Jakarta has got to be the quietest big city I’ve ever seen in a film. At least that’s the way it seems in Eliana, Eliana, a 2002 film by director Riri Riza. This is the best darned Indonesian film I’ve ever seen. (It’s also the only Indonesian film I’ve ever seen, but all things considered — quietest city and best film, we’re off to a good start.) Most of the action takes place on the streets of Jakarta at night and to my jaded Western eye, it looks like the hustle has left the bustle in the old burg. And maybe that’s the way it did look at night in 2002.
The good news for Eliana, Eliana is that it’s pretty good looking for a first effort and the bad news is that it looks like a first effort.
East Meets West?
Cinematographer Yadi Sugandhy has done a good job, given that he was working in video. There are moments when Eliana, Eliana has a sort of documentary look to it, and others when it might pass for an afternoon soap opera. I’m curious about any later work to see how those issues (if in fact they are issues with the director) may have been addressed. Most of the time the imagery is solid and looks professional.
But the TV-soap-opera vibe kept bubbling up to the surface through the whole film. If Riza is trying to establish a national film style that appeals to an Indonesian audience and sensibility then perhaps that’s as appropriate as having horses in an American western. It’s certainly a human-centered film.
At one point, and for no apparent reason that Hollywood could understand, a fragment of an Asian music video is interjected. This I took to be pure Bollywood, and reasonable as Mumbai is a lot closer to Jakarta than to L.A. Another nod to the Indonesian audience? Perhaps.
There are clearly some issues that Riza wants to address: women’s rights, conflicts between traditional rural and modern urban lifestyle, and what it means to be a family. Indonesia and all of Asia is changing day by day, reacting to foreign sensibilities and defining their own new ways of doing things. Eliana, Eliana may be a part of that general ferment.
I liked the premise of the film. Eliana ( Rachel Maryam Sayidina) is a young woman who has left the provinces for the big city. Three years earlier, she escaped an arranged marriage and domineering mother and started making a new life for herself in Jakarta. That life gets worse when she loses her job, the landlord comes banging at the door and her mom Bunda (Jajang C. Noer) blows into town bent on rescuing her with an airline tickets back to Nowheresville.
Eliana’s roommate Heni (Henidar Amru) (or is she Eliana’s girlfriend? the film is vague on this point) has skipped out on her without leaving a forwarding address and Mom may be the lifeline that saves Eliana. Everything seems to hinge on Eliana finding Heni.
Eliana and her mother hire a taxi for the night (well, Bunda pays for it, but then she pays for everything), and they ride off in search of Heni. Maybe if you know Jakarta better than I do, their tour of the town might make some sense, but to me it just seemed to be a lot of stopping at noodle bars for iced tea and then leaving before anything gets consumed. The taxi driver ( Arswendi Nasution ) is the level-headed foil to the two women’s ongoing argument. Imagine a kinder, gentler Travis Bickel from Taxi Driver. He’s also the first male we’ve seen that’s not a total pig.
Without revealing how it happens, I can say that the film ends with everyone becoming a better person even if they don’t all ride off into the sunrise together. Heni is found, her secret is revealed, Eliana stops being such a spoiled brat and Bunda becomes less of a fire-breathing dragon. Mother and daughter both soften their hardheadedness a bit, and they kiss and make up.
This cheerful optimism may puzzle Western audiences but sometimes it’s good to be puzzled.
Picture and Sound
Eliana, Eliana is shot in video, so it can at times look a little cheesy, but most of the time, it’s a pretty good-looking movie. The sound is a little more problematic and sounds like it was recorded with a camcorder but Riza has included an original score by Thoersi Argeswara that works very well with the imagery.
How to Use this DVD
Unlike The Year of Living Dangerously, this film will not transport you to a frenetic Asian world of intrigue and adventure. Instead it’s a little more like Terry and the Pirates as written by Jane Austin. The girls will like it more than the boys.