Indonesian cinema is undergoing a quiet renaissance. In the first eight months of 2016, eight films have sold well over a million tickets, compared to 2015 when only three movies were as successful.
As shoots clog the city’s streets and red-carpet premieres draw the fans, Jakarta has turned into Jollywood.
The trailblazer for this phenomenon is undisputedly the two-parter Ada Apa Dengan Cinta (“What’s Up with Cinta?”; dubbed AADC1 and 2, released in 2002 and 2016).
Indeed, the two romantic comedies (with their warm, Notting Hill a la Simon Curtis ethos) – helmed by the producer and director team of Riri Riza and Mira Lesmana – have become iconic and interlinked with Indonesia’s identity post-Reformasi, the years after it freed itself from the strongman leadership of former president Suharto. Each outing has been something of a national event, a zeitgeist moment, as the republic pauses to reflect both on the state of the nation as well as the star-crossed lovers – Cinta played by Dian Sastrowardoyo, an actress with the luminous beauty of a Kate Winslet and Rangga, the craggily handsome male played by Nicholas Saputra.
Lesmana said: “The local film industry was in a coma for much of the 1990s. At that time, everything to do with films required permits and pre-censorship. [The former Indonesian president Abdurrahman Wahid] Gus Dur changed all that and film was freed.”
Back in 2002 and fresh from a surprise hit with the children’s movie, Petualangan Sherina (Sherina’s Adventure), Mira and Riri were keen to try their hands at the teenage market. “Many people felt we were crazy but I strongly believed that if we spoke to them in the right language, getting into their world; that we could communicate.”
The removal of the controls imposed by Suharto, who stepped down after the 1997 financial crisis, enabled filmmakers to use “bahasa gaul” or street talk. AADC1 also drew on the powerful poetry of Indonesia’s independence hero, Chairil Anwar and scriptwriter Sjuman Djaya. The combination of the two was electrifying and both leads switched effortlessly between the two levels (one elevated and the other more earthy, not dissimilar to the layered language of Javanese with its kromo inggil for formal use and kasar for common speech) culminating in a gorgeous sequence at the end of the first movie in which we watch Cinta’s reaction as Rangga’s voice recites a poem dedicated to her.
Moreover, for Riri the soundtrack is a distinct presence reinforcing the drama. Certainly Anto Hoed and Melly Goeslaw’s theme songs have hogged the airwaves for months and years on end. It’s hard to disagree when Riri says quite simply: “The film captured the Indonesian-ness of being young.”
And yet when AADC1 first opened in early 2002, its essential optimism – that love and friendship could triumph over prejudice and violence – stood in marked contrast to the grim political and economic realities of the day.
Megawati Soekarnoputri sought to consolidate power after Gus Dur’s bruising impeachment while religious-inspired violence in Ambon and Kalimantan flared up periodically.
While acknowledging the uncertainties of the immediate post-Reformasi era, AADC also presented Jakarta as a place ripe for romance with threadbare cafes manned by latter-day troubadours, second-hand bookstalls and poorly-lit suburban streets.
However, an ambiguous ending – a passionate reconciliation followed by Rangga’s departure for New York and an epistolary declaration of love leaves the romance unresolved.
Fourteen years later and after a mini-version shot by South Korean soap opera producers that went viral, we are back in the world of Cinta and Rangga.
While sequels are normally disappointing, AADC2 bucked the trend – as evidenced by the 3.7 million tickets it sold and the scenes of near-hysteria at many cinemas – not unlike the success experienced by the Philippine matinee idol, John Lloyd Cruz in this year’s hit movie A Second Chance.
Our two on-screen lovers – as well as Indonesia – have certainly changed. Both have matured with Cinta now the owner of a hipster joint in Jakarta, whilst Rangga is a co-owner of a cafe in New York.
In AADC2, the city of Yogyakarta – historic, cultured and artistic – becomes the touchstone for love. We watch as Yogyakarta works its charms on a furious Cinta, softening her anger at Rangga’s decade-long absence. But thankfully – and hey, this is a chick-flick after all – the lovers finally do come together.
AADC1 was about growing up, discovering yourself and making hard choices: friends, family or lovers?
AADC2, on the other hand, is about coming to terms with the choices you have made even as you spread your wings to take on the world.
Perhaps that is why the AADC films strike such a chord with Indonesians and lovers of this sprawling, crazy country.
The films chart in an emotional sense the distance the country has travelled and how much farther it can still go.
One suspects there’ll be a third part, if only because as this generation of Indonesians grows older they’ll be looking to Rangga and Cinta (as previous generations turned to the classic Javanese puppet or wayang characters of Arjuna and Srikandi) for entertainment, for guidance and most importantly, shared memories.
Karim Raslan is a Southeast Asian commentator and columnist