The Jakarta Post
Desire hurts and the more people expect, the more pain they will have to endure.
Mada (Abimana Aryasatya), the main character in Haji Backpacker, based on the novel of the same name by Aguk Irawan, knows firsthand about how bad expectations can be, especially when talking of the kindness of a spiritual deity known as God.
He grows up in a Muslim family. His parents are devoted to Islam. Since early childhood, Mada has been taught by his mother (Pipik Dian Irawati) how to read the Koran.
Mada loves God, as his parents always teach him that if he 'keeps on praying to Allah and shows his devotion, he will be blessed and will have everything he could possibly want'.
Tragedy then strikes. His loving mother passes away. Mada cannot comprehend why Allah has taken his mother away but he keeps his faith.
Mada becomes a young man who is in love with Sophia (Dewi Sandra). He tells her how he feels and she accepts it.
'I have prayed to God and He tells me we are going to have a wonderful marriage,' Mada says gleefully to Sophia, who smiles and weeps as her man turns away.
On their wedding day, Sophia flees for no reason. Heartbroken, Mada demands answers from God.
Mada's subsequent search takes him across nine countries ' from Thailand to Saudi Arabia. Now a backpacking traveler, Mada lives the 'you-only-live-once' lifestyle. He gets wasted all the time and he has no hesitation in fighting or
even killing anyone who bothers him.
In Thailand, Mada finds shelter in the arms of a comfort woman, an Indonesian whose real name is Mariani (Laudya Cynthia Bella) but uses the pseudonym 'Marbel' during her working hours.
Mariani loves Mada but he cannot get over Sophia. One night, after Mariani takes care of Mada's wounds after a fight, he tells her that they are 'just friends'.
It turns out that Mada has killed a gang lord during a fight that wounds him. Now a wanted man in Thailand, he is forced to flee.
Mariani tries to persuade him to return to Indonesia ' as does Mada's sister, with news his father has died ' all to no avail.
In Vietnam, Mada lives on the streets and depends on the mercy of urban outcasts kind enough to give him shelter. His condition worsens as he falls into fevers and starts having nightmares of seeing himself dead.
In a twist, Mada suddenly finds himself trapped in a box bound for China.
Subsequent adventures slowly take him to the peace of mind he has been seeking.
Through Mada's interaction with characters like Su Chun (Laura Basuki), a Muslim Chinese girl who befriends him while he recovers from his wounds, and an Iranian militia interrogator (brilliantly played by producer HB Naveen), he slowly finds the purpose of his life and his way back to God.
To put it briefly, Haji Backpacker is an enchanting and visually beautiful movie backed with solid acting from all of its cast.
Abimana once again proves his worth as one of the best actors of his generation. In many scenes, Abimana does not even utter a single word yet he successfully delivers what his character feels, be it sadness, anxiety, anger, despair or happiness.
In Haji Backpacker, Abimana plays two different personalities in one character ' the optimistic and God-loving Mada and a darker, much grittier one. The film switches back and forth between these different versions of Mada through flashbacks and Abimana displays superb agility as an actor to follow this up.
Another noteworthy performance comes from Laudya. Mariani's story ' an Indonesian migrant worker trapped in prostitution ' deserves its own movie as a spin off. Laudya clearly deserves more time on screen.
Laura also deserves an honorable mention for her role as the Chinese girl. Anyone could have taken courses to improve their Chinese, but Laura takes this to the next level ' she manages to display believability in her character as genuinely Chinese with her accent when she speaks to Mada in English.
Although Haji Backpacker has been promoted as a religious movie, it does not let itself become preachy or judgmental. While most religious movies would try their best to stamp the word 'sinner' on Mariani's forehead, Haji Backpacker glorifies the prostitute through the depiction of her sincere love for Mada.
The movie also does not try to suggest that in the end a man like Mada must inevitably find his way to God and leave behind his earthly lifestyle.
The movie's pre-release promotion includes the fact that it is truly filmed in nine countries. Yet in spite of this, it does not become a cheap tourist flick or a grand exhibition of traveling. It instead dares to show the darker sides of each country in the story ' from the ganglands of Thailand, the urban poverty in developing Vietnam through to the civil militia's terror in Iran.
Will Mada finally return to God or will he realize that the point of living is probably not knowing what will happen next and to stop questioning God's will?
Haji Backpacker is a noteworthy cinematic experience worth exploring.