Tabula Rasa: When Gulai Sways

Originally published in Indonesian on Cinema Poetica, 6 October 2014

To Indonesians, cuisine is synonymous with home. Diaspora tirelessly search for restaurants serving their regional cuisine to get a taste their hometown. This cuisine–home relationship is the core of Tabula Rasa. Naively interpreted, Tabula Rasa must have been chosen as a title because ‘rasa’ means flavor, which implies cuisine right off the bat. Etimologically speaking, Tabula Rasa means a blank slate—a chance to start over.

Hans is an aspiring soccer athlete from Serui, West Papua living somewhere near Jakarta. He was previously recruited in the hope of becoming the next big thing in Jakarta. Some time after, Hans ends up scraping things as a homeless. The story begins when Mak invites Hans to her Minang restaurant, seasoning him with her warmth, Natsir’s wit, and Parmanto’s bitterness.

Tabula Rasa’s story is representatively Indonesian. First of all, it features the use of Minang cuisine. Minang cuisine is the godfather of the archipelago’s cuisine, as evidenced by the blooming number of its restaurants that rivals McDonalds. Secondly, how it introduces Western Indonesia (Minang) and Eastern Indonesia (West Papua) and puts the two in Jabodetabek (Jakarta–Bogor–Depok–Tangerang–Bekasi), the melting pot of Indonesia. Tabula Rasa carries with it a grand narrative: a very Indonesian food film. The question now is whether the narrative is justly conveyed.

As a food film, it works. Tabula Rasa delivers more than food porn. Minang culture is given equal spotlight with the mouthwatering shots of sambal ulek and barbeque. Through Hans, the audience is educated with Minang culinary values: how they insist on local ingredients, types of rendang, to a humorous limerick on how to cook rendang.

Tabula Rasa also delivers various regional dialects, notably Minang and Papua, which add textures to the film. The dialects are taken very seriously, with dialect coaches present in the production team. The plot are also highly metaphorical. The spirit of unity-in-diversity is present in the cuisine, in how Mak help Hans without racially discriminating, in how Hans and Natsir jest on the capital’s microeconomy, and various other Indonesian communal values. The film serves a very ideal Indonesia present in primary schools’ Civics, a sweet propaganda safe for family consumption.

Unfortunately, the success of Tabula Rasa’s grand narrative jeopardizes Hans as the protagonist. The film’s weakness lies on its awkwardness in telling Hans’ story. Hans’ presence in the film is divided into two times: Serui Hans which ends in his departure and Jabodetabek Hans since he is cut off the team. Between the departure and the cutoff is a gaping hole of a plot which is explained only by a bite of dialogue: that he is let go because of a leg injury.

The bigger ration is given to a depressed Hans scraping for rice as a homeless man and his nostalgia about Serui which seems like an excuse to show some exotic-looking shots of Serui’s nature. The gap is not filled until Hans delivers the dialogue after two-thirds of the film. As a result, the audience fail to sympathize for Hans since the very beginning as they are too busy asking, “Why—what the heck?” Hans is like a plateful of lunch with more garnish than protein. Albeit flavorful, he does not satisfy the hunger.

Serui’s portion in Tabula Rasa is disappointing as it serves little to the story but a dash of exotic education. Adriyanto Dewo successfully told Mak’s longing for her homeland but did not tell Hans’ longing for Serui as strongly. Truth be told, it is hard to tell what Hans misses. Serui or the soccer? If the soccer, what function does Mama and the sea serve? If Serui, which side and why? His flashbacks are not strongly tied to the ongoing plot. As a result Serui Hans does not blend with Jabodetabek Hans, just like a newly-cooked rendang.

Hans’ longing (for who knows what) which is supposed to be the main course gets sidedished by insufficient storytelling. It is another dish that takes over: the iconic gulai kepala ikan. Gulai is an omnipresent force serving multiple functions; Hans’ motivation, symbol of Mak’s and Parmanto’s longing, a vessel to resolve conflict, and symbol of home with less budget requirements than Serui.

It is ironic how the audience will be able to symphatize more on Mak than Hans, even though Minangkabau is never shown through anything but a painting and gulai. Even though to think about it, the gulai is so special that it single-handedly saves Mak’s restaurant and beats its competitor. So special indeed, even the camera was tempted to always follow and dolly-in.

Tabula Rasa | 2014 | Length: 107 minutes | Director: Adriyanto Dewo | Country: Indonesia | Cast: Dewi Irawan, Jimmy Kobagau, Yayu Unru, Ozzol Ramdan

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