Gie: The Personal and the Political in Perfect Synch By Howard Feinstein

in 4th Bangkok Film Festival

by Howard Feinstein

I expect little from biopics, whether from Hollywood or elsewhere. Most are comprised of sequences, tableaux really, that are the “greatest hits” of the subject’s life. Any potentially interesting or provocative social, political, or artistic context is merely backdrop to the individual’s own drama, itself often imposed for effect (and increased ticket sales to a broad demographic). This is not to say that I can’t appreciate old movies starring the likes of Susan Hayward or Doris Day or James Cagney (usually as entertainers), but frankly, the fine performances are what sucks one in. The rest is usually drivel. (And the less written about contemporary biopics, such as Ray or Walk the Line, the better.)

Having said that, I vehemently disagree with Variety’s assessment — “tediously conventional” — of Gie, Indonesian director Riri Riza’s fourth feature, which was in the ASEAN competition at the Bangkok International Film Festival, as well as the erroneous assumption by critic Paul Agusta of the Southeast Asian cinema website Criticine: “If you’re not Indonesian, or you didn’t grow up knowing the history, you’re screwed. You won’t understand what’s going on.” Perhaps Riza’s original four-hour cut is clearer, but the 147-minute release version is definitely accessible to non-Indonesians who are not well versed in events that have occurred in that nation over the past half century.

Based on the writings and short life of the Chinese-Indonesian writer Soe Hok Gie (1942-1969), Gie is an unconventional rarity, a movie that tightly interweaves the personal life of Soe Hok Gie with the political upheaval of the ’50s and ’60s that he experiences, witnesses, and astutely writes about in his diaries and courageous newspaper columns, and teaches in his classes as well. This is the era of Sukarno, his sham “guided democracy,” tension between the military and the Communist Party, student demonstrations, anti-Communist riots and massacres, appropriation of the opposition, and the passing of the mantle to another dictator, Suharto.

Riza, who is best known for his 2002 Eliana, Eliana, deploys the voiceover of handsome young German-Indonesian lead actor Nicholas Saputra (a stretch, granted, playing Chinese, but he pulls it off) quoting directly from the diaries throughout the film. (They were published as “Catatan Seorang Demonstran” in 1983, 14 years after his untimely death.) The text accompanies images of riots, opportunism, torture, and poverty. Supatra, who studied old footage of Gie, plays him as a quiet, controlled young bookworm who makes up in passionate writing what he lacks in personal style. Which is precisely the point: The political landscape is ultimately of greater significance than one man’s life, no matter how talented or sensitive he is (though the crosscutting between Gie and Sukarno is somewhat overwrought).

Riza and cinematographer Yudi Datau create a milieu that is stunningly textured, an impressive recreation of Jakarta more than four decades ago (for veracity, most scenes had to be shot in other towns that have escaped intensive modernization), with an appropriate variety of shot sizes and striking compositions that propel the narrative. Editor Sastha Sunu stitches the shots together with a rhythm just right for Thoersi Argeswara’s diverse soundtrack, made up as it is of indigenous songs, rock ‘n roll, and whatever other musical genres suit the action (or lack thereof) at any one time.

Yes, Gie is always involved in some way with societal turbulence — the film is well integrated — but he is mostly an observer, a commentator, rather than an active participant. He is first and foremost a humanist. Riza’s approach rings true, because the perfectionist Gie’s position, one that cost him several friends, is that neutrality is the way to go, that party membership of any kind was anathema. We learn early on that Gie is anti-authoritarian — he berates and nearly mugs a narrowminded teacher in junior high school — but it is a rebel streak without spark, as if he were an anarchist quietly railing against leaders of all stripes. Riza clearly establishes that the educational system is a form of oppression. Could it also be that as a Catholic schooled by Catholics, Gie has a general loathing not only for officials but for any form of dogma?

If Gie has an Achilles heel, it is this inability to commit. One might say that journalists and other writers are outsiders by nature, but he does become active in the nascent student movement (which become very important once political parties are banned), and occasionally takes to the streets. Unlike his childhood pal Han (Thomas Nawilis), who becomes a Communist activist and loses his life as a result, he is unable to make the leap into any agenda-driven entity. He is baffled that the same men who fought for freedom against the Dutch and the Japanese forget their ideals and sell out.

In a stroke of genius, Riza makes Gie’s personal sexual torment, a thinly veiled homosexual inclination (with Han as the chief object of desire), an echo of his political impotence. He can not act on his primal impulses any more than he can follow through on his ideological leanings. His dates with women are disastrous. His sleep is disrupted by recurring dreams of Han and himself as teens running on the beach, camera focused on bare legs, or rolling together down hills with their arms around each other. The unconscious does not lie; this is the return of the repressed. Even as a teen played by young actor Jonathan Mulia, Gie gazes up and down Han’s torso (the look is returned), leaving no doubt about the boys’ mutual attraction.

It is gratifying to see a film that is about something substantial, for a change. I learned that Sukarto appropriated the Communists by including them in the government, a ploy to keep the military at bay, and that he raised prices on food to deflect the attention of the masses from nasty dictatorial machinations. The movie informs us about the complex political situation, with Gie’s intelligent non-commitment almost contrapuntal to the rampant riots, Machiavellian intrigues, and human rights abuses that we see on the screen. (We’re not that dumb, Criticine.) The conflicted Gie never does resolve his sexual dilemma — Riza claims that he probably died a virgin — and didn’t live to see the people finally overthrow the government in 1998.

An ardent mountain climber who frequently hikes through the lush countryside, Gie dies from inhaling poisonous gases on the peak of Java’s highest mountain, Mount Semuru, while on an outing with friends. The gorgeous scenes of nature Riza intersperses throughout the film, which contrast sharply with those of the city’s tumult, take on a melancholy air retroactively. Only in the great outdoors does Gie find comfort, solace from the demons that haunt him both personally and politically.