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Telling The Truth About Film

by Yuliastri Perdani, The Jakarta Post

FA Melancholy Is A Movement Poster Choosed Sosmed

The Twitter account of Richard Oh was full of virtual applause after the release of his latest film, Melancholy Is a Movement, in April.

Some also noted that the theaters screening the film were less than full — every director’s nightmare. It was ironic, since the film explored the confusion and frustrations of directors and actors working in the nation’s troubled film industry.

At a post-screening discussion, Richard talked about shooting Melancholy — as well as its budget, a taboo subject for many directors. “I was given several hundred million rupiah, so I made the movie.”

Based on outline penned by Richard, the film follows a grieving director who makes a religious movie due to financial pressures. The cast included fellow director Joko Anwar, Ario Bayu, Fachri Albar, Renata Kusmanto, Hannah Al Rashid, Amink and Karina Salim.

With only a 75-minute runtime, the movie boasts witticisms about idealistic directors, frustrated actors, the sorry state of sinetron (local soap operas) and the film industry in general.

Although the characters share the names of the actors portraying them, Richard said that the movie was a work of fiction. “I play with the states of immobility and mobility through the movie […] to show that there is a condition in our [film] industry that makes it create such characters.”

Adopting an improvisational approach, Richard gave freedom to his actors.

“The script contained dialogue that was later enriched by the actors during filming,” he said. “They can freely improvise. I become the referee who makes sure that they do not get off track. This approach has enriched the movie.”

While Richard’s first film, Koper (English title: The Lost Suitcase), from 2006, had a difficult time both at the box office and with critics, the director makes no apologies for telling stories in different ways.

“I made Koper because I wanted to try something. When Koper was released, there was a lot of criticism over the movie’s slow pace,” Richard said. “In fact, that’s the core of the movie.”

Starring sinetron actor Anjasmara and writer Djenar Maesa Ayu, Koper told of the struggle of a humble civil servant, Yahya, against materialism and corruption after he finds a suitcase that might contain a billion rupiah stolen from a bank.

Vanishing after a single week at local cinemas, Koper received a warmer welcome internationally and was screened at several film festivals.

Melancholy, too, had an all-too-brief theatrical run in Indonesia, although Richard is undeterred.

“Nowadays, it appears that film critics and reviewers are much more clever, he says. “So far, the movie has received starkly different reviews — ranging from a half star to four stars. I’m glad about that.”

Richard, who studied English literature and creative writing at the University of Wisconsin, has written three novels — the Pathfinders of Love in 1999, Heart of the Night in 2000 and The Rainmaker’s Daughter in 2004.

Concerns over the state of literature in Indonesia led him to launch the Khatulistiwa Literary Award, now known as the Kusala Sastra Khatulistiwa.

The awards, founded in collaboration with then-Plaza Senayan CEO Takeshi Ichiki in 2001, honor the best prose and poetry in the nation.

After closing his QB World bookstores, Richard opened the library-inspired Reading Room cafe and lounge in Kemang, South Jakarta. It quickly became a creative hub for filmmakers and writers.

Richard went on to direct Description without Place in 2012, which revolved around the separate stories of three women in Bali. Starring and coproduced by Happy Salma, a release date for the film has not been fixed.

He has also completed production on Terpana (Stunned), starring Fachri Albar and Raline Shah, which is a tale of a love-struck man in pursuit of a woman.

Richard was realistic when asked about the lengthy gap between Koper and Melancholy. “I am not the type of director to who people will happily give their money.”

Nevertheless, he kept working. “It took four years to finish my last novel. In Melancholy, I gathered all the ideas in my head and wrote them down as 20-page of script.”

Richard’s love affair with cinema will not be eroded by commercial failure or critics. After all, Richard says, his objective in making a movie is not making a crowd-pleasing blockbuster. “For me, making a movie is to explore, develop or deliver something.”

