I think it's pretty fitting that before I watched Joko Anwar's A Copy of My Mind, I spent about 10 minutes looking around on Google for an English subtitle file for it. I downloaded the film from an internet cafe in Yogya, and while they are pretty good about including Bahasa subtitles for English movies, the Indonesian films rarely have English subs. After a while of puttering around, and possibly downloading a virus, I gave up and just decided to use it as an opportunity to practice Bahasa.
I was then pleasantly amused to discover that the thing that incites all of the subsequent action in this movie is a young girl's search for decent subtitles to the pirated DVDs she watches back in her kost, which then leads her down a rabbit hole of love and political corruption. So naturally as I watched the film - without any subtitles - I began to feel as though the hands of fate were carrying me forward into its neorealist depiction of a doomed love affair in the back-alleys of Jakarta.
The film is set in Jokowi's Jakarta circa 2014, just before he graduated from governing the massive, ungovernable metropolis and became President of the Republic - and I really only mention that because I think footage from the actual election that was percolating at the time is used often in the film, and the movie is a fairly cynical indictment of Indonesian politics in general. It's a small story, about the kind of little people that are normally overlooked in film and in society, and that smallness is contrasted with big political events shaping the future of the city and the country and hanging over everything like a ghost.
It opens on a young woman, Sari (played by Anwar regular Tara Basro, quite good in the under-stated role) working in a cut-rate salon/spa. The dialogue in the spa is very naturalistic and layered, like you'd see in a Robert Altman film. I think Joko Anwar was going for a textured, realistic depiction of what life at the lower end of the socioeconomic ladder in Jakarta is really like. You see the same naturalistic style when Sari returns home to her kost (a rented room in a big building with shared facilities). I really loved the cinema verite style - it was my favorite thing about the movie, and is something I wished would have been more prominent in Anwar's HBO series Halfworlds (although I understand why it was not, as a lot of that show was filmed on sound stages I assume), which usually made do with a few establishing shots of trash-strewn train tracks.
To me, in A Copy of My Mind, the love story, the political skullduggery, all that stuff was secondary to the way the camera unflinchingly moved around (often hand-held) and captured what life in 2014 Jakarta was like for the people who don't spend all their time at shopping malls. The film is infused with the ethos of the city. There are scenes featuring Indomie, and Blue Birds snarled in traffic banging on their horns, and people living their best life in narrow back-alleys, ordering food in warungs or in run-down commercial plazas selling pirated DVDs on the cheap. Because the filmmaking style is so intimate and naturalistic, it feels like a pretty honest representation of Jakarta, and what scraping by on 2 or 3 million rupiah a month must be like. By bringing us into that world, we get a sense for how important a little bit of escapism, like pirated DVDs, can be and in that context it makes sense that Sari eventually risks everything and fucks it all up just to filch a copy of Piranha vs. Cobra.
The neorealist style, in which the actors are filmed just walking around the streets or in run-down buildings doing fairly mundane things, allows for some interesting social commentary. I noticed that the dialogue in the kost or in the spa is very natural and unpretentious, but when Sari has a meeting with her new manager at an upper-class spa where she's trying to get a job, the conversation becomes extremely stilted, laced with English words, and that easy naturalism drops away.
It's also pretty racy for an Indonesian film, and I believe I saw the cut that was made for the festival circuit, while a tamer one was made to get past the Indonesian censors. I'm not sure about that but I just find it hard to believe the censor would have looked at that cheeky scene of Alek watching porn which then cuts directly to a loudspeaker blasting the morning prayer over the city and been like "Oh yeah, well this is good to go!"
The action heats up in the final 30 minutes, when Sari goes to a local jail to give a facial to a special customer. The woman, who is the epitome of the corrupt moneyed-class in Indonesia, is being kept in a luxury cell with a big screen TV, private bathroom and plenty of amenities. And if you think that is just an invention for the film, they are definitely a real thing. Anyway, somehow Sari gets herself entangled in a government conspiracy involving presidential campaigns, secret recordings and corrupt back-room deals that would be perfectly normal everyday business in Donald Trump's White House. This then segues into a scene of torture juxtaposed with actual footage from a massive rally in Gelora Bung Karno Stadium.
Now, personally I thought the narrative really took a left turn here. It had been so naturalistic and rooted in the everyday struggles and problems and little victories of regular people, steeped in this realistic idea of living in Jakarta, and then it all of a sudden turned into Enemy of the State. I think I would have liked if it just stayed focused on the little dramas of their lives, like would Sari make the jump to a classier spa and would she even be happier there after all? But I guess the demands of the medium mean such a story would be too boring, so naturally there needs to be some torture porn.
Like almost all of Joko Anwar's work, the film is well-made and confidently executed. It knows what it wants to do and it does that well - capture the experience of living in Jakarta at a particular moment in time, and lets us voyeuristically watch these people struggle and beat back the currents of their lives, and thrash against the social forces conspiring against them as they sit in their rooms, trying to find little happinesses in the schlocky thrill of a B-horror flick or standing on the balcony as the morning light breaks the fog and the call to prayer rings out over the streets, hugging the memory of a person they might have loved but now have lost. As a snapshot of a life and a moment frozen in time, this film is a beautiful thing.