Former critic Makbul Mubarak makes an impressive feature debut with this Indonesia-set tale of power and corruption


Source: Courtesy of TIFF


Dir/scr: Makbul Mubarak. Indonesia/France/Singapore/Poland/The Philippines/Germany/Qatar. 2022. 115mins

Proximity to power threatens to taint the soul in the debut feature of critic-turned-filmmaker Makbul Mubarak, a taut, brooding thriller based around the dynamics between a naive young housekeeper and a retired general. As the personal and the political blend, Mubarak reflects the much wider issue of corruption’s spell over Indonesia and beyond. A gripping tale that marks Mubarak as a powerful new voice, it  should find ample interest from arthouse distributors and streamers following festival screenings in Venice, Toronto and Busan.

A gripping tale that marks Mubarak as a powerful new voice

Mubarak has take some inspiration from his family’s history as civil servants in Indonesia and how that has led him to question concepts of loyalty and honour. Yet he describes the film as an emotional biography of the country, rather than something more personal to him. The focus is on Rakib (Kevin Ardilova), a caretaker of an empty mansion in rural Indonesia who may be around 19 or 20 years old. When retired general Purna (Arswendy Bening Swara) returns to the house, Rakib is pressed into service. “The last time I saw you, you were just a baby, “ declares Purna. We learn that generations of Rakib’s family have worked for the general’s family, but now Rakib’s father is in jail and his older brother has left for Singapore. 

Ardilova makes the shy Rakib someone who lives to serve and to please. Recognition that his work has been appreciated brings a modest glow of pleasure to his eyes. It is almost inevitable that he starts to see the general as a combination of mentor and father figure. Purna, meanwhile, sees Rakiv as a younger version of himself. The silver haired Purna has such an easy air of authority that it feels special when he takes the time to play chess with Rakib or cooks for him. Swara’s hooded eyes and implacable smiles make Purna seem as friendly as a crocodile but Rakib is flattered by his interest. He is only too happy to place massive banners around the region in support of Purna’s campaign for mayor.

It is never explicitly stated but there is a subtle sense throughout of an attraction between the two men. Purna stands a little too close and lets his grip on Rakib’s hand rest too long for comfort when he teaches him to shoot. It is a way of signalling his control but maybe something more. When Purna presents Rakib with a green army shirt, he insists that there is no need from him to leave the room to get changed. An unsettling intimacy blossoms that is only intensified by the pair’s sharing of a claustrophobic residence marked by long corridors, shadowy corners, mirrors and looming portraits of the general himself.

In time, it feels as if Rakib has started to become his own master. He is more confident, more aware of the respect he receives from being seen as part of the general’s inner circle. In one scene, there is an embarrassment that he has gone to eat with the ordinary people after an election rally. A minion is despatched to take him to a feast that has been prepared for the General and his party.

Then there comes a moment when Rakib’s desire to please requires him to cross a line. There is a side to the general he has never seen and a ruling elite who believe they can act without consequence. The character’s journey from innocence to complicity is convincingly laid out, and Mubarak displays the way in which his world has started to open up without him even realising that there will be a price to pay. 

The filmmaker also sketches the background of how local residents are powerless in any struggle to oppose developments, including a hydropower plant, that will increase the wealth and influence of the General and his ilk. It is a world in which Rakib is now trapped and it is his jailed father Amir (Rukman Rosardi) who advises him to just enjoy the life he has and try to remain safe and healthy. The moral dilemma facing Rakib powers the film to a satisfying showdown with no easy resolution.

Production company: KawanKawan Media

International sales: Alpha Violet

Producer: Yulia Evina Bhara

Cinematography: Wojciech Staron

Production design:  Sigit D. Pratama

Editing: Carlo Francisco Manatad

Music: Bani Haykal

Main cast: Kevin Ardilova, Arswendy Bening Swara, Yusuf Mahardika, Rukman Rosardi