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.”

Dropped after a single week by the local cinema chain following its September 2006 national release, the film is now starting to receive attention from the international film circuit.

Koper had its international premiere on April 29, 2007 at the Singapore International Film Festival and is set to enter competition at the Bangkok International Film Festival (July 19-29), with prospects for other film festivals through the year.

“It’s very heartening, it’s a second coming of my movie,” enthused Richard. “Like a resurrection!”

The antipathy the first-time director feels toward the commercial Indonesian film establishment is mirrored by the alienation of Koper’s central character Yahya as he deals with the materialism and corruption of modern Jakarta.

As someone who has dedicated himself to the art culture, published novels and studied creative writing at Wisconsin, the United States, Richard does not think much of the values of current Indonesian entertainment.

“It’s not a very healthy situation,” he said of the horror flicks, slapstick comedy and teen romances that typically grace the multiplexes. “You don’t have that balance.”

Compared to international markets, he thinks few serious films are appreciated here.

But his real disappointment is broader. Koper is a strong but often strained reaction against aspects of contemporary Indonesian society. After finding the suitcase, Yahya is alternately confronted by profit-seekers, corrupt officials, obsequious workers and materialistic housewives, all out to get something.

“We come from a country where corruption and get-rich schemes abound everywhere,” said Richard. “People speculate on the future, they’re looking for the big break. It’s getting worse.”

His resistance to that pervasive mind-set shapes Koper, and he boils it down to one indignant sentence (which Yahya also utters in a key scene): “We are not all thieves.”

The actor Anjasmara who played Yahya, but is better known for his roles in sinetron (local soaps), said he found the director’s creative concepts stimulating.

“There are a lot of things I can share with my friends and family, a lot of things I can learn from the script. There are messages from Buddhism, Taoism, the Dalai Lama,” he said.

The actor said Richard’s wealth of ideas indicated that he would be a good director in future who would improve as he learned to operate in the industry.

“He’s a funny guy, actually. He talks a lot. He’s a perfectionist, he always wants to do the best,” said Anjasmara, who also called Richard a relaxed personality on set, and mentioned the director’s admiration of Akira Kurosawa as one reason for the film’s slow pacing.

The languid, dreamy cinematography is indeed reminiscent of the Japanese director — or the legendary Italian, Michelangelo Antonioni.

That the world of the film springs directly from the arts world sub-culture of Jakarta is clear, with people like author Djenar Maesa Ayu as a female lead, and fellow filmmaker Joko Anwar in a cameo.

Harpist Maya Hasan, who plays the materialistic wife next door, said she admired Richard’s work attitude and professionalism, but said his vision was not typical of his own country, and neither was his approach.

“He’s very straightforward, not very Indonesian… He’s just being Richard Oh, he’s very humble and wanting to help however he can. He approaches different people differently,” she said.

It’s a flexibility, Maya said, that was countered by a precision that he had to work hard on set to make others appreciate.

“You want each angle to be perfect. You can’t miss half a centimeter. I’m not sure everybody is like that,” said Maya.

Using fellow artists as the populace of the film illustrates, too, that the new director feels more a part of this like-minded community than of mainstream society.

“We tend to want to talk about things we see as more urgently calling for our attention,” said the director, mentioning films like Kala by Joko Anwar, Opera Jawa by Garin Nugroho, Berbagi Suami/Love for Share by Nia Dinata, and the works of Riri Riza.

Richard said his next film was too sensitive to discuss because it dealt with themes people did not want to confront. Yet as his work matures and gains weight, he looks headed to become part of the artistic response forcing society to do just that.

2 thoughts on “Richard Oh: Birth Pangs of a New Indonesian Cinema

  1. Linell C. de Vela

    I’ve known Richard Oh when I was stationed in Jakarta way back the early 1990s. A very intelligent enterprising person, ….advertising…authors of books……now a movie director……a man of unlimited skills and talents indeed.

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