Opera Jawa (2006, Garin Nugroho)

First, the bad. Was a slow afternoon and I forgot to bring candy. Movie was projected on DVD, all low detail. Lot of long shots, someone singing in back of the room so I can’t even make out his face. Starts singing reeeeal slow, so I read the subtitle then have to wait a minute for them to finish singing what I’ve already read, so I figure I can close my eyes for the rest of the shot, then when I open ’em something else is happening and I don’t know how much time has passed.

But other than this one glitch, the movie was incredible. Beautiful imagery, wild colors and costumes, amazing music, cool story. It’s an adaptation of an Indian legend about a woman who cheats with another guy when her husband is away, and when he returns the two men fight over her. The movie references the legend while retelling it (with different character names). Don’t know if the original ends with the husband killing his rival then stabbing his wife to death, ripping out her heart and singing to it, but the movie sure does. Overall an excellent way to spend a sleepy weekend afternoon. Only me and one other guy thought so, though. Will have to see again under better conditions – sorry, Cinefest, but screening blurry DVDs for paying audiences is Not Okay.

Writer/director Nugroho has won awards for a bunch of his movies, been working since ’91.

If I may borrow chunks of what C. Huber wrote for Cinema Scope:

Nugroho’s staggering Opera Jawa—presents the contradictions of society, its values and (resulting) problems, including the capacity for violence, in such a layered manner that it’s impossible to untangle the myriad levels of inspiration.

Alternating between the core drama, Brechtian commentary, and social crowd scenes, the film is played out in the palaces and temples and on the beaches of Yogkharta and Solo, two centres of Javanese culture crucial in the shaping of Javanese art. (Additionally, palace, temple, and beach represent the three pillars of government, religion, and culture.) Yet it also makes use of modern installations, including a barrage of golden and red waxheads (some of these are later hung over body models, lit inside and dripping red), hanging corpses made of white cloth, a metal sedan-creature whose helmet-head carries the inscription “Viva Lamuerte,” and a huge stretch of red cloth running through the village streets, connecting two main locations. Meanwhile, the style of singing and choreography keeps changing throughout; not exactly a juxtaposition, but no smooth merging either, despite the magnificent, measured flow of music and sound as well as the exuberant colours and symbols Nugroho orchestrates. Rather it produces a dazzling dialectic, perfectly expressing the conflicts of society as enacted on a daily basis, which are both classical and modern.

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