what is seems. Reporter Janus (Fachri Albar) doing a follow-up on an incident where five men are torched by an angry mob, gets hold of some vital clue about a legendary treasure. Soon, people start dropping dead left, right and center wherever he goes. Also on the case is a police detective Eros (Ario Bayu), who is haunted by apparitions of a monster from Javanese mythology. The police, the politicians, and even the current president seem to have a hand in this. All leads point to the Temple of the Seven Steps ...

The ending is somewhat of a letdown, as a scene-by-scene re-enactment explains everything leaving no room to the imagination. The final climax looks as if it is a different film directed by someone else -- a parody of the TV series "Xena" or "The Fellowship of the Ring" -- perhaps an expedient attempt to placate the mass audience, the authorities or the investors?

MD Pictures
Sales Agent: MD Jakarta
Screenwriter-director: Joko Anwar
Producers: Manoj Punjabi, Dhamoo Punjabi
Executive producer: Shania Punjabi
Director of photography: Ipung Rahmat Syaiful
Production designer: Wencislaus
Music: Aghi Narottama, Zeke Khaselli
Co-producer: Karan Mahtani
Costume designer: Tania Soeprapto, Isabelle Patrice
Editor: Wawan I. Wibowo.
Janus: Fachri Albar
Eros: Ario Bayu
Ranti: Farani
Sari: Shanty
Bandi: Tipi Jabrik
Running time -- 104 minutes
No MPAA rating