Richard wants to respect the intelligence of his audience, allowing viewers to interpret his works as they would, rather than offering pap moral lessons delivered through formulaic Hollywood-style storytelling.

“Many writers in the market manipulate the story to direct the moviegoers to here and there,” Richard says. “My movie is a dialogue, something to spark questions.”

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From Books to Films:Quality literature continues to lose out to how-to manuals and trashy novels

Richard Oh
A man of literary passions
by Laura Noszlopy

Richard Oh is the author of three novels, numerous articles and writer-director of a feature-length film. His novels, Pathfinders of Love (1999), Heart of the Night (2000) and The Rainmaker’s Daughter (2004), deal with subtly Indonesian aspects of love and life. His articles, written for Jakarta’s newspapers range across subjects like technology, philosophy, the middle classes and sex. Oh is also the co-founder of the Khatulistiwa Literary Award (KLA), which was initiated a decade ago following an evening of discussion at a restaurant in Jakarta’s Jalan Veteran with Takashi Ichiki (then the Director of the Plaza Senayan mall in Jakarta), the writer Danarto, poet Sutardji Calzioum Bachri and several other Indonesian literary figures. One of its kind in Indonesia, this award is arguably the single most important award for young and upcoming authors in a country where arts funding is scarce and revenue from book sales remains minimal, due to limited sales and weak copyright implementation. Richard Oh, who was until recently the founder-owner of one of Indonesia’s leading bookstores and literary establishments, QB World Books, spoke to Laura Noszlopy.

Now that the award is running for its tenth year, what do you think can be discerned from the list of previous winners, and what can be learned about supporting the future of Indonesian literature?

In the early years, KLA was viewed with scepticism. This was due to its three-tier judging system and the fact that the jury members are sworn to silence and barred from knowledge of other members. Things didn’t get any better when winners of the prize were established figures in the literary circle: Goenawan Mohamad, Remy Sylado, Hamsad Rangkuti and Seno Gumira Adjidarma, for example. But as the years passed and the new generation of writers started to win the prizes – people such as Joko Pinurbo, Linda Christanti, Acep Zamzam Noer, F. Rahardi and Sindu Putra – the KLA gained the respect that it truly deserves as a literary award that critically selects its winners each year. It has in a sense established itself as a benchmark of Indonesian literary trends and achievements. That said, the state of Indonesian literature remains entrenched in its own limitations, even after ten years of Khatulistiwa. The main sponsors are still major expatriate corporations such as Honda, Secure Parking and Mont Blanc. Without these corporations, the award would not survive. Literature, like most things cultural, is not seriously supported by the government here. The politicians only talk about writers and artists when they are on the campaign trail.

Where do you think the future of books and publishing lies in Indonesia? What efforts are being made to encourage literacy and a love of books and literature among Indonesia’s children and young people?

I truly believe that Indonesian children, like children all over the world, love reading and being told tales. All we need are easily accessible libraries. Libraries today are too poorly stocked and not designed to attract the reading public. We are fortunate to have a handful of passionate individuals who, through dedication and perseverance, have established a network of reading services for children and youth from poor neighbourhoods on the outskirts of the city. Ironically book publishing in this country is flourishing, albeit in a flagging economy. But these publishers are churning out cubic metres of trash. There are heaps of how-to books, from how to invest in stocks, to how to operate BlackBerry cellular phones and translations of mega-bestsellers like the Harry Potter series, The Da Vinci Code and Meyer’s Twilight series. Most of these books are published by small companies that produce five to ten titles a year. Many are located in Yogyakarta and are run out of a boarding house or rented space by three to five people.

Does this explain why your wonderful bookshop and literary establishment QB World closed down?

QB Bookstores was founded on my passion for books and knowledge. Bookstores are too esoteric for a lot of people; they have become fossils in a fast-moving world in which electronics triumph over reading habits. This, and the inability of most Indonesians to pay Rp150, 000 (A$18) for a paperback, spells doom for any bookstore owners. It’s a losing battle. A sad fact.

