In the Absence of the Sun: How Relative is the Capital’s Glamor

Originally published in Indonesian on Cinema Poetica, 30 June 2014

Finally, a film that is contextually Indonesian without bombarding its audience with blatant nationalism. Lucky Kuswandi et al. presented In the Absence of the Sun as a tribute to Jakarta and its larger-than-life crowd. In the Absence of the Sun is told from the eyes of three metropolitan women whose night is intertwined one way or another. All might be Jakartans, but their perspectives on the city are as contrasting as they could be. The audience are led to step on these women’s shoes, lost in the confusion of crowded Jakarta.

Speaking of women’s shoes, we are introduced to a shoe-stealing towel girl in an elite gym. Her name is Indri, a working-class social climber dreaming of a more glamorous life. It is then revealed what the shoes are for: a hot date with a mysterious rich hunk with whom she has texted for awhile. Indri sashays with her new shoes, on her way to meet the man of her dream. Assuming the man wealthy and good-looking from his BlackBerry Messenger profile picture, she is immediately underwhelmed by his obese, temperamental, one-night-stand seeking date. Her dreams crumbles, and along the film, replaced by an understated romance of Faisal.

The second character, Chinese-Indonesian Ci Surya, lives in the luxurious, uptown Jakarta. Luxury is however not enough for her late husband, who cheats on her with a motel singer, Sofia. Hurt, Ci Surya decides to track Sofia down and swore vengeance. The middle-aged woman impulsively visits Sofia’s motel, only to learn that she is addressing her vengeance to a wrong place.

The third character is Gia, a recent film graduate returning from New York. Whereas Indri and Ci Surya feel at home in the capital, Gia feels foreign. She is faced with overwhelmingly different standards: celebrated pale skin, obligatory two mobile phones (one of which must be a BlackBerry), semiformal dresscode in ‘upscale’ bars, et cetera. She tries to break away by calling her old flame back in New York, Naomi (a.k.a. the rightful owner of Indri’s shoes), only to find her fitting in effortlessly with Jakarta’s jetset scene. They ended up spending a night recollecting who they were, together in a city that feels so new.

The glamorous world of Jakarta’s nightlife serves as the center of the film. It looks bright to Indri, dim to Ci Surya, and faint to Gia. The details put into In the Absence of the Sun’s Jakarta are impeccable, not to mention accurate. When Ci Surya is unloading her late husband’s closet, the call for Zuhur or Asar is creeping in; a beautiful, subtle way to show how religion dictates the rhythm of everyday’s life in the capital. In another, Gia and Naomi fail to locate their favorite nasi goreng (fried rice) tent; as if showing how the progressiveness of Jakarta has left little to no room for nostalgia.

The film delivers its finest towards the end, when Ci Surya (again) listens to the haunting performance of Sofia, intercut with the other two plots. A beautiful rendition of Pergi untuk Kembali (translated into ‘Leave to Return’) echoes Naomi’s words and the film’s tagline: ‘There’s no place for us here’. The characters’ resolutions are presented quietly: Naomi and Gia faces their undetermined future; Indri and Faisal’s romance are far from sugary; Ci Surya and Sofia are more alike than they seem. They all bow to Jakarta’s norm. Rich or poor, minority or not, all is lost in Jakarta.

Although In the Absence of the Sun delivers most of its critiques on Jakarta’s superficiality sweetly, some do not go as smoothly. Frontal dialogues are risky and harder to swallow, although delivered by strong, believable ensemble of actors. Indri and Faisal’s discussion on kerak telor (egg crust) or Gia and Naomi’s discussion on religion are the notable examples. Both are reasonable—Indri and Faisal are of the working-class and have experienced the bitterness of elite marketing firsthand; Gia and Naomi are close enough to talk about everything bitter and sensitive. Although carefully written with a clear logic, the critiques remain spicy, and spice is not for everyone.

Another risk taken by Lucky Kuswandi is censoring his film jaggedly. Davit’s insults to Indri and intimate scenes in the Lone Star Hotel are interrupted here and there, diminishing the strength of the scene and the audience’s enjoyment. The decision is supposedly an act of protest to Lembaga Sensor Film, Indonesia’s national censoring board. In defense of the film, the poster has explicitly stated 21+. Nobody knows why LSF still censors cigarettes and nudity in an already restricted audience.

Luckily, the jagged parts are not overwhelming enough to leave the audience with an unpleasant aftertaste. They are redeemed by the beautiful, detailed, seemingly candid establishing shots of Jakarta—including the trendy rainbow cake, LINE Games, ‘upscale’ bistros, and selfie stick—and the well-told tales of three lonely women in crowded Jakarta. The film gives newfound values to the simple egg crust and cheese Indomie.

At the end of the day, In the Absence of the Sun greatly benefits from its choice of time setting. Night is clearly Jakarta’s most honest hours. It is at night when working fatigue is lifted and glamor creeps along with egg crust, cheese Indomie, and other wonders. Shooting Jakarta during the day must have been a bore. If somebody is to make a rival piece called In the Presence of the Sun, it will probably be a 90-minutes nonstop traffic congestion.

Selamat Pagi, Malam (In the Absence of the Sun) | 2014 | Length: 91 minutes | Director: Lucky Kuswandi | Country: Indonesia | Cast: Adinia Wirasti, Dayu Wijanto, Ina Panggabean, Dira Sugandi, Marissa Anita, Trisa Triandesa, Lina Marpaung, Aming, Paul Agusta, Sunny Soon

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