Life, News, Photography and Reviews from Ubud: The Apple of Bali's Eye

The Big Read « Bali « Cinema Paradiso: The Story of Indonesian Cinema on Bali

FROM 1930's NUDIE CUTIES to Cannes ‐ Ubud High takes a front-row seat to peer at Bali's place in the history of Indonesian Cinema.

1932 Virgins of Bali Thirties nudie cutie bare native film poster 1930s Bali.

'Virgins of Bali, Land of Love and Romance' (1932) nudie-cutie 1930s movie poster, Bali.

BOOBS AND POLITICAL CENSORSHIP have never been far from the Silver Screen. In Indonesia, they're its bedrock.

Flicks of Thirties' Bali sucked hungrily on the island's bare-breasted cabinet-postcard image that encouraged so many gilded tourists – and stars like Charlie Chaplin – to visit its sultry shores.

'Legong: Dance of the Virgins' (1935) nudie-cutie film poster 1930s Bali

"Native customs, native music, native cast".
'Legong: Dance of the Virgins' (1935) bare native Thirties' film poster, Bali.

Backrow nudie cuties

There is the silent 'Legong: Dance of the Virgins' (1935) featuring a technicoloured love triangle between a topless adolescent market girl and her barely older squeeze – plenty of skin on show, and naturally ending in tragedy.

Or 'Balinese Love' from 1931.

Or the 1932 'Virgins of Bali' (Land of Love and Romance), tagline: "Bali – A Garden Of Eden... With Dozens Of Eves!"

Video: Full version of 'Legong: Dance of the Virgins' (1935)

'Legong: Dance of the Virgins' by Gaston Glass and Henry de la Falaise. 1930's distributors touted this 'bare-native' genre film as "Nudity Without Crudity!" and... "A Film For All Audiences!"


But the most famous of Bali's 'bare native' film sub-genre has to be 'Goona-Goona' (1932), alternatively known as 'Love Powder' and 'Man's Paradise' when it hit the salles of New York. Directed by Belgian Armand Denis and his aristocratic (but penniless) sidekick André Roosevelt of US presidential fame, it had bare breasts galore and squeezed in a taste of cannibalism to spice up the script.

To the thrill of New York's backrow 'nudie-cutie' fans, 'Goona-Goona' shimmied past the censors – the skin on show was National Geographic brown, not prudish pink – and it became a huge hit.

No surprise that guna-guna – referring to a Balinese aphrodisiacal narcotic, or 'love magic' – swiftly entered the North American lexicon as a street-level synonym for the F-word.

Cinema propaganda and the Second World War

Exploitation has been part of the script for Indonesian cinema since its inglorious, naked inception.

Just as the Cannes Film Festival debuted – and then closed – on the eve of the Second World War, Bali's boatloads of cruise-liner tourists briskly made way for plane-loads of Japanese Imperial storm-troopers who not only seized the jewel of Holland's crown in record time, but quickly commandeered the archipelago's fledgling film industry for its own profitable propaganda machine.

Anti-Western Sukarno

Enter stage-left the communist-leaning General Sukarno – Indonesia's founding father and first president – who took the director's chair in 1945 and banned all foreign film imports as he tore into his own nationalistic, anti-Western 20-year epic.

1965: The Year of Living Dangerously

Virgins of Bali, 1932, nudie-cutie film poster 1930s Bali

Film poster of 'The Year of Living Dangerously' (1982) starring Mel Gibson and Sigourney Weaver.

President Suharto's Steel-Fisted Soap Series

Enter stage-right the US-backed General Suharto in 1965 – cue red dogs and the so-called 'Year of Living Dangerously' – who managed to bat any remaining film buffs into the gods with his steel-fisted debut that ran like a bad soap until his audience pelted him with tomatoes during the dangerously violent out-takes of 1998.

Video: 1982 Trailer for 'The Year of Living Dangerously' with Mel Gibson and Sigourney Weaver

Trailer for the 1982 film 'The Year of Living Dangerously' directed by Peter Weir and starring Mel Gibson, Sigourney Weaver and Linda Hunt.