Koper was released in 2006. At the box-office it was a bigger success outside your own country, despite the story, dialogue and actors being Indonesian. Do you accept this as a reflection of Indonesian attitudes to more literary genres or ‘serious’ art-house styles more generally?

We live in a country that still feeds on superstitions and cheap thrills. Art house or anything serious is likely to be condemned to oblivion, or worse yet the creators daubed pretentious or downright incompetent. This attitude, I think, is prevalent in Third World countries in which entertainment generally means slapstick comedies and ludicrous horror shows. Commercialism, in the end, triumphs since audience tastes are very predictable and not at all complicated.

Will you tell me about your current film script? How does it develop from Koper? And have you shaped anything in it to deliberately attract an Indonesian rather than foreign audience?

I’m afraid I’m pretty stubborn on what I want to achieve. This new film script is about a girl in Singkawang born out of wedlock to a mother from Padang and a Chinese father. The man she believed to be her father turns out not to be. The girl, Meta, is held in captivity by traffickers. In her cell, in a metaphysical moment, she somehow reunites with the man she considered her father. The tentative title for the film is metaWorld. It is, I suppose, a film designed for the international film festival circuit.

What are your future plans? Will you be returning to the novel form or exploring different media?

I’m exploring the medium of film at this juncture in my life. On the side, I’m still writing a novel that has so far progressed very slowly. My last novel was published in 2004! Maybe deep down, I have a suspicion that books are soon to be irrelevant. Maybe iPad will change everything, and writers will be set free from quirky publishers who are bent on publishing the next trashy novel. In any case, for me, to have an audience of ten or ten thousand is not as important as sharing the story in the most creative way possible.

Laura Noszlopy ( is Honorary Research Associate at Royal Holloway, University of London and a member of Inside Indonesia’s editorial team. Richard Oh ( is an author and filmmaker, based in Jakarta.

Inside Indonesia 102: Oct-Dec 2010

Great Temptation

Richard Oh’s film Koper is a moral allegory of life in today’s Indonesia

by Safitri Widagdo

They say every man has his price, but is one billion rupiah worth getting one’s hands dirty for? According to Noni, one of the characters in Richard Oh’s 2006 film, Koper (The Lost Suitcase), it doesn’t buy much. Nevertheless, the mere thought of having such an amount seems enough to derail an honest man’s life. Yahya (Anjasmara), the protagonist of Koper, is a civil servant who feels alienated and invisible in his workplace. He fares no better on the streets of Jakarta, where the film is set. Yahya lives with his wife in Kampung Melayu, a dense, maze-like urban community. Money is tight, but he refuses to abandon his principles for material prosperity. When Yahya stumbles upon a suitcase one night, he discovers the next day that some people – including his wife – have assumed it contains the proceeds of a recent one billion rupiah bank heist. Yahya refuses to open the case on the grounds that it is not his property, but its imagined contents nonetheless begin to affect his life and the way the people relate to him.

Yahya’s guardianship of the suitcase leads others to notice that he exists: neighbours want him to use the money they believe it contains to support the community; marketing agents queue to bring him project proposals; and the office’s night security guard stops carelessly locking him inside after work each day.

These expectations become too much for Yahya, but he finds a kindred soul in Noni (Djenar Maesa Ayu), a waitress at Cafe Betawi, a bar he frequents. Like him, Noni has no interest in what the suitcase contains. Also like him, she finds comfort in ‘hiding’ from the world. They develop a friendship over deep, introspective discussions and a shared affection for old-fashioned P. Ramlee records. However, the suitcase continues to take over Yahya’s existence.

Yahya attempts to return the case to its owner, Mr Tides, but he denies ownership. When Yahya goes to the police, he does not mention that the case possibly contains stolen money and the police refuse to take it from him. It isn’t clear whether the omission stems from Yahya’s refusal to speculate about the case or from his view that it is somehow a responsibility he must bear. What is certain is that he does not want the power and influence he has acquired since he became associated with the case.

