The Mirror Never Lies: Busan Film Review

A girl's coming-of-age story enhanced by ravishing visuals.

Director Kamila Andini tells a girl's coming-of-age story, starring Gita Novalista.

The Mirror Never Lies follows a young Indonesian girl's spiritual journey to accept her father's death; and by so doing, find her place in nature and her fishing community. Even cosmopolitan urbanites will be hard-pressed not to fall forthis exotic gem. Glossily shot in pristine marine locations, very frame is afeast for the eyes. Debuting director Kamila Andini pays special care to female experience and perspectives. She also lyrically evokes a way of life organically coexisting with the ocean, yet perennially at her mercy. However, the artfulness in technique and aesthetics sometimes runs counter to the rustic subject.

The international standing of executive producer Garin Nugroho (Andini's father) will get the project across foreign shores. Festivals, specialty channels and ecologically-themed events will take to this like fish to water.

The site of Mirror is Wakatobi, a tiny archipelago regency off Syllabus Island. Its inhabitants are the Bajo tribe, known as Sea Gypsies, once boat-dwellers who made the sea their home. Even now, they retain their nomadic nature by building huts on stilts over water in the middle of the sea, so they can up and move anytime. Fishing is the only livelihood and boats the only transport vehicle.

Hence, the disappearance of her husband at sea causes great hardship to Tayung (Atiqah Hasiholan), who is reduced to picking cockles and harvesting seaweed to sell. For her daughter Pakis (Gita Novalista, a local Bajonese), the loss is devastating. She clings to the mirror her father gave her, hoping to see his reflection through a traditional Bajo magic rite. Tudo (Reza Rahadian), a Jakarta marine biologist who sets foot on the island to monitor dolphins becomes Tayung's boarder. He arouses complex feelings of resentment, curiosity and desire in both mother and daughter.

This film will be remembered for the breathtaking underwater cinematography that shows the sea teeming with wonders like a parallel universe or mythical kingdom that haunts Pakis' dreams. On land, Rachmat Ipung Syaiful's symmetrical compositions capture the beautiful natural geometry of houses, boats and daily objects with an architect's eye.

Andini has inherited Nugroho's penchant for making children the heart of a film (like in Of Love and Eggs). The chemistry between the child characters is spontaneous and affectionate. The goofy courtship of Pakis by the neighbor's boy Lumo drolly emphasizes the innocence of the boys' world in contrast to the more complex and sensual depiction of female desire, notably Pakis’ nascent physical stirrings for Tudo.

Twelve-year-old Novalista buoys the film with her self-possessed presence, convincingly embodying the uncertainties of a girl on the brink of adolescence, discovering her womanhood just when the most significant man in her life is gone. Her eventual transcendence of grief to bask freely and confidently in the ocean can be read as a projection of the director's own ambition to break away from her father' artistic influence and swim alone.

The story of a city boy coming to a rural community and falling for the unworldly charms of the local lass is a conventional set-up. However, Tayung's repressed sexuality is given a mysterious, metaphorical touch by the ritualistic way in which the camera records her covering her face with a lather of white lotion. Although it is not difficult to infer that the cream symbolizes social pressures as well as her gesture of fidelity to her husband, some clarification about what it is and what it's for (is it a sun block or facial mask or a Bajo custom denoting widowhood?) wouldn't hurt.

The project is a joint initiative with the World Wide Fund. That perhaps explains why ecological messages and ethnographic overtones are firmly embedded in the script, making some scenes look rather Discovery Channel – like when Pakis steals baby fish as part of a motif about ocean sustainability and the glorification of the Bajo's rootless existence as a model of ecologicalhabitat.

Folk songs and chanting in the indigenous language is widely used in lieu of music score, in tune with the film's strong documentary color. Sometimes, the way the children often break into song without any dramatic cue feels artificial.

Venue: Busan International Film Festival, New Currents
Production companies: SET Film Production, World Wide Fund
Cast: Gita Novalista, Atiqah Hasiholan, Reza Rahadian, EKO, Zainal
Director: Kamila Andini
Screenwriter: Dirmawan Hatta
Producers: Garin Nugroho, Nadine Chandrawinata
Executive producers: Pemda Wakatobi, WWF Indonesia
Director of photography: Rachmat Ipung Syaiful
Production designer: Tonny Trimarsanto
Music: Thoersi Argeswara
Costume designer: Retno Ratih Damayanti
Editor: Wawan I. Wibowo
No rating, 100 minutes