Indonesian Love in the Eighties

Happy Salma – model-turned-soap-star and now a writer and serious actress in her own right – recalls her own, more innocent exposure to the moving image as she grew up in Eighties' Sukabumi, West Java:

– "Look, we weren't exactly out in the sticks: our city had two studios [cinemas] that we caught films at. But I remember going to the recreation ground where a big white sheet was hung between two trees and a car drove 'round with a guy leaning out the window with a massive loudspeaker rounding us up for an evening's entertainment."

"It was very romantic, actually..."

Reformation: Reformasi in 1998

With few exceptions, adult-themed B-movies and TV soaps were the order of the day for Happy's generation.

But with Reformasi – Reformation – and the vicious toppling of Suharto's New Order in 1998 came a new breed of film that tackled previously banned topics such as religion, politics, race and the underworld.

Happy's own career has followed the maturing of Indonesian cinema.

Film poster of 'Gie' directed by Riri Riza (2005) telling the story of Indonesian activist and writer Soe Hok Gie

Film poster of 'Gie' directed by Riri Riza (2005) telling the story of Indonesian activist and writer Soe Hok Gie.

Activists, prostitution and child-trafficking

Happy Salma acted in Riri Riza's 2005 'Gie' that narrates the tragic tale of Sixties' activist Soe Hok Gie, and was the country's official entry for Best Foreign Language Film at the 78th Academy Awards.

Then there was 'Xia Aimei' (2012), the story of an underage Chinese girl trafficked into Jakarta's pitch-black nightlife.

Happy also won Best Supporting Actress in 2011 at the Indonesian Movie Awards for her delicate portrayal of a prostitute in 'Tujuh Hati, Tujuh Cinta, Tujuh Wanita' ('Seven Hearts, Seven Loves, Seven Women'), and found herself in Cannes last year, part of Indonesia's delegation sent there to promote the country's film industry.

Television and Video in the Ubud Nineties

On the other end of the camera is Bali-born Soma Helmi, 25, who won a place at Sundance in 2011 for her contribution to the ground-breaking, crowd-sourced film 'Life in a Day' produced by Ridley Scott and YouTube.

For Soma, her experiences of talkies in the Nineties weren't exactly 5D wrap-o-vision.

– "It was all videos when I was young. There was no cinema in Ubud then. Growing up here, we had to go down to the video shop in Denpasar and rent like ten at a time so we wouldn't run out."

"TV? I remember watching it for the first time when I was about six – there was just one channel. It used to start at about five in the afternoon with the news, and then there was half an hour of cartoons for the kids."

"Then there was news, more news, and then some more news until it went off-air at about half-past ten. It wasn't that interesting to tell you the truth."

"I mean, we would just wait for the cartoons and that was it."

Religion, Horror and Love in Indonesian Celluloid

Soma Helmi takes a sip of her cappuccino, pauses for effect.

– "The local production houses here in Indonesia still tend to see film-making as venture capitalism rather than a mirror for ideas and self-expression."

"Let's say they produce four or five films a year. There'll be a love film scheduled for Valentine's, a couple of horror flicks for the holidays, and an Islamic religious number to coincide with Ramadan."

"And their big investors are happy because they turn the all-important profit."

Film poster of Indonesian horror film 'Suster Keramas' starring Japanese porn star Rin Sakuragi

Film poster of Indonesian horror double-bill 'Suster Keramas' starring Japanese porn star Rin Sakuragi.

The Menstruating Ghost of Puncak

The latest horror fodder includes 'Suster Keramas' (plotline: mystical monster takes on the form of a murderous hair-washing nurse that drew the crowds with sexy scenes featuring Japanese porn star Rin Sakuragi) – and the astoundingly named 'Hantu Puncak Datang Bulan' – or 'The Menstruating Ghost of Puncak'.

But the dog-eared recipe of horror-stroke-love seems to have lost its sweetness: Indonesia's chocolates-in-a-box film industry has suffered a downturn in recent years.

The Indonesian Box Office

Rampant counterfeiting and the open-sale of pirate DVDs don't help.

In 2009, only six films sold more than a million tickets at the box office.

In 2010, just one movie broke the million mark – and in the same year only 81 Indonesian films had cinematic releases – down from 91 in 2008.

The Indonesian Indie Art Film scene

– "All the beautiful, thoughtful Indonesian indie films – and they're being made in abundance – just don't get the exposure," says Soma.

