Actors Rifnu Wikana (left), Mathias Muchus and actress Julia Perez.
The glory of the Indonesian film epics of the late 1980s has returned with Gending Sriwijaya.
In a previous era of the Indonesian silver screen, Tutur Tinular and Saur Sepuh — epic movies that were developed from radio drama — were so successful that they inspired TV stations to air their own versions of the films as television series.
Today, when the nation’s cinemas lack local films with such flair and appeal, Hanung Bramantyo has directed a classic action film titled Gending Sriwijaya (Sriwijaya Composition).
Traditional clothing, martial arts, daggers and the local Palembang language are the strong elements of the film, which was produced with a budget of Rp 9 billion (US$931,680).
The title Gending Sriwijaya itself comes from a traditional song and dance from Palembang that tells of the grandeur of the Sriwijaya kingdom that once ruled vast swaths of Sumatra, Java and even parts of Cambodia, Malaysia and Vietnam.
The film tells the fictional story of the political struggles in the kingdom of Bukit Jerai, one of many small empires born after the collapse of the Sriwijaya in the 16th century.
The story centers on two brothers, Awang Kencana (Agus Kuncoro), a talented warrior who thirsts for recognition, and Purnama Kelana (Sahrul Gunawan), an avid lover of art with a gentle demeanor.
The brothers begin to struggle when their father the king, Dapunta Hyang Jaya Nasa (Slamet Rahardjo) chooses Purnama to succeed him over his first son, Awang.
Awang, who feels superior to his younger brother, is angry and accuses Purnama of masterminding the murder of their father. Purnama escapes prison, falling off a cliff when Awang’s soldiers chase him. The men return to the palace with news that Purnama is dead.
In fact, Purnama was saved by Malini (Julia Perez), the daughter of Ki Goblek (Mathias Muchus), the leader of a band of thieves who hide in mountain caves. Purnama gets along with the community well and he is instantly awed by Malini’s decisive and dominating character.
They enjoy a peaceful situation until Awang’s soldiers find the thieves and attack with rifles and explosives. Women and children, including Ki Goblek, die during the attack. Fueled by sorrow and anger, Purnama and Malini immediately prepare their revenge.
Hanung, more famous for the Islamic romance Ayat-ayat Cinta (Versus of Love) and the interfaith religious drama ? (Question Mark), makes the power struggle between the brothers as the central theme of the movie.
Agus Kuncoro, who also appeared in Saur Sepuh in 1991, combines a furious and foolish nature in theatrical style, which creates heat in some scenes and invite laughter in others. As the movie reaches its end, his character even overshadows Sahrul, who effortlessly portrays himself as a good-natured man.
The use of a local language and dialect by a majority of non-local actors is a bold move, considering that local people may notice a hint of an accent. Audiences who do not understand the language will still be able to understand the movie through subtitles.
Unfortunately, Hanung rarely gave a chance to show off the surprising acting skills of dangdut singer Julia Perez, a celebrity who is more famous for her real-life love stories and sexy outfits. However, Julia, who also surprised viewers with her fluid martial art movements, tried too hard in the film’s more serious moments, at times stumbling but on the whole adding much to a delightful revival of the Indonesian historical epic.
(150 minutes, Putaar Production)
Starring: Agus Kuncoro, Julia Perez, Sahrul Gunawan, Mathias Muchus, Jajang C. Noer
Director: Hanung Bramantyo
Screenwriter: Hanung Bramantyo
Producer: Dhoni Ramadhan
— Photos courtesy of Putaar Production