The Luggage that Carries on

Indonesian director Richard Oh’s ‘The Lost Suitcase’ brings stirring metaphor to the Bangkok International Film Festival

Published on July 23, 2007 (The Nation, Bangkok)

The annals of literature are filled with characters who are “too” honest or good. “The Lost Suitcase”, which is screening tomorrow at the Bangkok International Film Festival, is the story of a Jakarta man named Yahya, whose evening haunt is the Cafe Betawi. Walking home after an evening chat with his favourite waitress, Yahya sees a man get out of a car and dump a suitcase in some bushes. Later we hear about a robbery, so the suitcase might contain a large sum of money.

Yahya endeavours to return the suitcase, but everyone just wants a piece of what’s inside.

Although the movie’s tone is serious, there are plenty of gags. When Yahya goes to the Lost Articles window at the police station, a chubby officer bursting at his uniform’s seams tells him he can’t leave the suitcase there because he’d found it, not lost it, and cheerfully invites him to come back if he ever loses something.

“The Lost Suitcase”, which has roots in the drama of the absurd, closed after a week in its hometown, but – like Thai indie films – it’s received praise on the festival circuit.

The gap between indifference at home and foreign enthusiasm makes tough going for Indonesian cinema commercially, so it gets its support from subsidies, and many of its recruits are students.

Director-writer Richard Oh has tapped into this scene, using younger artists as well as veteran intellectuals who struggled through the Suharto period. They appear as cameos, and even in a lead role: well-known harpist Maya Hasan plays Yahya’s wife.

The romantic lead – Yahya’s nameless waitress – is played by Djenar Maesu Ayu, daughter of Suharto-era filmmaker Sjuman Djaya.

The lost suitcase seems to signify something undesirable. People think it contains wealth, but even if it does it’s really a Pandora’s Box, something that ought to be feared.

“I wrote the script in a burst of fury against the rampant corruption and the kind of state we are in right now in Indonesia,” Oh says. “I had in mind a man who lugs a suitcase rumoured to contain a billion rupiah. His determination to return it is seen by all others as questionable, thus putting him in a bind with almost everyone – his superior in his office, his in-laws, and the most painful and yet the closest person in his life, his wife.”

With suitcase in hand, it seems Yahya can do no wrong in the eyes of others. On the bus there is a pickpocket who Yahya usually just tries to ignore. Now he rams the suitcase into the thief’s gut, at the same time politely pretending nothing is happening. All of the passengers then follow suit and jump on him: they don’t need to uphold decorum.

Decorum versus the pressing need to speak out or take action seems to be the troubled dialectic of Javanese life. The suitcase draws the attention of thugs, who attack Yahya. Afterwards, picked clean of everything except the suitcase, he meets Djenar.

She is the only person among his acquaintances who doesn’t seem to be corrupted by greed. Otherwise, in general, the women seem the most enthusiastic pursuers of lucre, one sidling up and leering, “I am willing!”

But Djenar, after the suitcase comes full circle, just gives the thing a contemptuous kick into the bushes.

Nor will its supposed owner, Mr Tides, have anything to do with it. When Yahya tries to give it back, Tides denies owning it. A famous newspaper publisher plays this role, and “Tides” – short for “Aristides – is a nickname given him by the Suharto-period activist Soe Hop Gie, about whom Riri Reza made the biopic “Gie”. Reza’s current film, “Three Days to Forever”, is also at the Bangkok festival.

The constant allegory in the film might get tiresome if not for dashes of Indonesian colour, like Tides’ beautiful hermitage and vignettes from Yahya’s close-knit neighbourhood.

Oh employs surrealist techniques similar to another Indonesian director, Gahrin Nugroho, but this movie is grittier: The emphasis is on absurdity rather than dreams. He takes a more distanced view of Indonesian life, perhaps because, like Soe Hop Gie, Richard Oh is ethnic Chinese.

The absurd style works best when little bullets of anger and irony ricochet indiscriminately in all directions. The director may be angry, but he is still in love with his high-minded hero: “People like that,” Oh says of Yahya, “don’t know about the glory of being honest – it’s in their nature.

“This ingrained goodness is incorruptible. They might be weighed down by the grind of life, but they have no wiles, nor is greed in their heart.”

Nicholas Palevsky

Special to The Nation

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