by Yuliastri Perdani, The Jakarta Post
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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