Kuldesak (Indonesia, 1999) [Aperture 2019]

On the surface, Kuldesak might look like a mish-mash of Western pop culture references that have been forcefully re-appropriated to then-contemporary urban Indonesia. Helmed by first-time directors Nan Triveni Achnas, Mira Lesmana, Rizal Mantovani, and Riri Riza in 1999, this film is made up of seemingly unconnected narratives and is often referred to as an omnibus. But it evidences a coherence that is not often present in such multi-narrative works.

The film introduces four separate narratives after its opening credits. First is the story of box office attendant, Dina (Opie Andaresta), and the newly arrived couple at the neighboring apartment unit, Budi (Harry Suharyadi) and Yanto (Gala Rostamaji). Dina is hooked on TV personality, Max Molio (Dik Doank), whom she refers to as an “artist”. Budi cannot see what makes Dina say this, but Yanto agrees with Dina.

The second story focuses on Andre (Ryan Hidayat), who is mystified with the image and personality of Kurt Cobain. Himself being in a band and enjoying contemporary Jakarta nightlife, he sees his life’s purpose as making lonely people feel welcome in the noisy music bar scene.

An aspiring filmmaker, Aksan (Wong Aksan), is the highlight of the third story. After waking up from a haunting nightmare, he tells his friend, Aladin (Tio Pakusadewo) that he needs to make at least one film in his life. As a fellow cinephile, Aladin convinces Aksan that he needs to continue what he wants to do. But Aksan is not as naïve: he knows the challenges of making a film, especially, when it comes to financing.

The last story highlights cosmopolitan labor through the eyes of office worker, Lina (Bianca Adinegoro). After a frightening board meeting, Lina is forced by her boss to come up with a plan to win back their company’s lost clients. Working overtime, Lina is suddenly attacked by an unidentified assailant while being photographed.

The stories are interweaved instead of being played as individual shorts and they have thematic similarities, which makes Kuldesakless of an omnibus than a multi-perspective film. The common underlying theme is the overbearing presence of screens, whether a television or a computer screen. Making the screen its focal point makes Kuldesak less of a personal work than a political one. If anything, it takes a proper avenue to see the effects of the dominance of western pop culture in then-contemporary cosmopolitan Indonesia. The film mostly tries to establish links between popular culture and violence.

Editing the film as a multi-perspective work provides diversity in its tone. Its commentary on the effect of television, computers or cinema is not dictating a one-dimensional view. In the case of the second story, the film tries to comment on the perversion of the personality through the image of Kurt Cobain and the violence of his life in a negative tone. In the fourth, however, violence is treated as liberating as Lina fights back from her abductors. Dina’s story sees violence from an observer’s point of view, which enables her to empathize more with the victims. Elsewhere, the violence in the life of Aksan is brought about by equally nerdy looters who are imitating the restaurant robbers from Pulp Fiction (1994).

Kuldesak admittedly addresses very complicated things in a very complicated manner. Its interweaved editing brings about the challenge of focusing on the context of each story while still trying to follow the whole. The film does not unfold with the same demands as a non-linear film, wherein you’re following a single story, only it is not told in a sequential manner. Its multi-perspectivity is also, not the same as, say, Crash (2004) or Babel (2006) wherein you can consider the stories in the context of a real phenomenon. Kuldesak follows diverse manifestations of an abstract phenomena. While television screens and cinema are very concrete things, in Kuldesak they serve a highly conceptual purpose as mediations.

As mediations, however, Kuldesak presents television and cinema not as communicative mediums, but pathways of dominance. Dina watching Max Molio with awe is seen as passive receiver of information, and so is Andre with his fascination of Kurt Cobain. Feedback is never on the table. Communication is impossible, as seen in the last sequences of Aksan’s and Lina’s stories wherein their aggressors are not even open for any discussion. The screens in the film present themselves as the titular cul-de-sac.

The narratives here embrace neo-noir and an unapologetically post-grunge attitude as the filmmakers of Kuldesak are not afraid to express the influence of then-contemporary Western culture on their work. This courage to exhibit Western influence also provides more space for the film’s own critique of its influences and a reflection on their then-contemporary society. Kuldesak stands strong, more than 20 years later, through its unapologetic exposition of both personal and social ills, which it keeps open for further questioning.

Kuldesakis was shown as part of the Aperture: Asia & Pacific Film Festival & UK Tour 2019.

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