In terms of cinematic output, Indonesia lags seriously behind its neighbors in the Pacific Rim; in 1999, only one indigenous feature film was commercially released there. However, Indonesia’s deficit in quantity is more than compensated by its surplus of quality. That one local film, Marselli Sumarno’s ghost story “Sri,” is a new masterpiece of Asian cinema and an extraordinary lesson in creating a work of art through the power of intelligence rather than the power of the wallet.
Clearly lacking the cash, technical sophistication and razzle-dazzle of other Asian productions, filmmaker Sumarno (a Jakarta-based journalist making his directing debut) instead relies on the foundation of any great film–a powerful story–and builds a force of imagination with the barest of tools imaginable. Audiences who have been lulled into sleep by the overbearing safety of American-style storytelling will be jolted by this harrowing tale which flows with the leisurely rhythms of a calm brook that actually runs deep and dark.
“Sri” opens in the home of Hendro, an elderly Javanese aristocrat whose prize possession is Sri, his second and considerably younger trophy wife. Theirs had been a marriage of mutual convenience: Hendro was a rather unpleasant gambler who grabbed for the best that money can buy and Sri was a poor village girl who saw the old goat as her only chance out of poverty. While Hendro never truly loved Sri, she allowed time to open her heart to her aged mate.
Hendro’s wicked ways eventually catch up with him and he winds up bed-ridden and ill beyond medical care. One night as Sri leaves him to tortured sleep, an uninvited figure in white joins her on the veranda. It is Yamadipati, the God of the Dead, who announces his mission to ferry Hendro away. Incredibly, with a steely determination hitherto unsuspected, Sri challenges Yamadipati to delay his mission to allow Hendro to make amends with several people he had crossed or betrayed over the years. Completely shocked by this amazing request, Yamadipati reluctantly complies with Sri’s request for an extension.
Sri then tracks down the various unhappy souls who Hendro damaged (including Hendro’s first wife) and negotiates for their forgiveness. Yamadipati returns frequently, but finds his efforts frustrated as Sri successfully plays him for extra time to clean Hendro’s proverbial slate.
With an eerie story worthy of peak-Rod Serling, “Sri” offers its tale without any of distractions that weigh down Hollywood ghost stories. There are no special effects or sound effects (although Western audiences may find the film’s traditional Javanese score more than little disturbing), and the scenes are shot in lengthy takes without a flash of staccato editing or sudden whooshes of fright. In fact, Sumarno’s style may come as a surprise to sophisticated cinephiles: many of the scenes are framed in medium and long shots and the casual pacing reflects the funereal tempo of the Javanese culture, which is wholly alien to Western rush-rush-rush.
The beauty of “Sri” reminds us of what genuine horror is all about: the attack on the senses and the intellect, with the unexpected insertion of the extraordinary into the ordinary. It begins with the failing of Hendro’s health, which ruptures the serenity and luxury of Sri’s household and slowly tears away at the careful order into a world of newly unexplored chaos which precipitates the unexpected on various levels. Yamadipati’s initial appearance, standing unannounced in the distance for a seemingly endless period before he is acknowledged, offers a chill as Sri conducts her affairs without realizing the gravity of her visitor…and then deals with him in a manner which shocks the fatal entity. Her negotiations with Hendro’s victims carry an emotional thrust as she calmly but desperately seeks to tie all loose ends in Hendro’s awful life so he can die without sin–the ultimate game of beat-the-clock. The audience watches this drama with the foregone conclusion that death can be delayed but never denied…yet can Sri achieve the impossible?
In one of the film’s many amazing sequences, one of Hendro’s dying peers escapes into the woods to evade Yamadipati. The inevitable meeting between predator and prey cannot be prevented, yet it concludes in an unexpectedly joyful manner which frightens and enlightens the viewer with a dual fear: the fear of coming to death and the fear that we waste too much time being afraid of coming to death. “Sri” forces us to confront our emotions and re-evaluate how we use our time on Earth–and for the truly introspective, it forces the wondering of whether there is a Sri who would negotiate with the God of the Dead to spare us from the inevitable goodbye. This is clearly scarier than any Hollywood spook or ghoul.
“Sri” introduces Rina Ariyanti in the title role, and she graces the screen with a fragile beauty that masks a remarkable strength and focus. Never resorting to melodrama, she points a laser-sharp focus on the subject at hand and delivers a mature and sublime interpretation of a young woman of untapped strength and heroism. She is wonderfully matched by the long haired Sardono W. Kusumo as Yamadipati, who sinks into despair and joyfully deranged frustration when Sri gets the best of him.
“Sri” was offered as Indonesia’s entry in this year’s Academy Award competition for Best Foreign-Language Film. It failed to get a nomination and, despite excellent response on the festival circuit, it has yet to secure a US distributor. This situation is nothing sort of disgraceful. Rarely has a film of such power and beauty tip-toed through the circuits without receiving the praise it deserves. By all means, seek out and savor the glory that is “Sri.”