Postcards From the Zoo: Berlin Film Review

Berlinale Film Festival
Experimental narrative offers a pleasant but tedious safari.

Indonesian auteur Edwin's film offers a behind-the-scenes view of the 350-acre Ragunan Zoo.

No animals were harmed in the making of Postcards From the Zoo (Kebun Binatang), but many a viewer may find their patience tested by this idiosyncratic slice of magical realism from Indonesian auteur Edwin (Blind Pig Who Wants to Fly). Starting off as a rather laid back tour of the Ragunan Zoo – a massive wildlife and amusement park in South Jakarta – the minimalist narrative meanders its way to weirder and darker places alongside a mysterious heroine yet fails to bring its menagerie to life. Additional fest slots after a Berlinale Competition bid are likely, theatrical less so.

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Not unlike Jia Zhangke’s theme park portrait The World, but without that film’s socio-political undertones and late emotional thrust, Postcards makes use of basically one location and a handful of actors (both human and non) to offer up a behind-the-scenes view of a few workers and stragglers at the labyrinthine 350-acre complex. Introducing us to some highly cinematic animals – including a giraffe named Jura (real name Rico), who becomes one of the movie’s three co-stars – via the eyes of a little girl wandering around in search of her father, Edwin rather fitfully eases us into a serene habitat where tourists and mammals cross paths in altogether genteel fashion.

At least that’s how the movie works for its initial reels, but it eventually switches gears when Lana (Ladya Cheryl) – whom we assume to be the girl now grown up – meets up with a stoical magician (Nicholas Saputra) and is so entranced by his tricks that she decides to become his assistant. Although one could perhaps hope that a love story will come of this, their relationship remains utterly platonic, while for reasons never made clear they soon find themselves inside a nearby spa-cum-brothel, attended to by a local gangster and his many underdressed masseuses.

That’s pretty much it in terms of the plot, which begins to saunter more and more as Edwin and co-writers Daud Sumolang and Titien Wattimena make no effort to explain why, for instance, Lana decides to join the ranks of the other prostitutes, taking lessons in doling out massages that seem to conclude with “happy endings.” And although Postcards looks like it finishes that way too, the closing act is especially tedious, cutting between the brothel scenes and documentary-style images of the zoo, with Lana hidden somewhere in the landscape like Waldo in a cartoon crowd.

It’s too bad that the film’s construction feels so flawed, because Edwin and regular cinematographer Sidi Saleh capture some truly magical moments within Ragunan, especially in many of the scenes of friendly human-animal interaction. Something about the sleepy, jungle-like texture of the place recalls the surreal settings of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Tropical Malady and Syndromes of the Century, and it’s only when things grow repetitive, or head to what seem like unjustified places, that the allure disappears.

Actors Cheryl and Saputra, who also appeared in Edwin’s first feature, offer up the kind of scaled-down, wordless performances typical of such semi-experimental cinema. The latter, dressed in a full-scale cowboy suit, performs an array of onscreen sleights of the hand that are amusing to the eye (especially one bit where he turns tea into water), if not in any way character-building.

Intertitles providing various zoological definitions accompany Lana’s wanderings, but the juxtaposition is more of a paper tiger than a veritable narrative hook.

Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Competition)
Production companies: Babibutafilm, Pallas Film
Cast: Ladya Cheryl, Nicholas Saputra, Adjie Nur Ahmad, Klarysa Aurelia Raditya
Director: Edwin
Screenwriter: Edwin, Daud Sumolang, Titien Wattimena
Producer: Meiske Taurisia
Director of photography: Sidi Saleh
Art directors: Bayu Christianto, Kurniawansyah Putra
Music: Dave Lumenta
Costume designer: Aulia Yogyanti
Editor: Herman Kumala Panca
Sales agent: The Match Factory
No rating, 95 minutes