The Ubud Handbook « Cinema Paradiso ~ Bali's Seat in the History of Indonesian Cinema
From 1930s Nudie Cuties to Cannes ~ Ubud High takes a front-row seat to peer at Bali's place in the history of Indonesian Cinema.
'Nudie-cutie' 1930s film poster for 'Virgins of Bali, Land of Love and Romance' (1932) directed by Deane H. Dickason.
Tagline: "UNBELIEVABLE, FASCINATING RECORDS OF SAVAGE REALISM... TINGLING WITH WILD EXCITEMENT! NATURE IN THE RAW! SEE: Balinese Beauties bathing in ALL THEIR NATIVE GLORY! REVEALING!"
From a film genre known as 'American exploitation films'.
BOOBS AND POLITICAL CENSORSHIP have never been far from the Silver Screen – in Indonesia, they're a bedrock.
The silent flicks of Thirties' Bali sucked hungrily on the island's bare-breasted cabinet-postcard image that encouraged so many gilded tourists – and dodgy film-stars like Charlie Chaplin – to visit its sultry, forbidden shores.
There's the technicoloured 'Legong: Dance of the Virgins' featuring an ill-fated love triangle between a topless adolescent market girl and her barely older squeeze, with plenty of torso on show. Or 'Balinese Love' from 1931. Or the 1932 'Virgins of Bali (Land of Love and Romance)', tagline: "Star-caressed bodies on a LOTUS ISLE of FORBIDDEN PARADISE!"
Native customs, native music, native cast:
'Legong: Dance of the Virgins' (1935), produced and directed by Gaston Glass and Henry de la Falaise.
Bare-native, nudie-cutie Thirties' film poster, Bali, Indonesia.
But the most famous of Bali's 'bare native' film sub-genre has to be 'Goona-Goona', alternately 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 – a reference to a Balinese aphrodisiac, or 'love magic' – swiftly entered the North American lexicon as a street-level synonym for the F-word.
A 'bare native' film poster for 'The Afro-Goona Show'.
'Goona-Goona' was filmed in Bali by Armand Denis and André Roosevelt, and released in 1932.
Tagline: "Land of love. Bali, where shame is unknown! Daring drama of exotic beauties in all their native glory!"
Exploitation has been part of the script for Indonesian cinema since its inglorious, naked inception.
Just as the Cannes Film Festival debuted on the eve of the Second World War, Bali's boatloads of cruise-liners hastily made way for plane-loads of Japanese stormtroopers – who not only seized the jewel of Holland's crown in record time, but also took over the archipelago's film industry for its own profitable propaganda machine.
Post-World War II. Enter stage-left the communist-leaning General Sukarno – Indonesia's founding father and first president – who nabbed the director's chair in 1945 and banned all foreign film imports as he tore into his own anti-Western, 20-year epic.
1965? Cue red dogs and The Year of Living Dangerously. Enter stage-right the US-backed General Suharto, who managed to bat any remaining lefty 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.
Trailer for the 1982 film 'The Year of Living Dangerously' directed by Peter Weir and starring Mel Gibson, Sigourney Weaver and Linda Hunt.
I meet up with Happy Salma – model-turned-soap-star, and now a writer and serious actress in her own right – who 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 quite romantic, actually..."
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.
She acted in Riri Riza's 'Gie' that narrates the tragic tale of Sixties' activist Soe Hok Gie, which was the country's official entry for Best Foreign Language Film at the 78th Academy Awards.
Then there was 'Xia Aimei', the story of an underage Chinese girl trafficked into Jakarta's pitch-black nightlife. Happy also won Best Supporting Actress 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 ended up in Cannes as part of Indonesia's delegation sent there to promote the country's film industry.
Film poster of 'Gie' directed by Riri Riza (2005) telling the story of Indonesian activist and writer Soe Hok Gie.
On the other end of the camera is Bali-born Soma Helmi, 25, who won a place at Sundance for her contribution to the ground-breaking, crowd-sourced film 'Life in a Day' produced by Ridley Scott.
For Soma, her experiences of talkies in the 1990s weren't exactly 5D wrap-o-vision.
– "It was all videos when I was young – there was no cinema in Ubud. 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."
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 a religious Islamic number to coincide with Ramadan. And their big investors are happy, because they turn the all-important profit."
Film poster of Indonesian horror double-bill 'Suster Keramas' starring Japanese porn star Rin Sakuragi.
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. Rampant counterfeiting and the open sale of pirated DVDs don't help.
Film poster for the 2019 Indonesian horror film 'Kajeng Kliwon: A Nightmare in Bali' starring Amanda Manoppo and Christ Laurent.
– "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 cost for their whole film."
It's telling that two of the most-watched shorts are a viral sex-tape featuring a famous boy-band frontman – he got three years inside for breaking anti-pornography laws – and a YouTube clip of an on-duty police officer lip-synching to his favourite Bollywood hit.
Who says Indonesian policemen don't have a sense of humour? Paramilitary Brimob officer Norman Kamaru singing
'Chaiyya Chaiyya' by Shahrukh Khan.
Norman got fired after spending too much time on chat shows, and decided to pursue acting instead. He ended up co-starring as the immigration officer investigating the nightclub that pimps the trafficked, underage Xi-Xi in 'Xia Aimei'.
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 iron grip. Online forums such as the Bali-based MiniKino.org 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.
Logistics? 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.
Indonesia isn't a poor country.
It has copper, oil, tin, natural gas, palm oil, the biggest gold-mine in the world... and lots and lots of people.