"They aren't being sent to the right people. In fact, they're hardly being sent at all because the submission fee for a short at a festival like Sundance" – about US$70 – "is often more than the production costs for their whole film."

Film Festivals in Indonesia

To counteract this, the Balinale – Bali's own international film festival – was founded in 2007 by Christine Hakim of Cannes jury fame, and continues to showcase quality films from around the world – as well as giving Indonesian film-makers an opportunity to present their work to a wider audience.

Workshops and free seminars are part of the Balinale package.

But the capital's JiFFest – the Jakarta International Film Festival – went limp on the ropes in 2010 after 11 years and looks punch-drunk, if not dead on the canvas – due to a fatal lack of funding.

In short, there isn't a lot of exposure to your average Indie Art Film in Indonesia.

Lip-synching and viral sex

It's telling that the two most-watched shorts of last year were a viral sex-tape featuring a famous boy-band frontman – he got three years for starring in it – and a YouTube clip of an on-duty police officer lip-synching to his favourite Bollywood hit.

(Policeman 'Rapid Response' Norman got fired after spending too much time on chat shows, and decided to pursue a job in serious acting instead. In fact he just co-starred as the immigration officer investigating the nightclub that pimps the trafficked, underage Xi-Xi in Xia Aimei.)

Video: Indonesian Brimob Police Officer Norman Kamaru lip-synching 'Chaiyya Chaiyya' by Shahrukh Khan

Who says Indonesian policemen don't have a sense of humour? Paramilitary Brimob officer Norman Kamaru singing 'Chaiyya Chaiyya' by Shahrukh Khan.

My, How the Reels Change...

The internet, and a people's revolt in '98, burst the information dam that had been shut tight during General Suharto's 32-year steel grip.

Online forums such as the Bali-based now act as a hub for talented Indonesian film-makers who live three, or 3,000 islands apart. Upload sites such as Vimeo provide the global screen that is so badly needed for significant Indonesian films to find an audience.


A borrowed Canon 5D, a laptop and a good broadband connection are all that's needed to produce the next low-budget super-hit with a difference.

Full House at the Bioskop? Film Inspiration in Indonesia

Indonesia isn't a poor country. It has copper and oil, tin, natural gas, palm oil, huge fish stocks, the biggest gold-mine in the world and... lots of people.

Its 17,500 islands hide a deeply rich seam for the right cameras and imagination and eyes: see Jakarta's recent violent Chinese-Indonesian massacre of 1998; Bali's mind-blowingly dramatic mass-protest suicides – the puputan – staged against the Dutch in 1906 and again in 1908.

Or the lonely, imprisoned, genius-writing of Javanese playwright and humanist Pramoedya Ananta Toer.

You want raw material for a documentary? Backcloth for a historical drop? Just start walking, and take your pick of the threads and diamonds at the sides of the road.

It's easy.

As Happy says:

– "Indonesia isn't just made up of seven hearts or seven faces or seven islands."

"There are a thousand islands, a thousand faces all wanting their stories to be told. We are a country rich beyond words. We have the instinctive artistic talent, and we are ready to start talking – now."

Look out, Cannes: Indonesia's gold mine is coming to a cinema near you...

The 1965-1966 Communist Indonesian Massacres

For the back-story on the vicious Indonesian anti-Communist genocide of 1965-1966 – the 'Year of Living Dangerously' – see 'Joshua Oppenheimer's film 'Jagal: The Act of Killing' nominated for an Oscar' at Ubud High.

Ubud Cinemas & Free Film Screenings

Free Film Screenings at Black Beach Italian Restaurant and Pizzeria, Ubud

Regular casual film-screenings are given for free on Black Beach's Top Terrace. Just walk up the stairs, take in the view, and relax.

Paradiso Cinema, Ubud

Billed somewhat bizarrely as The World's First Organic Vegan Cinema, the Paradiso cinema in Ubud is open for daily movie screenings, and is located on the popular Jalan Goutama ('Gautama' or 'Gootama') Selatan.

Paradiso Ubud boasts a large venue with a capacity of 150 seats, has a door-price of Rp.50,000 that can be redeemed against vegan snacks and healthy drinks – and if you want to order more during the film, all you have to do is raise your hand.

Gold-class Bali service; vegan-style cinema.

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