Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Girls on Film

As well as having to deal with the multi-headed hydra of all the country’s other woes, Indonesians now face the very real possibility of being deprived of Hollywood and other imported movies, as the nation's cinemas battle with new tax regulations. It's all highly complex and convoluted, as these things invariably are, however, in a nutshell, the film industry is squaring off against the government regarding a threatened import tax increase.

This would be a major blow to the cinema going public of course. Personally, I rely on the gentle flickering of the silver screen to prevent me from ever experiencing any genuine emotion and fear a total psychic meltdown should the psychological crutch of the Hollywood cliché be removed from my life. In any case, the speciously nationalistic argument being offered is that the government is trying to support the national film industry, not that it has ever given much of a stuff about it before, but there you go.

A few shining beacons of excellence aside, the Indonesian film industry is primarily known for its gratuitously titillating, lowest common denominator fare, which is usually liberally peppered with toilet roll wrapped zombies, buxom wenches straight from the central casting couch, and balloon-bursting-noise-face-punch sound effects.

However, as we could all be forced to watch this stuff in the future, I thought that it would be best to check out a few local offerings. With this in mind, I picked up three local DVDs last week. They were all originals too, and priced between Rp.29,000 and Rp.49,000 (the fact that the vendors I visited didn't stock any pirated local films was not of the slightest interest to me, let me assure you).

I selected the three movies in question, which have all been screened at the country's Studio 21 cinemas over the last year or so, from the racks entirely at random. Even the one that sported a front cover image of local siren Julia Perez in her underwear was a random selection. Pure pot luck in fact, amazing really.

So let's get down to brass tacks then. First up was, "Nakalnya Anak Muda" (Naughty Youngsters), a murder thriller set in a spooky villa (yawn). In this effort, a group of chaps pick up a couple of sloe-eyed slatterns at a disco and they all head out to the countryside for a nice holiday, where the guy operating the dry ice machine really lets rip with some pea souper ambience.

Plot written by a hamster with its brain wired up to a pocket calculator aside, Indonesian movie production values definitely seem to have improved of late and the action sequences had an almost Cape Fear-esque moodiness to them.

Alas, the only two surviving members of the murdered gang head down to the local police station, where the local arm of the law proves to be a model of professional concern. This bit required a suspension of disbelief above and beyond the capabilities of my perhaps meager imagination however. So I rebooted the DVD player and inserted our next Golden Garuda nominated effort, "Wakil Rakyat" (People's Representatives), which promised to be a political satire slash romantic comedy.

In this flick, we find ourselves at the conference of a fictional political party, the PSK (Partai Social Kerakyatan, which translates as the Social Democratic Party). The movie's hero, a janitor at the conference, let's a cat loose backstage to take care of the buildings rat problem. Alas however, the wily feline instead attacks the vermin like political elites, a nice play on a popular political metaphor.

The love story in this one is, as usual, as slushy as the bottom of a warung cool box, however there were a few nice touches of political satire to enjoy, which is something that should definitely be encouraged here in my view. God knows that if the country's script writers really sharpened up their knives, then there’s enough material for thousands of movies for them to get stuck into.

Alas, the satire in this effort seemed to get slightly smothered by all of the doe-eyed fawning. Presumably though, what with this country's political culture, directors and producers here still run the risk of ending up embedded in a central pillar support in one of the city’s currently under construction flyovers if they overstep the mark.

The final show was Julia Perez's "Istri Bo'ongan" (Pretend Wife). Hand shaking in anticipation of 90 minutes of truculent, quivering Perez, I loaded the disc into the machine, had a cold shower and pressed play. Julia's busty substances had certainly been given a starring role and in the film's opening scene we see our heroine, the perfidious Perez, picking up a guy in a bar, taking him home and then being roughly taken from behind against a plate glass window.

After a five-minute break to take my blood pressure meds and to apply a few icy flannels to my forehead, I pressed play again and pressed on with the movie. A tale of love, jealousy and deception unfolded before my eyes and built to a not entirely satisfying denouement, but who cares when young Julia’s there to save the day. It was just as well I was watching this one at home because smoking isn’t allowed in Studio 21 cinemas and my retinas were definitely starting to smolder.

So, will the Indonesian movie scene flourish? Well, as French art-house ponce Jean-Luc Godard once said, "All you need for a movie is a gun and a girl." By this account, Oscar nominations surely beckon.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Are Friends Electric?