At the end of the film, Yahya finds himself alone with the suitcase. His wife has left him and the office boy is having greater success in his job than Yahya himself could ever achieve. The suitcase becomes damaged and falls open in the course of his flirtation with suicide. The moment of clarity that comes when its contents are revealed brings Yahya great joy. However as he rushes off full of excitement about his discovery, he ironically meets his death at the hands of Mr Tides, who runs into him with his car. Mr Tides leaves both Yahya and the suitcase lying on the road, and sometime later a woman, apparently Noni, wanders onto the scene, lost in her own preoccupations. She carelessly kicks the case aside before continuing on her way.

After poor box office takings in Indonesia, Koper began travelling the world cinema festival circuit. In a wave of growing interest throughout 2007, it was shown at festivals in Singapore, Bangkok, Hong Kong, the UK and France. The film’s take on petty crime and corrupt government institutions in Indonesia seems to have been a talking point at festival screenings. When it comes to soft targets such as the police and the civil bureaucracy, the darkly wry humour of Koper comfortably hits its mark. It also does well when commenting on the Indonesian film industry. The crowd at Cafe Betawi sit enjoying strategically-placed bottles of Bir Bintang and Pop Mie instant cup noodles. Everyone is feeling pinched by rising living costs, but one man states that there are more important things in life than money, such as ‘love, art and dignity’. ‘Try thinking of those things when you’re poor,’ another replies. And try making art without money from corporate sponsors, the film seems to say. Turning the comment toward itself, Koper deftly alludes to the realities of filmmaking in Indonesia.
Uneven performances

Anjasmara, as Yahya, comes alive in the film’s comedic moments, but often loses his footing elsewhere. He is inanimate when the scene calls for aloofness and baffled when he should look conflicted. If not for Oh’s inspired depiction of tropical Jakarta’s leafier neighbourhoods, one might find it difficult to understand that Yahya’s despair when he tells Noni that it is stifling hot and he cannot breathe is partly existential.

As the screen partner to Anjasmara’s Yahya, Djenar Maesa Ayu’s Noni is intriguing. Ayu is a well-known contemporary writer, and although her performance may be wooden at times, she brings to the role the potential for slippage between the character of Noni and her own public persona. With Noni’s admission that she writes and Yahya’s suggestion that perhaps she works at the bar to obtain material for her work as a writer, it seems possible that Ayu the actress is playing Noni the waitress who in turn masquerades as Ayu the writer. The possibilities created by Noni/Ayu are of the sort that art house cinema audiences enjoy chewing over.

Noni and the suitcase’s supposed former owner are the only prominent characters other than Yahya who express a lack of interest in its contents. The now-retired Mr Tides lives in a luxurious retreat and Noni‘s home is filled with top-end furnishings which are explained away by the mention of an affluent flatmate. Their apparently comfortable lifestyle is relevant to the narrative’s driving theme of living an honest life in a chronically dishonest world. In contrast to the great interest shown by Yahya’s neighbours in the suitcase, the reactions of both Mr Tides and Noni reflect the nonchalance of those who can afford to dismiss its potential worth. The dilemma of the film’s hero thus appears to be the burden of a poor man’s conscience. One billion rupiah is not temptation enough, it seems, to the lucky few whose honesty remains unquestioned.

Safitri Widagdo ( is a postgraduate student at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, where she does research in anthropology, film and literature.

Inside Indonesia 102: Oct-Dec 2010

Richard Oh: Birth Pangs of a New Indonesian Cinema

Features – June 23, 2007
Cameron Broadhurst, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

Caught in the contradiction between one of the worst box office performances in Indonesia last year but with increasing interest and regard from film audiences overseas, director Richard Oh summed it up for his film Koper/The Lost Suitcase: “I don’t think the country is ready for serious movies.”
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