Sang Kiai: Film Review

Rapi Films
"Sang Kiai"
Intentions of celebrating a mild-mannered national hero and his political astuteness get mixed up by an uneven tenor and unwieldy storytelling.

Indonesia's entry for the Best Foreign Language Oscar revolves around a religious leader's strategies to secure the country's independence in the 1940s.

It's a remarkable coincidence how two very different films revolving around real-life politicians shared the spoils at last week's Indonesian Film Festival awards. While the more accessible Habibie & Ainun -- a romantic drama based on former president B. J. Habibie's recollections of his life with his wife, who died in 2010 -- took three prizes, it was the stirring historical epic Sang Kiai – about Hasyim Asy'ari, the founder of the southeast Asian country's largest Islamic organization – which brought home the Best Film, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor and Best Sound Editing awards.

It's hardly a surprise that Rako Prijanto's film received such a ringing endorsement from the awards -- or maybe even the political establishment -- given that it was already Indonesia's submission for the Best Foreign Language Film category at the Academy Awards.

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A rousing two-hour-plus piece about the final years of the country's tortuous struggle for independence in the 1940s, Sang Kiai is also imbued with a romantic subplot and odd moments of comic relief. But the most important element is probably its canny advocacy for moderation in the otherwise unquestionable quest to defend one's religion and country.

Rako and his screenwriter Anggoro Saronto have pulled out all the stops to convey this complex argument, and Hasyim – still very much revered in the country as a founding father of the hard-fought Indonesian revolution – should have been a very good embodiment of this call for always measuring the means by the ends. Covering the year between 1942 (the beginning of Japanese occupation of the Indonesian archipelago) to 1947 (when Hasyim died in the midst of war against the returning Dutch colonialists), Sang Kiai illustrates how the cleric worked with the Japanese authorities -- who proclaimed themselves as supporters of Asian anti-colonial struggles, so as to secure support of their war against the Allies -- as what he claims to be merely a strategy to achieve Indonesian independence.

Rako and Anggoro are careful to highlight how Hasyim's political compromises with the Japanese authorities are just the latest of many which have yielded rewards for his people: in a conversation in the film, the cleric (played by the veteran Ikranagara) tells his son Wahid Hasyim (who would later become Indonesia's first religious affairs minister, played by Agus Kuncoror here) how he had endorsed the teaching of Latin and other foreign languages in his Islamic boarding school because this would allow students to be better equipped in engaging and later fighting the colonial authorities. (It's a thread that continued in the family, as Hasyim's grandson Abdurrahman "Gus Dur" Wahid, would push later also usher in liberal, secular ideas while serving as Indonesian president from 1999 to 2005 – moves that much alarmed the country's Islamists.)

To highlight Hasyim's wisdom, Sang Kiai is driven by a counterpoint in the shape of the Harun (Adipati Dolken), a young disciple increasingly frustrated by his master's collaborations with the Japanese occupiers who have brought starvation, suffering and torture to the downtrodden. Aghast at Hasyim's deal to server as the head of Japanese-backed religious bodies and his inaction to save a fellow kiai from execution – the cleric would later also approve of his charges receiving military training from the Japanese so as to form what would become, after the war, the pro-independence militia Hisbulloh –  Harun runs away in a huff and returns only after the Japanese surrender (when he leads the storming of the occupation headquarters) and then joins up for the armed struggle for independence.

Harun's recklessness would eventually lead to more bloodshed and tragedy -- a development which serves to validate Hasyim's deployment of strategic retreats and principled compromises (and he doesn't give in to everything: his refusal to bow to the Japanese flag leads to him getting severely beaten, and later in the film later he requests his son to teach him how to use a gun so that he can "shoot one or two Dutch soldiers" if they break into his residence). This depiction of political astuteness, however, gives way to diversions aplenty; with the Ikranagara playing the subtle sage in a very understated way, the lead character actually fades into the political backdrop (and there's a lot of re-enactment of historical landmarks here). There are also plenty of flashes of gaudy melodrama as provided by the anguished struggle and separations between Harun and his wife Sari (Meriza F Batubara).

Here, Hasyim's doctrine fails to set Sang Kiai alight: the film has certainly conceded to conventions, but these artistic compromises only undermine the filmmakers' aspirations for grandeur. So, the film still has its share of battle scenes (including one pitting the liberation fighters against a crazed British soldier mowing down everything in sight behind a machine gun), but other showpieces come out misshapen, through, for example, inappropriate use of music (such as when a ballad is deployed to soundtrack scenes of badly-wounded soldiers being treated).

The way the film abruptly peters out after Hasyim's death -- it would be another two years before the Netherlands halted its much-maligned military offensives and signed off on Indonesian sovereignty -- is a sign of how the filmmakers struggled to come up with their narrative, as they are left neither providing an amble biopic of Hasyim (there's no mention of his work establishing Nadhlatul Ulama, which remains one of the most influential Islam groups in Indonesia) nor an engaging, visceral chronicle of a national liberation struggle.

The conservatism at its core -- such as the reiteration of women as being either "part of" men, or to serve a role akin to their husbands' clothes -- will probably also alienate those watching the film from afar, with its likelihood of traveling beyond Indonesian shores just as limited as its rival award-season production about a former president's long-running marriage with his loving wife.


Production Company: Rapi Films

Director: Rako Prijanto

Cast: Ikranagara, Christine Hakim, Agus Kuncoro, Adipati Dolken, Meriza F Batubara

Producer: Subagio S., Gope Samtani

Executive Producers: Sunil G. Samtani, Priya NK

Screenwriter: Anggoro Saronto

Director of Cinematography: Muhammad Firdaus

Art Director: Franz X. R Paat

Editor: Cesa David Luckmansyah

Music: Aghi Narottama, Bemby Gusti

In Indonesian, Japanese and English

130 minutes

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