'Memories of My Body' ('Kucumbu Tubuh Indahku'): Film Review | Venice 2018

A moving piece of physical and political drama.

'Opera Jawa' director Garin Nugroho's new film, bowing in Venice's Orizzonti sidebar, revolves around a young dancer's rite of passage as he comes to terms with his sexuality within Indonesia's conservative social norms.

Most rite-of-passage dramas involve boys aspiring to become men. Memories of My Body, inspired by the life of the famed dancer-actor Rianto — who also appears in the film as a narrator — offers a drastically different take. Revolving around four episodes in a young dancer's formative years, Indonesian auteur Garin Nugroho's latest outing has his gay protagonist observe the destructive nature of traditional manhood and the catastrophic consequences it can bring about.

Compared to Nugroho’s two films released in 2017 — the one-room, one-take chamber play A Woman in Java and the silent, black-and-white Setan Jawa Memories is a comparatively accessible affair. He teases striking poetic imagery out of the socially and sexually conscious material and strikes a delicate balance between his trademark aesthetics (showcasing the beauty of the Lengger, a traditional dance form from the island of Java) and his penchant for sharp political commentary (with clear allusions to Indonesia's conservative social mores over the past four decades). After its bow in Venice Horizons, the film is set to make its Asian premiere at Busan.

Divided into roughly four chapters, the story covers protagonist Juno’s childhood, adolescence and early adulthood. His name alone illustrates the burden of archaic notions of masculinity on young minds: Unlike the virile warrior prince (Arjuna from the Indian epic Maharabhata) he was named after, Juno is a frail, meek orphan struggling desperately to resolve his emotional impulses and sexual identity.

The film begins in the 1980s, with the boy Juno (Raditya Evandra) becoming drawn to a local Lengger troupe, in which male dancers dress as women and perform the female roles. His innocence is quickly shattered when the group’s tyrannical old guru (Sujiwo Tejo) offers a graphic explanation of the sexual roots at the heart of the art form, and then forces the boy to take a peek at his wife's genitalia, which he describes pompously as the "hole of life." With his libido awakened, Juno swiftly learns what carnage sexual desire can bring when he witnesses the old master meting out some deadly punishment to an adulterous disciple.

In the second chapter, the boy has first-hand experience of the consequences of his own physical transgressions. He gets an earful for poking inside other people's hens to check their fertility; then, when he succumbs to Oedipal urges and touches his motherly female dance teacher (Dwi Windarti), all hell breaks loose. He helplessly looks on as the young woman pays for his indiscretion.

The specter of provincial chauvinism looms large in the third part, too, as an older Juno (Muhammad Khan) meets and falls for a boxer (Randy Pangalila) whose macho appearance belies a sensitive soul. But the pugilist has traditional masculinity drummed into him: Watching from the sidelines, the infatuated Juno trembles in fear as he witnesses the boxer trying to conform to what people expect of a "real man."

All this builds up to the last chapter, in which explicit political commentary mingles with sublimely choreographed dance and action scenes. Having finally joined a dance troupe as a full-fledged performer, Juno finds himself the object of unwanted attention from a powerful politician (Teuku Rifnu Wikana). Snubbing these overtures to shack up with a rugged and much older dancer (Whani Dharmawan), Juno is forced to confront not just the spurned man's wrath, but also the price he and his loved ones pay to remain honest to his feelings. Setting this grand finale sometime after the fall of Indonesia's dictatorial "New Order" regime in 1998, Nugroho argues how oppressive social norms have remained very much in place even after the advent of democracy.

While the pic thrives on its socially charged script and its cast's nuanced performances — especially Evandra's depiction of the protagonist as a confused boy and Khan's turn as the older Juno — Nugroho also benefits from Teoh Gay Hian's emotive camerawork and the period details of Ong Hari Wahyu's production design. At once evoking the gritty realities of agrarian Indonesia while also celebrating the richness of its folk culture, Memories of My Body offers a complex picture of the conflicting social and historical traumas concealed within the bodies and minds of marginalized, oppressed social groups in a nominally secular country.

Production companies: Fourcolours Films with Go-Studio
Cast: Muhammad Khan, Raditya Evandra, Rianto, SujiwoTejo
Director-screenwriter: Garin Nugroho
Producer: Ifa Isfansyah with Matthew Jordan
Executive producers: Christopher Smith, Michy Gustavia, Eddie Cahyono, Panji Prasetyo
Director of photography: Teoh Gay Hian
Production designer: Ong Hari Wahyu
Costume designer: Retno Retih Damayanti
Music: Mondo Gascaro
Editing: Gregorius Arya
Casting: Hendrie Ari
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Horizons)

Sales: Asian Shadows

In Indonesian
106 minutes