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Postcards From The Zoo

Dir: Edwin. Indonesia-Germany-Kong Kong-China. 2012. 96mins

A Jakarta zoo is the setting for a slow and dreamy magical realist romance in Indonesian filmmaker Edwin’s follow-up to his well-received 2009 debut Blind Pig Who Wants to Fly. Sweet and playful as a baby monkey, but with the lumbering pace of a hippo, the film has shades of both Thai auteur Pen-ek Ratanaruang (particularly Monrak Transistor) and Japanese manga guru Hayao Miyazaki (particularly Spirited Away) – in fact it feels a little as if the former had adapted and directed a script by the latter.

Cinematic poetry of this nature is often a slow-build affair, and for much of its running time Postcards From The Zoo is one of those odd viewing experiences that bores and fascinates at the same time.

Edwin is just beginning to make a name for himself among international cineastes, but this second feature should broaden his appeal. Though still highly allusive, Postcards From The Zoo (Kebun Binatang) has a more linear storyline than Blind Pig, and it also tones down the shock factor that made parts of that film difficult to watch for some. If anything, Postcards at times goes to the other extreme of self-conscious cuteness, which could deter those who like their South-East Asian arthouse served raw. But this is still a confidently mature auteur’s film that should notch up deals in more than a handful of territories following its Berlinale competition bow.

Edwin belongs to Indonesia’s small Chinese ethnic minority, whose uneasy, tension-fraught position in this majority Muslim country was explored in the fragmented, multi-strand narrative of Blind Pig… It would not be much of a stretch to see the zoo where Lana grows up protected from the city outside as a metaphor – perhaps for the security of a family and community that feels separate from the rest of society, visited by it, stared at, sometimes fed by it, but not a part of it.

And it’s true that the director encourages symbolic readings by using a series of informative intertitles to divide the story into chapters (some of them culled from Wikipedia, the credits reveal). These intertitles provide definitions of terms relating to zoo science, from ‘ex situ conservation’ (protecting an endangered species by removing it from its natural habitat) to the ‘reintroduction’ of a species back to the wild. We’re clearly supposed to apply these to the story of the film’s central character, the fey and other-wordly Lana (Cheryl), but whether Lana herself is a symbol for something, or someone, is left open.

Less interested in traditional narrative than atmosphere and the poetry of sound and vision, the film is so sparing with its explanations that we’re never even sure that the little girl we see wandering around the zoo calling out for her daddy in the haunting opening scenes is the grown-up Lana we first meet fifteen minutes in. But we assume she must be in foresight – as disappearing and coming back, a sort of existential hide and seek (distilled in a lovely sequence where Lana plays peek-a-boo with a giraffe) is one of the film’s main themes.

Lana walks around the zoo, where she seems to have become a fixture, equally at ease with the zookeepers, the tent-dwelling vagrants and drifters who live in remoter parts of the park, and the animals themselves (she sometimes interacts with visitors too, but more often looks lost among them). One day she notices a cool young guy in a cowboy hat (he’s never given a name) who does magic tricks – making lights disappear and reappear, levitating paper tissues and setting them on fire.

He persuades Lana to leave the zoo by climbing the wall; in the outside world, she follows her man around, dressed as a squaw, helping him sell bottles of eternal youth potion and acting as his assistant in magic tricks. When cowboy man himself disappears in the course of one of his numbers, Lana finds refuge in a massage parlour, where the male customers looking for sexy rubdowns seem like so many animals at the zoo. Though violence exists in this gangster-run brothel, the overall tone, as channelled through Lana, is tender and wondering.

Sometimes shot from a respectful, hesitant distance, with several high crane shots, at other times exploring the world (and its animals) with handheld close-ups, the film seems to share Lana’s unschooled wonder. It evokes also a sense of unresolved longing that is present in the central love story, but not exclusive to it.

Cinematic poetry of this nature is often a slow-build affair, and for much of its running time Postcards From The Zoo is one of those odd viewing experiences that bores and fascinates at the same time. The patient, though, will be rewarded by what is in the end an unclassifiable work of striking originality.

Production company: Babibutafilm

Co-production: Pallas Film, Lorna Tee

International sales: The Match Factory, www.the-match-factory.com

Producer: Meiske Taurisia

Screenplay: Edwin, Daud Sumolang, Titien Wattimena

Cinematography: Sadi Saleh

Editor: Herman Kumala Panca

Production designer: Eros Eflin

Music: Dave Lumenta

Main cast: Ladya Cheryl, Nicholas Saputra

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