In 2007 Indonesian auteur Joko Anwar wrote and directed Kala, a Javanese neo-noir about moral and societal decay that is gorgeous to look at and haunting in a way that is hard to describe. Even more amazing, this was only Joko Anwar’s 2nd film and for a sophomore effort the filmmaking is remarkably confident. It did the international festival circuit, drawing strong reviews and basically announcing that Indonesia’s preeminent filmmaker had arrived. Joko (who is still quite young) has gone onto a very prolific and successful career, releasing the smash hit Pengabdi Setan in 2017 and, among other things, working on a series of collaborations with HBO Asia to produce content grounded in Indonesian mythology.
But really, it all started with Kala. His first film, Janji Joni, is a fine romantic comedy - but Kala feels like it’s an important piece of filmmaking. For one, it cross-pollinates the noir style with an Indonesian setting and themes, creating something truly interesting and unique - a Javanese neo-noir. It’s like Chinatown, but with less incest and more supernatural spirits. The retro period setting is immaculately staged and filmed. You’re not really sure what time period or country or even planet you are on - everything has a slightly off-kilter feel to it. But what is absolutely sure is that whatever world the events of this movie are taking place in, it is one in deep crisis.
This information is in the bleak dialogue shared between the cast of hard-boiled cynics, but it’s also in the visual look and feel of the film, which is at once washed out and also oddly beautiful, making frequent use of innovative lighting, silhouettes and contrast. The color scheme is almost sepia-toned, and at times characters are bathed in revelatory light, giving the film an added layer of nostalgia and otherworldliness. The film opens in classic noir style on a pair of hardbitten detectives investigating some burned bodies in the street. It immediately lets you know that the world it presents is one that is in decay, where social bonds are fraying and where the erosion of values and corrupt leadership have left a vacuum that is being filled by humanity’s worst impulses - violence, greed, deception. It is a world where the streets are filled with the charred remains of human beings, and the reaction to such terrible things is indifference.
The story’s structure does not have traditional heroes. The protagonist is a narcoleptic being divorced by his wife because he falls asleep during sex. He’s oafish, and often in moments requiring great bravery or decisive action he will keel over and fall into a deep sleep. This makes it crystal clear that in this world there are no heroes, just tortured souls and it drives home the film’s daring subversiveness. Joko Anwar nails all these aspects of classic noir filmmaking, but he is especially good at capturing the feeling of a world unmoored from its roots. This classic noir structure is then overlaid brilliantly with elements of Javanese mysticism about buried treasure and a secret that can only be known by one person at a time. If the secret is shared, a ghostly creature will stalk one of the secret-keepers and kill them, and this leads to a couple of brilliantly staged horror sequences (one of Joko Anwar’s strengths as a director is that he has a strong command of almost any genre, so when the film needs to shift from noir to horror for a few minutes it does so effortlessly).
The ending is a little bit confused, with a “twist” that didn’t quite work for me. But that doesn’t detract from its overall accomplishments, which are truly impressive. As the movie ends on a note of cautious optimism, the closing visual of three figures on a hill silhouetted against a glowing red apocalyptic sky is stunningly beautiful (as is most of the film) while also being a bit disquieting. In general, that describes the vibe of this film. It is gorgeous and interesting to look at, but at the same time it indulges in this kind of darkness around the human condition, dazzling and moving and scaring the viewer at the same time.
Kala is a deeply impressive, smart and well-made film. The production values and cinematography are excellent. But the way these are deployed in service of the movie’s overarching themes of decay and ruin is simply genius, as is the seamless mash-up of noir and horror elements with Indonesian mysticism. Taking these genres and giving them an Indonesian flavour, as Mouly Suyra did with her excellent Sumbanese Western Marlina the Murderer, is one of the most exciting things in contemporary Indonesian cinema. Kala is an important piece of filmmaking, no less so for the fact that it hit theaters over a decade ago. The film-going middle-class in Indonesia is increasing every year, creating a blooming domestic market for these kinds of movies and I’m intrigued to see where it goes in the years and decades to come. For now, if you can find a copy, I highly recommend you check out Joko Anwar’s Kala, as it is an important milestone in the history of Indonesian filmmaking and just a really well-made and uniquely original piece of art.