Its 17,500 islands hide a deeply rich seam for the right scripts and cameras – see Jakarta's recent Chinese-Indonesian blood-letting in 1998; or the communist exterminations of 1965-'66. Or Bali's mind-blowingly dramatic mass-protest suicides – the puputan – staged against the Dutch in 1906 and 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 number? Just start walking, and take your pick of the threads and diamonds from the sides of the dusty roads.
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."
© 2021 John Storey. All Rights Reserved.
The Last Pic
Portrait of the Day
Portraits from Bali by Ubud High
© 2021 John Storey / Ubud High. All rights reserved.
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‘First stop on Shree Ganesha's round-Asia tour was a spell in Buddhist Tibet with its strong tantric leanings – a convenient spot to re-invent himself as Vinãyaka, and then as the dancing red Nritta Ganapati – before a full-blown alter-ego revamp as the scarlet, twelve-armed Maharakta Ganapati. Now, Maharakta Ganapati was unusually fond of skullcaps filled with human flesh and blood – and this we might charitably put down to a bad trip.
After all, what happens in Tibet stays in Tibet...’
‘To cut an all-night story short, the mask was donned by a dancer who fell into a deep trance. But instead of staying in the temple, he began to run. And run. He became violent and uncontrollable. He ran for four kilometers down the road – the crowd scrambled after him. He ended up in a cemetery just past my house, and in the dead of night began to do frenzied battle with unseen foes...’
∞ 'Nyepi' ~ Bali's Hindu New Year, and the Day of Silence ~ Melasti, Ngerupuk, Ogoh-Ogoh & Manis Nyepi
‘If previous New Years' Days have seen you waking up with a crippling hangover trying to remember what you did the night before, maybe it's time you headed to Bali in March. Nyepi – the Balinese Day of Silence, and the start of the Hindu Saka New Year – is a day, a night and a day you'll never forget....’
‘Kajeng Kliwon is the kind of day when anything that can happen will happen. It invariably does.
You have been seriously warned...’
“When I had my sixth and seventh babies at the hospital – my twin girls – the doctor ordered me to have a Caesarian. And without asking me, he tied my tubes off as well.
I think he thought I'd had enough babies...”
“On the third bite,” says one hater, “it was as though I'd just eaten a diseased, parasite-infested animal with a bad case of rabies. I prayed I wouldn't be sick because I really didn't want to taste it again on the way back up...”
‘Boobs and political censorship have never been far from the Silver Screen – in Indonesia, they're its bedrock. The silent flicks of Thirties' Bali sucked hungrily on the island's bare-breasted cabinet-postcard image that encouraged so many gilded tourists – and dodgy film-stars like Charlie Chaplin – to visit its sultry, forbidden shores...’
Getting Around ~ Bali 'Biking
“For me, some of the most dangerous people on the road are white people. I avoid them like the plague. You can tell the ones who are going to hurt others – the fixed grins, the hunched over the handle-bars, the wobbling around corners and shouts of indignation when they finally hit someone – because they have absolutely no idea how life and the road works around here...”
‘She tears into the traffic. She can't stop. She narrowly misses hitting a car head-on, swerves past a mum on a 'bike and slaloms across the road. Before she hits anyone – it's a miracle she doesn't – she falls in a bad-sounding heap of bent metal and smashing plastic. A group of Balinese rush to pick her up before the cops see her...’
‘She starts sweeping and I notice that she's limping. There's a spreading bruise and an angry graze running past her knee and down her calf. She wants to carry on cleaning – I sit her down and ask her what happened.
She's shy; I press...’
‘Rule number one on a monsoon day? Don't get wet.
You may not realise that getting caught in a cloudburst or shower on Bali – particularly if you're on a motorbike – is the tropical equivalent of walking naked outside during a Prague Winter after a lukewarm bath.
It'll really slow you down. The shivers, hot-and-cold flushes, a chesty cough, diarrhoea, sneezing, stomach pains, a belting headache and aching bones are all at the top of the list...’
‘Nowhere is free from the tax of life. We all have to pay for our slice of Bali paradise – and this often comes in the shape of our biting, stinging, crawling, flying insect-cousins.
It's the downside of environment-sharing...’
Holidays from the Jungle
‘Agricultural, and unpractised in the dark art of handling international tourists, the aristocratic farmer-people of Trunyan have acquired a damaging reputation for aggression. Their unique tourist draw – a jungle-cemetery where bodies are left in the open to disintegrate underneath a magical banyan tree – is regularly shunned by travellers on the time-sensitive tourist circuit...’
‘Ten meters away and the young man finally looks up – an inane, animal-like grin taped across his face as his girlfriend grips his porcelain butt and grimaces towards the empty blue sky. They disengage like street dogs, utter an invective in Russian, and stare...’
Tourism & Self-Enrichment
‘My concentration's shot to pieces. The spaghetti keeps falling off my fork. She's on her third large beer now. She starts to say 'facking' even more, and is speaking so loudly that people passing on the street have begun to look her way, and she's spitting bits of ciabatta bread and tomato and fish into her friend's dinner...’
‘I'm staying at a cute, family-run bed-and-breakfast – a homestay – on Ubud's trendy Jalan Goutama. A young member of the homestay's family tours her compound, blessing it with incense and rice and flower-petal offerings in little hand-made palm-leaf boxes.
All is well in Bali's spiritual capital...’
‘A Dutch boy in Holland goes to a gypsy fortune-teller who tells him that he is, in fact, Balinese. Afterwards, his uncle visits the Island of the Gods and brings him back a wooden carving of a bare-breasted lady.
Lucky for him it wasn't one of those funny-shaped wooden bottle-openers that looks like a cock...’
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