Nian (Nadia Saphira) gets a tattoo from an elderly artist (Ikranegara), who she is further drawn toward, in Garin Nugroho’s latest feature, Under the Tree. (Courtesy of Credo Pic. & SET workshop)
Indonesian film auteur Garin Nugroho follows on up his international phenomenon Opera Jawa with Under the Tree, a clear-cut narrative of three different stories about three women whose life-changing crises may or may not be related to magical elements of Balinese culture.
Set against postcard-like panoramic views of Bali, which are shown in only brief and fleeting scenes, the film focuses more on character development of the three women to varying and often unbalanced results. The latter is enhanced with shaky handheld camera movements, something of Garin's intrusion to digital filmmaking that has been hit-and-miss throughout his portfolio, which sometimes gives an uncomfortably extreme close-ups to the leads.
Still, with gorgeously choreographed Balinese dances -- albeit not quite up to what Opera richly offered and what Garin's previous Teak Leaves at the Temple had in store -- and marquee names such as Marcella Zalianty, Nadia Saphira and Dwi Sasono who have modest-to-considerable appeal to local audiences, Garin's latest can draw a decent-sized audience to mall-located cinemas.
This is certainly a welcome difference from his consistently arthouse-friendly works. From another angle, audiences may find the film's story line relatively discernible, which in turn will not disrupt their popcorn-munching activities.
The opening scene of a Kecak dance performance that ends with fire from torches being scattered may jolt some, but the film's multiple plots flow fairly smoothly with a cautious bump ahead: one part of the story focuses on Maharani (Zalianty), a young woman from Jakarta who comes to Bali to look for her birth mother, but finds herself drawn to Balinese dance and trapped in a child-trafficking web.
At the same time, Nian (Saphira), another tourist from Jakarta, escapes her mindless life as a celebrity living in a disgraced family, only to find a comforting figure in a mysterious artist (Ikranegara).
The strongest of the crop lies in the story of heavily pregnant 40-year-old radio DJ Dewi (former rock singer Ayu Laksmi) whose world comes tumbling down when a scan reveals her fetus is malformed and the unborn baby will have be mentally impaired.
If that does not sound dramatic enough or easy enough to provoke tears from more emotional viewers, we have no idea what else could be.
But the dramatic punch is not the sole element that makes the latter part compelling to watch. Rather, it is the well-crafted story with a very visible evolution of how one character behaves, reacts and ultimately takes action for her progressive development that glues us to our seat and, inevitably with a three-section story like this, roots for this one more than for the other two.
Despite a slightly ambiguous closure to her story, with a reference to a particular Doris Day song to conclude the fate of her life and her baby, Dewi's part resonates more strongly than Nian's aimless wandering journey or Maharani's constant curiosity with no apparent resolution to move her character forward. It does not help either that Maharani's story shifts and gets bogged down by a scene-stealing character of a jealous dancer well past her prime.
Acting performances may not be Garin's strongest suit in filmmaking. In fact, one has to go all the way back to actress-turned-politician Nurul Arifin's performance in the Sumbawa-set Surat Untuk Bidadari (A Letter for Angels) in 1993 to find a gripping, and more importantly watchable, performance in Garin's films that have not been sitting well in terms of conventional narrative films with lures of dramatic acting skill.
As is the case with Under, until relief comes in the form of Aryani Kriegenburg Willems, whose fiery and fierce turn was recently granted Best Supporting Actress by the annual Indonesian Film Festival. A deserving accolade, indeed, for her superb and powerful presence helps propel the film to, simply put, a more enjoyable level.
While the level does not necessarily bring Garin's distinctive style on par with the usual cineplex offerings, it is safe to say that his latest film here has more than enough potential to keep the interest rate of possibly some newly found viewers intact until the end of the film.
It may not move you to tears or to choke with laughter or leave you amazed in awe, or even cause any self-reflection once the "Exit" signs turn on. But similar to one's rare, infrequent visit to an art exhibition, we cannot help feeling that what we have just seen is something worth being appreciated, although one has to dig a little deeper to find the magic here.
Under the Tree is currently playing in selected theaters in Jakarta, Bandung, Bogor and Denpasar.