Last weekend, I thought that I'd finally bow to the dictates of fashion and the demands of cyber chic and buy a new mobile phone. My old model is looking decidedly clunky and more worryingly seems to have developed a fault whereby the device sometimes heats up while the battery drains at tremendous speed. I'm somewhat reluctant to get it fixed however, as popping it in my pocket affords me a cheap thrill and keeps the family jewels nice and toasty.

In any case, I soon found myself trying to cross the road in front of Mal Ambassador in order to gain access to the multimedia bun fight/cyber refugee camp contained within this retail pleasure palace. Crossing the road here, previously a nightmare, has been made easier by the addition of a proper pedestrian crossing, complete with bleeping and flashing walk/don't walk signals, possibly the first of their kind in town.

One always crosses the road at one's own risk in Jakarta of course, however this new Metropolitan innovation (only about 50 years after the things were first invented, but there you go) are surely a welcome introduction. Perhaps this will spur the city into some larger infrastructure projects. As it stands however, if a Japan style 10 metre high tsunami were to crash through Jakarta Bay at the moment, it would probably cause around Rp.50,000 of damage.

In fact, Governor Fauzi Bowo claimed this week that Jakarta's buildings would survive a major earthquake. Personally, I'd be more inclined to believe him if he’d put his money where his mouth is and gave us all a demonstration. I'd certainly enjoy seeing his moustache swaying from side to side and his panic stricken face poking out of the top floor window of an abandoned tower block as workmen worried away at the building's foundations with JCBs and the Indonesian military set off a few controlled detonations in the underground car park.

Anyway my little Wikileakers, after wading through monkeys on leashes and a phalanx of ojeg drivers buzzing hard on Red Bull, I finally made it into the plaza. Fantastically cheap devices have now put the wired world within nearly every Indonesian’s grasp, and I guess we have China and its discounted digital products to thank for this. Certainly Indonesia hasn't reached the same level of Sino semiconductor Savvy just yet. In fact, as I strolled through the rows of shops all selling Rp.500,000 Chinese Nexians, I had a vision of a similarly priced Indonesian device the size of a dictionary, bound in a teak and batik casing and coming with a hands-free device resembling the headphones from a B-52 bomber.

No matter. They may not make 'em here but they certainly know how to use ‘em (sometimes to the exclusion of more pressing concerns, such as not driving into a canal). The Plaza was crowded with Sunday shoppers and the mobile phone stores in particular were awash with handset pumping customers and salesmen. In fact it proved impossible to tell one from the other. Where will all this button pushing end I wonder? Will we achieve a utopian, technological so-called "singularity" or is our touchscreen, silicon world just so much mental morphine taking our minds off the imminent collapse of the planet. Is there nothing of substance behind the technological smoke and mirrors? Or will we pull open the curtains on the whole dazzling spectacle, like Dorothy in the “Wizard of Oz”, only to be confronted with some senile old fart sitting there pulling a few levers?

Ah well, if you can't beat them. I eventually plumped for one of those new Android phones so that I could enjoy a wealth of apps, without being an Apple sap. There was one application in particular that I was most keen to get my hands on. RunPee Mobile shows just how deeply one can immerse oneself in the mobile life these days. Basically, if you are watching a movie in the cinema and get caught short, this application will give you a time linked synopsis of any plot developments taking place on the screen whilst you're draining your spuds in the cinema toilets. Bloody ridiculous. Although, if Hollywood films really do disappear from local theatres, as has been threatened, then I guess that you could just sit at home with your mobile and read the entire synopsis feed as an alternative to actually watching the damn thing. You'd be saving yourself Rp.25,000 and you could take a piss whenever you wanted into the bargain.

And so I bought my Android phone and, over the next few days, became engrossed in its infinite ocean of possibilities playing out across circuits more powerful than an 80s supercomputer. I've now crossed the critical threshold folks, like so many Jakartans before me have. A line of digital delineation has been traversed, beyond which it is impossible to switch the damn thing off. In fact, our computers will more than likely end up switching us off.

