by Bonni Rambatan
A couple of disclaimers before we begin: First, this review will contain spoilers — that is, if the word still has any meaning for this film. Second, the director and producer of this film, Richard Oh, is an acquaintance I know personally, and I admit that my knowledge of his philosophical repertoire undeniably colors this review. Third, I watched the film in a cinema, with no access to a video file to recheck scenes and dialogues, so this review was written mostly from memory.
An Absurd Silence
Let’s get the basics out of the way. The film seems to be an independent feature, suffering from those characteristically indie technical kinks and issues (lack of lighting, shaky camera, a few instances of bad acting, and so on). Some may be intentional, some may not, most do not matter. We will not be discussing those.
Second, to categorize the film as out-of-the-box is an understatement. It’s the type of film that gets people giggling in confusion and shaking their heads upon leaving the cinema building.
It’s not a surreal film as much as it is absurd. The film deconstructs itself then contradicts itself. It provides its own meaning only to be denied later, and tells its narrative diagonally in multiple layers of reality. It offers only the seduction of meaning, only the shadow of a story.
It’s neither a good film nor a bad film — the word loses its meaning as soon as you watch the film. The plot begins slow, then quickly loses its own point in a series of seemingly unrelated montages. The shots are too long, the silences too meaningless. Hollywood would have burned themselves long before they make anything like this.
And that’s what makes it interesting.
The absurd utilizes silence as a means of subversion. And that, I think, is what this film does well.
Symptoms of a Repressed Industry
The tagline of the film reads: Stories have Dreams. Dreams have Stories.
It’s easy to read this film as being about the dream of Joko, the main character. But I think there is something more interesting at play — something more important: To me, this film is a collective dream of the Indonesian film industry as a whole.
It is no secret that Indonesian pop culture, what with all its exclamations of finding local identities, is ironically heading more and more towards a monoculture of banal love with cliched, conservative words of wisdom regarding religious values. You can find this everywhere: films, television, novels, comic books, social media, you name it.
Where do other genres go? Out the window. Down the drain. Burning in development hell or hacked to pieces under the brutal regime of Indonesian censorship and market forces.
In a word: We are repressed. As an industry and a society, we are all repressed. Repressed, as it were, under the regime of religious enjoyment.
Religion as Mode of Enjoyment
In many parts, the film shows witty scenes that unmask the true nature of religion in Indonesian cinema (and, by extension, Indonesian pop culture in general): The morality it claims is a thin mask for enjoyment — a source of drama, a false depth in a world of shallow interactions, a cheap token.
As such, what religious themes provide is a sort of superegoistic injunction to enjoy life in a certain way, an imperative that life can be enjoyed only in a certain way, that life has to be made sense of only in a certain way.
Melancholy shows this true nature — as well as the forces that operate behind the screens: The economic pressure, the depression, the loss of identity as one is subsumed into the vicious cycle of ideological reproduction.
This film was borne of this very repression, as a dream that gives way to much the repressed desires of Indonesia. It gives shape to the dream in an absurdist, almost meaningless form.
Meaning is blatantly resisted in Melancholy, even going as far as to have a character mention that “a film is not a speech,” followed by a conversation that veers very close to nonsense. This is a crucial move: What this film protests is not only the genre of religious films itself, but the temptation to find meaning itself.
“Semua ada hikmahnya,” we all like to say: “You can find a blessing, a message, in every incident.”
But what if there isn’t? What if these blessings are all pre-fabricated and endlessly reproduced by an industry that alienates and siphons off all creativity that does not speak its ideological language?
“Why do people demand ‘what’s next?’ in a story?” a character says. Because, when you look at it, is what’s next really a next? With all these repressive forces that shape our society, are we really moving forward?
Even if you feel you are in the driver’s seat, you don’t own the car — the car doesn’t even work. You’re just being pushed around by two guys who can’t even agree on their views.
And one day, you will wake up without a voice, realizing you have buried something very dear to you.
Is Melancholy a Movement?
Is there still hope in meaninglessness? If the title hints at anything, I think it is this very possibility.
Melancholy is a Movement. In psychoanalysis, melancholy refers to a condition in which a person continues to perform an action while the reason to do so has been lost, usually due to a lack of proper mourning. In the film, our protagonist lives in melancholy in the face of the various market forces he deals with.
It is also a movement, I believe, because the dreams and absurdities borne of it produce new space of possibilities — shedding light, as Deleuze would have it, on the lines of flight.
The opening scene is not a simple mourning scene of a person, or a dog. It is a mourning scene of the entire Indonesian film industry and its multitude of idealisms. A mourning, one can say, that stretches to the very end, to the depths of the water prominent in its posters
The existence of this film illustrates that we can never be silenced. Try as one might, the repressed desires and ideas will always return in another shape or form.