Sex and Gore Sell at the Indonesian Box Office

By webadmin on 01:10 am Feb 19, 2010
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Armando Siahaan

At a time when box office receipts are anemic, Maxima Pictures seems to have everything all figured out. The production outfit’s simple — albeit controversial — winning formula? Sexy titillation and a lot of ghosts.

“We’re selling entertainment,” said producer Ody Mulya Hidayat of Maxima Pictures.

The studio’s most recent horror flick, “Suster Keramas” (“Hair-Washing Nurse”), is about a mystical creature who takes the form of a hospital nurse. The movie’s claim to fame? Sexy scenes featuring Japanese porn star Rin Sakuragi.

Last year, the studio produced “Air Terjun Pengantin” (“The Bride’s Waterfall”), a slasher flick that takes place on an isolated island. It showcases actress Tamara Bleszynski’s well-toned physique in a five-minute scene featuring a photo shoot of hot models in skimpy swimsuits.

“Paku Kuntilanak” (“Kuntilanak’s Nail”) was the talk of the town for its steamy bubble-bath scene, which includes a brief flash of actress Dewi Persik’s nipple.

Robust ticket sales have encouraged the production house to continue rolling out movies that stay true to this formula of sex and ghosts.

“Paku Kuntilanak” and “Air Terjun Pengantin” were blockbusters by domestic standards, selling 650,000 and 1.2 million tickets, respectively. “Suster Keramas,” which is still being shown in some cinemas in the country, has already sold more than 800,000 tickets.

“I’m sure many men have imagined what Tamara would look like when she’s sunbathing,” Ody said of the “Air Terjen Pengantin” actress. “It’s part of the strategy. Whether you like it or not, people like to watch sexy women.

“And this is at a time when most local films are having difficulty reaching the 300,000 [ticket sales] mark,” he added during an interview at a noodle restaurant in Tebet, Jakarta.

But the producer is quick to explain that while the steamy scenes are an integral part of Maxima’s movies, they are not included just for the sake of it, without any relevance to the story.

Ody said that in “Air Terjun Pengantin,” for example, the swimsuit photo shoot scene “is within the context of the main story” since the characters go to the remote island because they want to enjoy a beach atmosphere.

Moreover, he said, these sexually suggestive scenes add to the movie’s aesthetic value. “When you do it right [cinematographically], these scenes are actually beautiful.”

Maxima’s horror flicks, which are targeted at lower-class audiences, can easily be dismissed as soft porn. But Ody does not see it that way, saying there is no nudity or graphic sex scenes.

“Topless is allowed, but only if the shot is taken from behind,” he said. He added that Maxima never produced movies that were “too vulgar” sexually.

All of Maxima’s productions pass through the Indonesian Censorship Board (LSF), the national body responsible for rating and approving films.

Ody said the skeptics need to understand that Maxima’s movies are intended for adults, as indicated by the LSF’s rating. As such, it is normal to have sexually suggestive scenes.

“If you want to watch these movies, you have to show your identification card [at the theater],” he said. “This is a legitimate adult-rated movie, so don’t come to the theater with a childish mind-set.”

It should come as no surprise that Maxima has been a frequent target of protest by those who claim to defend the country’s morality.

When “Suster Keramas” was released earlier this year, the Indonesian Council of Ulema (MUI) in Samarinda, East Kalimantan, demanded that the movie be banned. The council’s Palembang chapter issued a fatwa denouncing the movie as haram.

But while the MUI’s central board supported the decisions of its regional chapters, it refrained from issuing its own fatwa banning the movie for Muslims.

Earlier this month, K2K, another production house, had to pull one of its movies, “Hantu Puncak Datang Bulan” (“The Menstruating Ghost of Puncak”), after the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) threatened to raid theaters screening the film. The hard-line group labeled the movie a “moral terrorist.”

Ody not surprisingly takes issue with this kind of interference from religious groups. “They don’t have the right to ban movies,” he said. “They claim that the movie is pornographic, but most of them haven’t even seen it.”

“If it’s only underwear and a bra, that’s not pornography,” he added. “Also, if there is pornography in the movie, then the LSF would’ve cut it out, right?”

The producer said these religious groups should respect the decisions of the government censorship board.

“For [the religious groups], there’s no rules of the game. They do as they want,” Ody said. “This is not their territory. The MUI can interfere in the film industry when a movie involves a religious matter.

“They’ve not only trespassed on the film industry’s [territory], but they’ve also breached our freedom of expression.”

Ody also said that the LSF had to be more authoritative in defending the industry. “When the LSF passes a movie, it has to defend it,” he said. “[LSF] should be the one communicating with the religious groups.”

Award-winning film critic Eric Sasono brushed off the MUI protests, saying that the group does not have the power to ban movies. However, he condemned the FPI’s threats of violence.

Eric said that the country needed a mechanism or body that could step in and offer mediation when these types of disputes occurred.

“If we keep on going like this, we’ll be stuck in this quagmire forever without learning how to democratize institutionally,” he said.

Moral issues aside, Eric had little good to say about the types of movies peddled by Maxima. The editor of online cinematic organization Rumah Film (House of Film) said “Air Terjun Pengantin” and “Suster Keramas” were examples of movies that prioritized profit over quality.

“These movies use a basic horror movie formula,” he said. This includes dark lighting to save on costs, flash editing for shock scenes, disturbing scoring effects and cheaper, B-list actors.

And, he said, they rely on sex to sell. But the noted cinephile said that sexual titillation was nothing new in the film industry. In the 1990s, the LSF was not as strict about titillating scenes because it wanted to get more people into theaters in the face of competition from private TV stations and cheap VCDs. The period saw the rise of steamy, quasi-porn movies like “Gairah Malam” (“Night Passion”) and “Gadis Metropolis” (“Metropolitan Girl”).

“This [current period] is somewhat of a recurrence of the 1990s,” Eric said. “This time, however, it’s not so much about a scarcity of audience, but more about making quick money.”

Timo Tjahjanto, co-director of the acclaimed slasher film “Rumah Dara” (“Dara’s House”), said horror was a genre that generally had a firm grip on sexual themes. He cited American movies such as “Friday the 13th” and the sex-laden horror films by Italian director Dario Argento.

“Sex sells. Every filmmaker, good or bad, knows that,” Timo said.

However, Timo had nothing good to say about Indonesia’s so-called horror esek-esek. He said the sex scenes were not only meaningless to the plot and incoherent in the overall context, but were also tasteless and devoid of quality.

“Had they shot a straight-up short film with nothing but semi-sex scenes and posted it on YouTube, I would’ve had more respect for it,” he said.

Although Timo believes that movies should not be banned on moral grounds, he said that “the censorship of films should be based more on quality and content control. It sounds silly, but to ban these quickly-made films is the right move.”

Ody of Maxima Pictures said he was aware of the criticism but that it did not bother him.

“What constitutes a good movie cannot be measured based on one person’s view,” he said. “It really depends how you see it.”

“The most important judge is the audience,” he added.

“Not winning an award is not an issue as long as people watch our movies. There are a lot of so-called good movies out there. But if there’s no one watching it, what is it good for?”