Applications that I am currently searching for online include a call-to-prayer hands-free noise cancellation processing app and a GPS linked Jakarta taxi meter app that'll tell me if the driver's digital display is galloping faster than necessary. Ultimately, I'm hoping to track down an application that will enable me to wire my mobile up to my office computer and telephone and do my job for me while I slide off down the pub. Come on Google and all you app developers. I've thrown down the gauntlet.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Paperback Raita

Education is the key to becoming a fully rounded human being, or so they say. For your Indonesian Bambang or Dewi Average however, the education that they are liable to receive at a common or garden state school is unlikely to be particularly enlightening, or encourage much in the way of free thinking either for that matter.

So what does that leave us with? Television? As noble as the ideals of those working at the start of the great goggle box era may have been, I think that it's safe to say that the mental slurry that the tube shovels into our grey matter via eyes and ears for six hours a day isn't particularly edifying either, although there are notable exceptions.

So that leaves us with reading I guess, and the educational potential of the DIY approach. Not that this isn’t also fraught with problems. Hitler and Stalin were pretty much autodidacts and products of public libraries. It’s sobering to think of Adolf and Joe getting to grips with the Dewey decimal system. I wonder how big an unconscious effect the isolating silence of the traditional public library had on these two great dictators in the making, as they cobbled together their solipsistic ethical systems.

These days, there’s always the Internet too of course, however the closed communities, instant feedback loops and global reach that the web allows for seems to be even worse at breeding a whole generation of conspiracy theory fruit bat loon balls, all pumped up on their own mouse clicking paranoia.

But enough of this effete badinage. I decided to go old school this week and check out Jakarta's public library system. In fact, I was quite looking forward to a brief return to dog-eared pages and shelves of musty print, as I recently purchased an e-reader and have been hard at work depriving the world authors of royalties via dodgy downloads ever since.

Just to digress for a moment, I heartily recommend these new gizmos. They store a ton of books and, most importantly as far as I'm concerned, sport the new e-ink technology. Basically, your average e-reader is a whole lot less sexy than an iPad, but its screen is not backlit, meaning no more eyestrain than a real book. And I say this as someone whose excessive computer usage has bored holes in his occipital lobes. Friends of mine remain cynical about the time-honored technology of the book being usurped by these devices however. "I don't believe in these e-readers, Simon," one sighed at me.
"I can assure you that they really do exist," I countered.

Down at Library@Senayan in the Ministry of Education building at the bottom end of Jl. Sudirman though, it was a solid return to deforestation as the primary method of information transfer. My first attempt at some hardcore bookworm action was based on various archive pieces that I found on the Internet claiming that the library was now open until 8 p.m. and hailing a new era for Jakarta's libraries, which would now still be open for access by office workers when they knocked off for the evening.

I thus eagerly turned up at about 6 p.m. and alas had only tumbleweeds blowing around my ankles for company. Closed. Harumph. I wonder how long the 8 p.m. closing initiative lasted. Possibly as long as Busway lanes free of cars, smoking prohibitions in all public buildings and motorcycles being forced to ride on the left...about two weeks perhaps.

My second attempt to gain access to this hallowed hall of learning proved more successful however. I headed upstairs and found that the library houses a sizeable English language book, audio and DVD library, which was largely inherited from the British Council. Presumably my British homeland doesn't have the cash to run the thing any more, what with the current financial squeeze, Conservative Prime Minister and rapidly drying up Libyan arms money. Double harumph. In fact, I read recently that a number of British public libraries are set to close, a move that has spawned a wave of bespectacled librarian riots across the country.

Library@Senayan is still open for business however, and its members start off in the Basic category, before graduating to Regular membership after one year and Premium membership after two years. Alas, Basic membership allows readers to borrow a miserly one book only. Triple harumph.

I thus declined the opportunity to join, still in a thrall to my e-reader, and instead went on a mini-tour of the bookshelves on a quest for the most tedious book titles that I could find. Among the gems I chanced across were, "Pesticides 1999", "Crofton and Douglas's Respiratory Diseases Volume 2" and "Security and Crime Prevention in Libraries." Someone clearly has a sense of humour with that last one. An honorary mention should also go to, "Tackling Alcohol Together", a weighty tome that perhaps doesn't tackle the subject from the angle that the somewhat ambiguous title seemed to suggest at first glance.

All of these seminal works and more can be yours for the borrowing, taking home, reading and forgetting about until you receive an overdue notice, down at Library@Senayan. Ignore several of these notices at your peril, as you will eventually find your house surrounded by an elite squad of heavily armed Indonesian police librarians demanding through megaphones that you emerge from the front door with your hands on your head kicking the book in question in front of you. Good luck out there bookworms.

