The movie was commissioned for the 2006 New Crowned Hope Festival, Vienna's celebration of Mozart's 250th birthday, although the Austrian funding does not impose on what remains a truly Indonesian work of art, one that hinges entirely on local themes, legends, and symbols. There's no effort here to explain anything to outsiders; Americans like myself, ignorant of Indonesian folklore, may find themselves baffled throughout at some of the more complex goings-on.
At its core is a story based on the Ramayana, the ancient Sanskrit text that also served as the inspiration for the animated marvel "Sita Sings the Blues." And like "Sita," "Opera Jawa" uses the "Abduction of Sita" story as a parallel for a modern tragedy, although here, the connection is more symbolic (although no less overt): Siti (Artika Sari Devi) and Setio (Martinus Miroto) are former dancers who once wowed audiences with their version of the Ramayana, playing Sita and Rama. Both have since retired from the arts and sell pottery, but when the economy goes south, war breaks out, and Rama's business fails, Siti is seduced by Ludiro (Eko Supriyanto), a powerful butcher whose moves slightly echo King Ravana's capturing of Sita.
The whole thing is told through song, allowing composer Rahayu Supanggah to delve into the riches of Indonesian music. Listen to how Supanggah separates the styles, giving Setio a series of heartbreaking laments as his world collapses around him, while letting Ludiro toy with both playfulness and seduction - he has the power, so why should he grieve?
These scenes are accompanied by lengthy ballet interludes full of abstract performance art-style movements, with some pop-and-lock breakdancing thrown in for good measure. The performers here twist and contort, hiding behind masks, moving like wild animals. It's too easy to get lost in all the symbolism that refuses to translate to other cultures - race baskets are used as a recurring visual theme; the voice of news is delivered (apparently) via a lifeless television carved from stone - while other symbols that do translate (warriors behave like animals) come off as a bit too obvious. Indeed, the whole war subplot never quite works because the film is so pushy about its metaphors.
All of this refuses to add up to a fully compelling story, which leaves the film too off-putting for those not in the mood for such pretense. And yet there's something to be said for a film that captivates even when the story fails. Director/co-writer Garin Nugroho never stops with the stunning visuals, be it the miles of red cloth leading our heroine away, or the frightening pantomime/puppetry that haunts her, or the shocking, sickening close-up of a slaughtered bull, and on and on. Nugroho spends much of his time simply watching the culture of Indonesia play out before the camera, and we're transported: women hypnotically sway in unison, and men gather around the fire to sing their tales.
And so "Opera Jawa," awash in glorious Javanese folk art and ostentatious film styles, truly takes us somewhere else, somewhere new. That alone allows the film to reward the adventurous.
Video & Audio
For all its emphasis on visual beauty, "Opera Jawa" looks quite lacking in this 1.85:1 flat letterbox (non-anamorphic) transfer. The colors are solid - at times wonderfully so - but the image is marred by both softness and an abundance of edge enhancement.
The Indonesian stereo track is also a bit too flat for what the film deserves; the music comes through decently enough to get by, nothing more. Non-removable English subtitles are included.
Through the disc's menu, the only bonus material available is a trailer for the Global Film Initiative's Global Lens 2008 series and text-only information on the series, its films, and First Run Features.
Accessible via your computer's DVD-Rom drive are a Discussion Guide (classroom lessons on everything from story points to Indonesian history) and a Fact Sheet (essentially a press guide, featuring a one-paragraph director's statement).
"Opera Jawa" certainly isn't for everyone, and the iffy disc presentation doesn't demand a purchase from those who do get excited about such things. But those of you interested in the fringe of international cinema should certainly Rent It.