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.
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 (firstname.lastname@example.org) 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