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Abimana Aryasatya as Sancaka, aka Gundala, in the official trailer of 'Gundala'. (Screenplay Films on YouTube/File)
We live in an era when men shoulder one another aside to push their own personal agendas and gain full control over so many things and people. Corruption keeps happening while the poor, marginalized people who need help the most are barely hanging on. The big guys with money do literally anything to keep their power and place at the top of any hierarchy. People stop caring about each other; we stop socializing with our neighbors and even when we know there are others who need our aid, we choose to document it through social media instead of actually doing something to directly help them.
In this time of ironies, what human beings need the most is actually a simple thing called decency, a sense of belonging to others and to our nation and a drive to be altruistic.
Joko Anwar's take on a classic Indonesian comic book, Gundala, is a flawed yet nonetheless respectable and hopeful effort to begin the Bumilangit Cinematic Universe, addressing ongoing issues by employing a conventional superhero origin formula in a gritty and dark manner while never really jettisoning the sheer nerdy fun of comic book storytelling. Too bad: What would have been a sharp commentary on contemporary issues and even an emotionally resonant superhero origin tale somehow turns into a bloated visual fest that chooses big ambitions and heavy-handedness over the strong development of the titular hero's mythology.
The story begins in a gray, dry area of Indonesia, where labor protests and demonstrations to demand higher salaries are everyday scenes. Among the protesters is Sancaka's father, who's being back-stabbed by two of his own friends after believing a rumor that they were killed by their boss.
Left alone with no money, Sancaka's mother decides to pick up a job outside of town so that they can keep the lease of their mini-house near the factory where his father was killed. Days keep passing by, but his mother never appears on the doorstep like she promised before she left. Sancaka eventually forces himself to step outside despite his unknown feeling of loss and fear. He grows up alone as a beggar, in the cruel streets of what appears to be Jakarta, while constantly running away from a bunch of street boys who molest others until he meets Awang, who teaches him how to fight.
Day after day, Sancaka keeps getting better to become a reliable fighter, but fighting and defense aren’t the only things that Awang teaches him. Sancaka also learns to not put himself in danger by never interfering other people’s business, even if it means letting others suffer. However, as Sancaka grows older and the world he lives in starts to get much darker each and every day, he begins to realize that maybe all this time what Awang told him about not helping people is not what he should really be doing if he wants his surroundings to become a better place.
Observing Sancaka discover and rediscover himself, as well as how the world operates, grabs our sympathy and attention during the first half of the film. Joko Anwar, with his mesmerizing visuals and pungent direction, successfully dives deep into the concept of one’s upbringing and how it affects a person in his adult self by delicately exploring Sancaka as he come to terms with his own thoughts as a person who wants to do good for others while at the same time keep studying the way he readjusts himself with all of the childhood trauma and bitter past he has to endure.
As the child version of the man behind the Gundala mask, Muzakki Ramdhan knows how to reach the real pain that Sancaka has to bear. He manages to display a fascinating range of emotions and insecurity while providing a perfect dose of heart to the story. Abimana Aryasatya is equally as good as Muzakki; he offers pathos and a real humane quality to Sancaka while at the same time he brings real humor that comes from his naive journey of discovering his own power.
At the best moment of Sancaka’s journey, Joko Anwar marvels in the art of character study by emphasizing the myopic look of the titular hero as a symbol of hope and a rebel against the oppressive nature of a corrupt system. When Sancaka begins to help those who are weak and are the collateral damage of someone’s personal agenda, he indirectly gives hope and lights a fire in his surroundings. People are not afraid to help others who are being bullied and begin to carry each other’s loads as if it is their own.
In a world where helping people has became one of the hardest things for a human being to do, Gundala comes blazing in like a thunderstorm to remind us that if we start to do the right thing, other people will follow. Yes, there may not be any guarantee that the world will soon become a much better place the second we help each other, but I believe that it does not hurt to try to be helpful and be a decent person.
When Gundala zooms in on this exploration of altruism and Sancaka’ patriotic journey as he’s embracing himself as the representation of what a good society is supposed to be, the film is at its best level of hopefulness, but unfortunately the minute Gundala shifts its lens from the titular hero mythology to the bigger conspiracies of the plot’s political web, the film starts to lose its thunder and begins to stumble big time.
There is a parallel story about the kingpin mafia Pengkor that represents the different side of Sancaka who has so much potential to be explored as a study of how a childhood trauma, false upbringing and grudges can shape a person to imbue bad behavior but it ends up left unexplored because the film is too ambitious to introduce its own world-building. Also, many one-dimensional characters end up becoming the film’s Easter eggs instead of fully fleshed integral parts of the story. It almost feels like the film is afraid to leave us guessing and rather chooses to spoon feed us with so many things at once while never giving us enough time to marinate the whole story of the film itself. In the process, when the film gets back to Sancaka, what makes his journey so engaging at the beginning is swallowed by the whole convoluted, heavy-handed plot, resulting in the main observation feeling underwhelmingly retrograde as the films delves more into a mass-hysteria satirical landscape -- one more aspect left unexplored. If only the film knew how to fully expand the main mythology instead of trying too hard to be crowded and hectic, it would have been much better.
Don’t get it wrong. Gundala, in the end, is still a respectable effort and offers plenty of crowd-pleasing fun moments and sheer joy beneath its gritty story. It is indeed a rocky start, but if there’s one thing that Joko Anwar taught us through Gundala it is that hope may be just around the corner. (kes)
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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official stance of The Jakarta Post.