Thursday, March 03, 2011

Monkey Gone to Heaven

This week, I attempted to escape the gravitational pull of Jakarta's population singularity by road. If you've ever attempted such a Homeric feat yourself, you'll know that it requires the patience of Job. The desperation currently being engendered by Jakarta's internal combustion engine purgatory is currently leading to a correspondingly desperate slew of ideas aimed at alleviating the problem. We are talking ideas so half baked that if they were potatoes, you’d be checking the warranty on your microwave.

Firstly, I've been keeping an eye on the progress of the new elevated road flyover, that will run south for nine kilometers from Blok M. Huge pile drivers and excavators have now turned Jl. Antasari into a post-industrial no man's land, however the exact progress of this new flyover remains hidden behind tasteful hoardings depicting green forests and jungle vistas. This is somewhat ironic, as this long stretch of semi-suburbia has now been almost completely denuded of trees in order to make way for the new gasoline guzzling funfair ride.

Previously, Jl. Antasari may have been perpetually jammed, but at least it had a few leafy boughs for frustrated taxi drivers to gaze upon and drift off into bucolic reveries about their home villages over, as they crawled along at an average speed of 0.1 km/h. This area is now alas seemingly destined to be yet another alienating sea of concrete. Will it be less jammed though? Well that’s debatable. For a start, the flyover is not going to increase the overall amount of public transportation, as being suspended six metres above the road would surely make disembarking from buses a problem. Mind you, this being Indonesia, I would fully expect some dollar-a-day chancer to install a series of rope ladders at 100 meter intervals along the flyover and charge bus passengers Rp.500 a time in order to drop down onto the traffic below.

Even more fun awaits Busway users however. Governor Fauzi recently had a brainwave as he was shampooing his still bristlingly handsome moustache in the shower, and has decided that he may reverse the direction of the city’s Busway lanes, creating a TransJakarta contraflow system that he claims will, "discourage" other motorists from cheekily slipping into said lanes.

Let's hope that every single car driver is indeed discouraged, as I have visions of some poor young lady absentmindedly sliding her Honda Jazz into one of the new contraflow lanes, before slamming into a gas powered behemoth at a combined relative velocity of 100 km/h. Still, should the Jazz disgorge its contents and the young lady in question be slammed head first through two windshields before coming to rest on the bus driver’s steering wheel, then at least the quickest route to medical attention would be to simply remain on the bus until it passed the nearest hospital.

But I digress. My own drive down to the charming stretch of coast at Pelabuhan Ratu was its own hell on wheels. After leaving the luxurious, tarmac covered expanses of the Jakarta toll road at Ciawi, one is instantly funnelled into a potholed, minivan choked bottleneck and onto a road surface apparently consisting of squashed tofu and rice. Still, at least there was an unbroken line of minimarts stretching into the distance to help me out on my West Javanese odyssey. People are currently complaining of minimart overkill, but when you're crawling along at 50 meters per hour, they can be a godsend. In fact, it’s somewhat ironic, given the orthodox Mohammedan fervor currently whipping certain elements in Java into a frenzy, that there's never been a larger amount of tasty refrigerated beer available on the average West Javanese high street.

My journey to the beach eventually took six hours (it's possible to do it in three). Still, I managed to use the lost three hours productively by reminiscing about comedy shows and music with my companion for the journey, the inestimable Mr. Dan. Multitasking, as I believe it's called in the parlance of our times.

The following morning, I joined around 40 other hikers and we embarked on a 20 km long jaunt down the coast. Along the way we encountered deserted virgin beaches and beautiful thick jungle. It was hard to believe that I was on the same Malthusian vision of island life as I had been the previous evening.

Walking down through a jungle filled headland towards a timelessly unspoiled stretch of sand, I drifted off into a hallucination of one million years of life on Java compressed into several minutes. I imagined a semi-evolved simian following me down onto the beach after descending from the headland trees. He would gradually straighten up on his two legs as we headed towards the sand and would then wade into the sea. Finding himself able to swim, he would then return to dry land, now fully hairless, having ascended several thousand years up the phylogenetic scale during his dip. He would then walk to the nearest road and find a Toyota parked there. After jumping all over it in confusion like a ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ primate dancing around a monolith, he'd have a eureka moment, open the door, stick the key in the ignition and zoom off down the street to the nearest minimart. Which I believe is where we came in…