By Tenzin Wodhean, AsAmNews Intern
In the 1970s, Indonesia experienced a golden age of cinema in which filmmakers derived inspiration for fantasy and horror epics from comic book artists like Ganes TH or ancient cultural beliefs and traditions. The usage of Western special effects to visualize the nationalistic values of Indonesia allowed directors like Tjut Djalil to enrapture audiences with supernatural gore, spiritual legends and unyielding protagonists. Sophie Mutiara Nova, a novelist and director pursuing their MFA at CalArts, is continuing this tradition of fantastical Indonesian tales in their upcoming film, Indah and the Spirits—but this time, with a punk twist.
Indah, played by Dewa Ayu Dewi Larassanti, is grieving the loss of her grandmother in isolation and runs away to the forest, where she encounters the “mischievous” spirit Yuda, played by Dylan Djoenadi. Hoping to connect with Indah’s grandmother’s lost soul, Indah and Yuda settle on a compromise that requires Yuda to take Indah away to the spirit world to fulfill that connection. Indah is swept away by the guidance of Yuda and two other spirits, Echo and Nellie, as she explores what it means to be punk and rooted in culture.
Nova has previously directed shorts, including “Don’t Tell Mother” (2022) and “IRL – In Real Life” (2022), where characters begin to ground themselves in their real identities. Larassanti’s past credits include playing Kena in Kena and the Bridge of Spirits, an Indonesian-inspired video game that follows Kena, who is the portal between the physical and spiritual world and helps spirits pass through with her magic. Djoenadi has been a recurring cast member of the Fine Brothers’ REACT series and an actor since he was 10, with credits including Echo and Nellie (2012) and Shades of Trish (2021).
According to Nova, Indah’s journey is a parallel to their own life in the ways both have contended with the crossroads of traditional and counterculture. After being outed as non-binary in college, Nova sought out punk spaces since those spaces were often welcoming and queer. As they grew closer to their true gender identity, they grew closer to their cultural identity, which allowed them to be renewed with the idea that being in touch with their culture was not old-fashioned.
“Punk is always led by Eurocentric examples. If you infuse culture and tradition, especially something like Asian tradition, it’s suddenly removed from punk and seen as old-fashioned because you’re in touch with your culture. And we know that’s not true,” Nova shared in an interview with AsAmNews. “You have Voice of Baceprot, an amazing Indonesian feminist hijabi punk band. They’re heavy metal. They’re also very in touch with Indonesian culture. You can be all these things.”
Indah and the Spirits blends live-action with animation in a Studio Ghibli, Alice in Wonderland-esque way to bring the punk and fantastical elements to life as well as taking inspiration from traditional Indonesian folklore.
One of the these traditional tales is the epic The Mahābhārata, which tells the story of the Pandavas, five brothers, against their 100 cousins, the Kauravas, from the perspective of the brothers. As the story unfolds, Larassanti said that The Mahābhārata reveals more gray areas and opportunities to understand the characters in more depth. This was the attitude with which Larassanti tried to understand Indah and the other characters.
These nuanced areas are an important element of many Indonesian tales. Another example is the myth of Barong and Rangda, entities of good and evil respectively, which taught Nova a crucial lesson that was integral to informing Indah’s journey.
“Balance and chaos. These forces are always contending with each other and flowing and moving around. There’s ebb and flow. There’s give and take,” said Nova. “There’s not necessarily a fight between good or bad. There’s no condemnation of, ‘This is the wrong way to be all the identities that Indah is taking,’ or, ‘This is the right way to be all the identities that Indah is taking.’ It is simply, ‘This is the way that Indah is.’”
The film also integrates Javenese-specific details with aspects of Balinese and Japanese culture while resonating with Indonesians on a broad scale, according to Larassanti. There is a “stark contrast” between the physical and the spiritual world, which is displayed by the presence of cultural Indonesian garments like the kebaya when Indah crosses over with her sweatpants.
“What you essentially want is [for] people from the culture to feel like everything is normal,” said Larassanti. “They’re just experiencing the story, and so I’m hoping that’s also the experience, that people are experiencing the spectrum of emotions.”
The film features music from Indonesian composers Putu Arya Deva Suryanegra and Putu Tangkas Adi Hiranmyena, as well as Dolores, a Jakarta rock band. There are also Indonesian-based artists, including the costume designer, V from Trance Slate TV, who help bring Indah and this world to life.
The film is set to start shooting in October.
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