Brief thoughts on Interchange

December 16, 2016 § Leave a comment

I found Interchange to be a mess as some people have said, but a beautiful and intriguing mess. Certain fantasy/memory sequences are so arresting and I can’t stop thinking about it.

(I don’t think there are “spoilers” here, but it’s a film that unspools slowly and requires that you get on board with fragments of information, so I don’t know if reading some of this will spoil the experience if you haven’t watched it. It might.)

I found the “why” of it illogical. That illogic is what enables the film to perpetuate orientalist cliches of Borneo people and what the film deems to be tribal rituals. This is the part that is most incoherent, and leaves me conflicted. The premise is that colonial anthropology and its invasive and harmful mode of study, which required photography as a technology to document, was harmful to the native populations it attempted to “decipher” for the urban, mostly white intellectual class. (Actually, this might not be the premise and this might be me reading too much into the “clues”.) But in the movie, they dropped the ball. If the film went deeper into exploring the effects of colonialism and capitalist modernity, it would have to sacrifice the exotifying gaze that drives the mystery. And this film is like a fantasy, a dream. It’s like Dain Said threw a bunch of stuff in the blender: animism, indigenous spirituality, ecocide, colonialism, magic, enchantment, noir, police procedural, photography, murder mystery, and hoped for a really good sambal to come out of it. It was tasty; I might even go for seconds. But it leaves you with a stomach ache. And then you’re left trying to figure out exactly what went wrong with the sambal.


It’s a visually-stunning film and in its flaws there are things that lodge themselves in the mind. The mingling of the accents, for example. (Several actors are Indonesian and their accent reflects this in the parts where Malay is spoken). I liked that, in the sense of alluding to a greater Malay archipelago, the shifting and dissolving of borders.

My favourite part was the jungle/sanctuary amidst concrete urban jungle scene. I loved it; it’s beautiful and haunting. The first time we see it the mysterious Belian just sort of runs from the city into this dark place, filled with trees and then sort of climbs into a tree and disappears. Then we see it from the inside. It made me yearn for the kind of place I’ve only ever dreamed of, maybe visited and never inhabited. It made me yearn for a kind of green I’ve probably never seen in my lifetime, both a real and mythical green place as an idea of home. There is peace there. But this is at odds with what Belian and the other native people have to do to return to that peace. It also reeks uncomfortably of the “noble savage” idea.

The noble savage trope also connects with Said’s inability to do anything with women that is not a cliche. It was there in Bunohan and it’s here, as well. Iva (Prisia Nasution) keeps appearing in several scenes as the alluring, mysterious woman who makes eyes at Iedil Putra’s Adam and sucks on ice cubes while being coy. Later we know her true role but it also traffics in the cliches of the native woman, and has a distinctly West Malaysian idea of how women from the East are like. Sucking on ice cubes and being coy, apparently. It’s for a certain gaze. The gaze is male, as seen from Adam’s voyeuristic practice of photography, and as seen in law enforcement: the people tasked with “figuring things out” are men.

The film of course doesn’t try to dictate who should be blamed for the condition of the people that leads to the murders. But we know history and we know that blame can be assigned to the ones that came with their cameras and their notebooks. So in a film that leaves this possibility “open”, one only feels the same old disappointment about how Malaysians — urban middle-class West Malaysians in particular — choose to ignore and devalue certain parts of our history. I would love to read critiques of the film that approach these problems head-on. I’ve read some reviews where it’s purely about a psychological analysis, with a dash of auteur theory (linking Interchange to Bunohan) which is fine but limited. Because ultimately this film is about ritual murder framed as a mystery, and it leaves the burden of the killings on the native people for whatever flawed reason the movie thinks is sufficient. And that’s quite unpleasant, to me.

(Nicholas Saputra played Belian and his ordinarily recognisable beautiful form shifts and transforms into something else; it’s not just visual, it’s also in his manner, how he inhabits his body, and his body language. It was unnerving and very good, I thought, and took me by surprise for someone I’ve just sort of vaguely known as a pretty face in Indonesia. Having watched this though, I’ll take him in any form. *heart-eyes*)

Enjoy Your Orientalism!

May 3, 2012 § Leave a comment

I had great expectations for Marina Warner’s Stranger Magic: Charmed States and the Arabian Nights. Great, great expectations that fell flat and left me sobbing on the floor, tearing at my hair. Great big tears.

No, okay. Not really. It left me tired, basically. Like… GREAT SIGHS OF EXHAUSTION. My review is in up at Pop Matters, and here is a little bit of my rant review:

Warner’s Stranger Magic, for the most part, proves the point Said makes in Orientalism: “How then to recognise individuality and to reconcile it with its intelligent, and by no means passive or merely dictational, general and hegemonic context?” She proves this point by leaving this question well alone in her own inquiries. For example, when she talks about Danish-born Melchior Lorck and his art, she’s careful to note that in his stylised illustrations, “he seems sensitive to the Islamic prohibition on lifelikeness in representation”. Perhaps he was. And yet, the political implications of Lorck’s presence among Muslims in Istanbul, where he worked as a spy for Archduke Ferdinand I’s mission, are simply glossed over. He was there, Warner tells us in a brief sentence, “to gather information about the Ottoman enemy”.

Stranger Magic shows us that Europe was full of individuals with particular sensitivity or sympathy to the people, practices, and religion of the Orient, and sometimes Warner comes across as wanting her readers to see these individuals as nothing more than passionate or dreamy individuals developing modes of self-expression through foreign myth and fairy tales, or indulging in a few peccadilloes. Perhaps, in many cases, these were simply that: “In numerous letters, Goethe praises the Nights, showing how the stories revealed to him how to give free play to his imagination, and to pass beyond reason’s boundaries in order to express its ideals more fully.”

That’s great for Goethe, I’m thinking, but it also speaks to deeper implications that Warner sets out to investigate in her project, but whose ramifications she doesn’t fully explore: that of the popularity of the Arabian Nights during the time of Enlightenment, when reason and rationality exerted a hegemonic force. European audiences devoured the Arabian Nights, Warner posits, because it was an avenue for magical thinking, a place where the European imagination could go and play. But the Arabian Nights also came out of an actual place, a place that, as Said’sOrientalism shows us, has long been Europe’s “cultural contestant, and one of its deepest and most recurring images of the Other.”

Because I’m reading Capital at the moment, the bits I found most interesting were the bits on “thing-narratives”, as Warner refers to them, about objects and things imbued with magic or the idea of it. There are some interesting ideas here, like when Warner talks about magic as a means out of the “anonymous sameness of commodities”:

Thing-narratives often hone in on the virtue of goods per se, and choose to dramatise the weird independent life of money which goods command.

Also interesting was her short detour into magic and mass consumption in Europe, where department stores in 19th-century France borrowed the language and the imagery “of the fabulous East” to incite desire among its consumers. It’s interesting to think about that in relation to imperialism; first as plunder, then as exoticism.

Unfortunately, these bits of interest were most brief indeed, so it didn’t do much to soothe my irritation. And I was, as you can probably tell from the review, GREATLY IRRITATED.

I also lose my shit in a minor way at a Maria Bustillos piece in this review. I didn’t want to lose my shit at that particular piece, especially since Bustillos is apparently a well-regarded writer and ohnoes what if I’m being too critical, but you know? Sometimes shit is lost.

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