Indonesian Movies: So Bad ... But So Good

The current dearth of Hollywood movies in our theaters has once again cast the spotlight on the Indonesian film industry’s output, specifically the periodic release of horror films chock-full of cheap scares, cheesy stories and cheesecake shots of sexy actresses.

These movies are constantly decried for lacking any kind of value beyond titillation or terror. In fact, people seem to derive the most entertainment from saying the films’ ridiculous titles out loud. Last year, we had “Hantu Puncak Datang Bulan” (“The Menstruating Ghost of Puncak”). Pretty soon, you’ll be able to see “Pacar Hantu Perawan” (“The Virgin Ghost’s Boyfriend”).

The coalition of condemnation against these films ranges from high-brow cultural commentators, who say such movies are nothing but cheap schlock meant to pull a profit by appealing to the lowest common denominator, to members of the hard-line Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), who decry the films for containing what they consider pornographic content.

It’s easy to conclude that everyone hates these movies, but that can’t be true. If it were, then why would the movie studios keep making them?

Films are a business. Studios are making these movies because there is a strong demand for them.

Maxima Pictures is perhaps the most infamous movie studio in the country due to its cheap productions and propensity for hiring foreign adult movie actresses, such as Maria Ozawa, also known as Miyabi, to star in their formulaic productions.

It’s a winning formula. Two of their films from 2009, “Paku Kuntilanak” (“Kuntilanak’s Nail”) and “Air Terjun Pengantin” (“The Bride’s Waterfall”), sold 650,000 and 1.2 million tickets, respectively. By Indonesian standards, those are blockbuster numbers. Their films clearly cater to a specific but eager audience.

Who, exactly, are these seemingly invisible cinema-goers, who flock to films filled with cleavage, insipid to nonexistent storylines and gaggles of ghouls?

The simple answer is “high school kids and some young adults.” That’s according to “Rianty,” a ticket seller at a South Jakarta cinema who did not want her real name to be used.

Though she was hesitant about providing a concrete answer, the 26-year-old coyly said that the people who come to see these movies over and over again do so because “when you’re watching them, you’re supposed to grab the person sitting next to you out of fear.”

While the possibility for fear-fueled intimacy may entice some, there are some viewers who insist these films have some entertainment value.

“I really do think they are kind of enjoyable,” said Benny, who was buying tickets for a weekend showing of “Pelet Kuntilanak” (roughly translated as “Love Voodoo Ghoul”) at Daan Mogot XXI in Kalideres, West Jakarta.

According to the 22-year-old university student, cynics tend to pass judgment because they are ashamed to admit that, given the chance, they, too, would enjoy a bit of titillation and terror.

“It’s because people feel that those films are below their social status, that only villagers and the less-educated would watch them,” Benny said.

Rendy, a 32-year-old car salesman who came to the cinema to see “Akibat Pergaulan Bebas 2” (“Keeping Bad Company 2”) with two of his male colleagues, said he was sure that it was pride preventing people from proclaiming their fondness for scary, sex-filled flicks.

“If a guy sees a sexy girl walk by, don’t they secretly glance while at the same time making sure that no one knows they are looking?” he said.

“It’s the same with [films like ‘Akibat Pergaulan Bebas’]. If it wasn’t embarrassing to watch, men would gladly flock to theaters.”

Dania Bela, a high school student, said she and her friends often go to the cinema to watch these sexy horror movies. She said that while most are not very good, “at least they are entertaining.”

“Most of these Indonesian horror movies are not really that frightening, but they can actually be very funny when you watch them with your friends,” she said.

Dania said she and her friends did not have many alternatives to these films since Hollywood blockbuster movies had yet to return to local cinemas. She added that many of her male friends also enjoyed these movies because they featured beautiful, sexy women.

“I guess boys will be boys,” she said. “No matter what the movie is, they will watch it if it features beautiful ladies.”

David Cornelius Tan, who runs, a local Web site dedicated to reviewing films, said horror films tended to crop up whenever there was a drought in quality movies.

“The spiritual world has always been a major part of Indonesian culture, so it is only natural that it sells tickets,” he said.

He added that part of the motivation for producing horror movies was that the government censors were more likely to tolerate sexy scenes.

“This formula, of mixing sex into a horror movie, is a formula that works all over the world,” he said. “In our case, it’s a little harder when the ‘sex’ doesn’t have ‘horror’ to hide behind, since the censors will not let those movies get past the screening test.”

David agreed that shame was the reason most fans of these movies were not eager to make public their enjoyment of these films.

“I should emphasize that ‘shame’ here is in context of how low the quality these local horror films are,” he said. “There are actually a lot of traditional Indonesian supernatural legends that could be made into better films.”

Titis Sapto Raharjo, co-founder of Flick Magazine, an online movie magazine, agreed with his fellow writer’s assessment.

“Most of our horror movies are very poorly made,” he said. “But if a horror movie is packaged well and made professionally, it can actually be very entertaining.”

Titis pointed out that there were several Indonesian filmmakers who were trying to elevate the country’s genre film scene. He singled out director Joko Anwar, whose thriller “Pintu Terlarang” (“Forbidden Door”) was highly acclaimed by critics. He also named filmmakers Kimo Stamboel and Timo Tjahjanto, known as the Mo Brothers, who made “Rumah Dara” (“Macabre”), a slasher movie that was praised for its high production values and genuinely terrifying story.

Recently, young Indonesian filmmakers Edward Gunawan and Andri Cung received the top prize at the 2011 Asian Short Film Awards in Singapore. Their movie, “Payung Merah” (“Red Umbrella”), based on an Indonesian urban legend, was selected by a jury led by Hollywood legend Oliver Stone as the best short in a field of 150 contenders.

“This proves that our filmmakers can actually make great horror movies,” Titis said.

While higher-quality productions are possible, it’s unlikely producers will put the money into such productions when low-budget affairs still make money.

That trend may be changing, though. Maxima Pictures’ last four films, including Hantu Tanah Kusir (“Carriage Ghost”) and “Pelet Kuntilanak” (“Visitations of the Dead”), have sold on average 300,000 to 400,000 tickets each: healthy numbers, but far smaller than their previous hits.

Perhaps even the audiences for these films are starting to look for better alternatives. One can only hope.

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1 Response to "Indonesian Movies: So Bad ... But So Good"

bunggsu mengatakan... 26 Juni 2011 22.03

ffolow back me sob...

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