"Blind Pig Who Wants to Fly": Chinese Indonesians, Portrayed Hauntingly Mind-blowing

Is it a masterpiece or a mess? Is it weird? Is it wild? Is it wacky? Not often do you see a film that is so hauntingly mind-blowing that it needs to be discussed and be disgusted with at the same time. But such a film is this year’s FIPRESCI winner: Blind Pig Who Wants to Fly (Babi buta yang ingin terbang) by Indonesian film maker Edwin (no last name). Thirty year old Edwin is no stranger to the Rotterdam line-up. As one of the more prolific examples of the Indonesian underground experimental film scene his shorts were programmed in previous editions and as a consequence of that his first feature Blind Pig was supported by the festival’s Hubert Bals Fund.

Indonesia certainly is a film nation on the rise. Festival audiences have become acquainted with the works of Garin Nugroho over the last couple of years, a director whose films stem from a firm poetic-political intuition. And Edwin even delves into these grounds a little further. Starting off like a fragmented series of YouTube-like clips and gags, Blind Pig eventually enrolls as a painful and astute recollection of the 1998 riots in which the Chinese Indonesians became victims in the end. Originally a student’s protest against unemployment, the fall of the rupiah and the then regime of President Suharto, they quickly turned into a pogrom against the properties and businesses owned by the Chinese Indonesian minority that were robbed, destroyed and burned. While the relatively wealthy Chinese Indonesians were made into a scapegoat for the economical crisis, other shops put up signs to assure that they were owned by ‘native Indonesians’. Reports came through that during the unrest many ethnic Chinese women were raped by the rebels and forced to flee the country. Later, human rights organizations declared that the uprising was most likely, even if only partly, orchestrated by the military.

“Since we were little, we were told to be nationalistic, to be a true Indonesian. Whether it means to kill our roots. And killing our root means killing our emotion and killing our emotion means killing our self.” Edwin observes in his director’s statement and continues by asking: “How should we, in reality, really know how to be a true Indonesian? Or whether it is necessary at all to be a true Indonesian…?”

The confusing specter of these existential questions about identity not only justifies the hybrid structure and style of Blind Pig, that circles around some eight characters, amongst whom are a blind dentist and a girl eating fire crackers. The eclectic modes of Blind Pig also reflect the idiom of a new generation of filmmakers that is at ease with the laws of both classical cinema (brought to them on pirated DVD) and the omnipresence of gritty digital media. If the end result appears chaotic it is because the visual world around us is muddled and multifaceted. That way the film not only tackles the subject of Indonesian identity or individuality in general, but also suggests that perhaps we need to compose a new set of criteria to identify ourselves within this scattered world. Also, that the search for this new ontology possibly touches upon some matters concerning film aesthetics and criticism and the way we perceive films that at first sight appear strange, uncommon and impenetrable to us.

All is made clear in the opening shot and then deconstructed and rebuilt in many ways. Blind Pig Who Wants to Fly opens with the soundless, slow motion images of a badminton match. It’s China against Indonesia, although the players are hardly seen. What is at stake here are the dynamics, the back and forth, the action and reaction, and not so much the who against who. For it is always someone against someone. And every action calls for a reaction. Everything is first innocently true and then gloriously untrue. That’s just the pendulum of time and history. Even the little kid in the audience understands that. “Which one is the Indonesian player?”, he asks. For an informed spectator this refers to the fact that the Chinese Indonesian national badminton champion Verawati retired from playing after people kept asking her whether she was Chinese or Indonesian. The words of the little boy are actually based on a real incident, where during the grand finale of the 1990 world championship a kid from the audience shouted the exact same words. This at that time had the opposite effect, for they triggered Verwati’s retreat.

This seems to be Edwin’s basic strategy: to take an actual event and turn it into a cliché or a symbol, or just the other way around: to take a metaphor and interpret it as literally as possible. It demands a little paradigm shifting of an audience, especially when one isn’t quite familiar with all the cultural, sociological and historical ins and outs of the Chinese Indonesian. What is a pun and what a punch? But it is worth the ride. And besides that: did that ever stop one from interpreting and evaluating political cinema from Iran, the former Soviet Union or South-Korea for that matter? Even if the film makers were surprised afterwards about the amount of meaning western critics deducted from their films?

The badminton player in the film is married to the dentist, and from there on the story seems to enfold itself like a little nursery rhyme, much along the lines of “There was a crooked man…”. For the fire cracker girl Linda is their daughter and the dentist wants to become a Muslim so he can have a second wife and then there is Cahyono, Linda’s childhood friend who always walks head down, like a pig, so no-one will be able to recognize his racial features. They all represent a different generation, a different stage of assimilation, of Chinese Indonesians, with the presence of ‘Opa’ (the grandfather’) going back to the first that was born under Dutch colonial authority. The old man even speaks some archaic form of the Dutch language, that is now lost even in The Netherlands themselves. And the military male couple, with whom the dentist undergoes a humiliating threesome, represent of course, the ongoing military repression that the Indonesian archipelago is subjected to over the course of modern history. This sex scene is not as graphic as some moralist commentaries on the film would like you to believe. Sure. It’s in your face. But there is a strange tenderness and willfulness hidden in these images just in the same way that gives Blind Pig its overall ambiguous tone.

Cahyono, who later in the film turns out to be a film maker, perhaps is the character Edwin identifies most with. In Rotterdam he explained how he himself trained himself to walk head down as a kid, in order not to attract any attention. It seems that with this film, he at least, lost that attitude.

And that’s where the pig comes in. Of course the pig has a strong symbolic presence in this film. The Chinese eat pork, the Muslim majority in Indonesia don’t. But a pig is not always a pig in Blind Pig. Or maybe it just is. Edwin doesn’t seem to care a lot about the fact that he is exploiting — in our Western eyes — a worn out metaphor and at the same time presenting it as a literal fact. Maybe, as said before, that has to do with the cultural differences that make us read these symbols as symbols where they are intended literally and vice versa. But it could also be very well possible that Edwin in his guerrilla film making is pulling up some smoke curtains, as a form of protective auto-censorship. The political content of the film is most likely unwelcome to the Indonesian authorities, to say the least, as the country is turning to an image hostile culture more and more.

The same argument applies for the extensive and to great extent irritating use of the Stevie Wonder song “I just called to say I love you”. It is as if matters of good taste are disarmed completely when Edwin has the blind dentist sing this song over and over again. How over the top do you need to go? Well, that much. Because just as the audience tolerance is tested to the max, the song is put over archival footage of the riots and the lyrics seem to be written for the occasion. For the Chinese Indonesian there was “No summer’s high / No warm July / No harvest moon to light one tender August night / No autumn breeze / No falling leaves / Not even time for birds to fly to southern skies”. It is at that point of the film that it loses it’s (self)defense and opens up to the audience in a way only true film makers can: with its heart. From there on in it’s not that difficult to open your heart for the film also. Even if that means giving it a second chance, or seeing it a second time, or just lose one’s safe preconceptions for a second. For Edwin, after all is a talented film maker, with a fine intelligence for the lucidity of images. And a weird, wild, wacky sense of humor. I guess. But that’s meant totally serious. Of course.