There’s no doubt that 2010 was, overall, not a good year for the Indonesian film industry. Since that is a somewhat subjective statement, let’s start with some figures.
There was a huge drop-off in attendance for local films. In 2009, the top six highest-grossing local movies each sold over one million tickets. In 2010, only a single local film broke the million mark.
By Dec. 30, 81 Indonesian films will have been released this year in cinemas, only slightly down from 83 films in 2009, yet a big decline from 91 films in 2008.
In an ideal world, the year’s decreased output of films would correspond with an improvement in production values, but sadly, this has not been the case. The decrease in output was matched by an equal drop in overall quality.
In terms of variety, the past year has been dominated by esek esek , a genre of peek-a-boo, half-baked, semi-porn horror films that very rarely generate any real scares or titillation. While they might have worked, albeit very briefly, in the mid-1990s, unfortunately that has not been the case this year.
Ranging from mediocre to downright degrading, these films, with difficult-to-translate titles like “Dendam Pocong Mupeng,” “Kain Kafan Perawan,” and “Rayuan Arwah Penasaran,” have turned off more audiences than they’ve turned on, causing them to flee from theaters.
Obviously this has resulted in a decline in overall box office earnings.
Long gone are the glory days when any local theatrical release had to sell just over 500,000 tickets to be considered a hit. Nowadays, a film must hit at least the million mark to be considered box-office gold, and only one film has managed to do so all year — “Sang Pencerah” (“The Enlightened One”), a biopic about Ahmad Dahlan, the founding father of the second-largest Muslim organization in the country, Muhammadiyah.
Combining a wide theatrical release with traveling screenings to areas without cinemas — including most small cities across Indonesia — the film managed to sell upwards of 1.2 million tickets.
The only other Indonesian movie that was even able to break the 500,000 mark this year was the teen drama “18+ True Love Never Dies.”
The next three highest-grossing films of the year so far are “Menculik Miyabi” (“Chasing Miyabi”), the tame teen comedy featuring Japanese porn star Maria Ozawa; “Tiran: Mati di Ranjang” (“Tiran: Dead in Bed”), a horror movie starring dangdut singer Dewi Persik; and “Satu Jam Saja” (“One Hour Only”), a melodrama, produced by Rano Karno, which resembles many of his famous films from the 1980s.
How “Sang Pencerah” achieved the rare feat of garnering both critical and commercial triumph was probably due to several factors — it was highly-marketed to select audiences, boasted a carefully prepared promotional campaign and, most importantly, it was released during the Lebaran holiday, which is Indonesia’s equivalent to Hollywood’s summer blockbuster season.
The Lebaran period this year began after a whole fasting month of Ramadhan went by without any new Indonesian releases, something of a rarity that has not happened anytime in recent memory.
It was a breath of fresh air, indeed. Alongside “Pencerah,” the Lebaran holiday period saw the return of the king of dangdut , Rhoma Irama, this time with his son, Ridho Rhoma, in the unpretentious and hilarious quasi-musical, “Dawai 2 Asmara” (“Strings of Two Romances”), war movie “Darah Garuda” (“Blood of the Eagle”) and low-brow comedy “Lihat Boleh Pegang Jangan” (“You May See But Not Touch”), also featuring our current box-office queen — Dewi Persik.
The prominent rise of Dewi in Indonesian cinema over the past two year parallels the rise of a new breed of crassly commercial low-budget films. These movies are usually shot within a few days and hurried into cinemas to make a quick profit within the week or two they have before they are buried by bad reviews and fade into obscurity.
Dewi’s rising prominence in tabloids and television gossip shows is part of an increasing trend toward sensationalized “news” events, such as fake fights between her and her co-stars, being used as marketing gimmicks. However, her latest feud with celebrity co-star Julia Perez led to a backlash online, which shows how quickly this gimmick has grown tiresome.
Of course, for many lovers of quality cinema, these kind of antics by local film promoters were tiresome to begin with, especially since they can’t seem to get basic marketing fundamentals right.
Perhaps we’re biased by Hollywood’s hype machine, which can crank up a year in advance of a film opening, but there were several Indonesian films this year, such as “Rokkap,” “London Virginia,” and “Mafia Insyaf” (“Repent Mafia”) which were released without any advanced publicity whatsoever.
Adding salt to the wounds is the recent public spat between judges for the Indonesian Film Festival awards, marring what should be the ultimate honor in Indonesian filmmaking.
Yet, quality of choices aside, the FFI continues to select films that have not even been released yet, further alienating itself from a public that still sees the event as irrelevant.
The overall downturn in quality was embarrassingly evident at every important local film festival. Organizers of the Indonesian International Fantastic Film Festival issued a strong statement about the diminishing quality of Indonesian horror films by opting not to screen any at their event.
The Jakarta International Film Festival greatly reduced the number of contenders in the festival’s Indonesian feature film competition to eight from 16 the year before.
In a year when regional films have started taking major film festivals by storm — the Thai film, “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives,” won Best Picture at Cannes, while Malaysian and Singaporean films were also featured prominently at the festival — it’s a pity that we still have to contend with internal disputes.
Thus, I deem that less than 10 percent of the local film industry’s output for the entire year is worth being proud of. That said, there were a few high points.
In contrast to all of the hammy horror flicks, there was the polished and well-crafted “Rumah Dara,” titled “Macabre” in English markets, which pays homage to the slasher genre. It was one of the few films that managed to find receptive audiences on the international market.
Against stiff competition from dramas that were featuring shirtless men and women in skimpy clothes on their posters, the comedy satire “Alangkah Lucunya Negeri Ini” (“How Funny Our Country Is”) won praise for its nail-biting story-line, which paved the way for a respectable box-office take.
Indonesian domestic worker drama “Minggu Pagi di Victoria Park” (“Sunday Morning in Victoria Park”) is a solid film with deft direction and a fine performance by the leading actress, Lola Amaria. The critically-acclaimed movie is still making it’s way around the foreign film festival circuit.
Another fresh comedy was “Laskar Pemimpi” (“Troop of Dreamers”), which saw the comedy group Project Pop make their screen debut.
Finally, another positive development was the creation of a Web site cataloging information about local films. Aptly called Film Indonesia, the site (www.filmindonesia.or.id) — modeled after the Internet Movie Database (www.imdb.com) — went online just last month after years of preparation.
For the first time, Indonesian film buffs and critics like myself will have all the information we need right at our fingertips. It’s long overdue and, hopefully, a sign of progress.
On an optimistic note, there’s a lot of potential for next year. Director Joko Anwar will return to the thriller genre for which he has won so much acclaim and Rudi Soedjarwo will make a return to drama. There will also be a new film by Nurman Hakim, the lauded director of “3 Doa 3 Cinta” (“3 Wishes 3 Loves”). Nurman’s new film, called “Khalifah,” should challenge people’s ideas about religious tolerance.
It’s a good start, but not much to go on. Indonesian film lovers will just have to keep hoping for good news on the silver screens of our theaters.