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Review: “Kala” Mixes Neo-Noir Elements with Javanese Myth to Create A Truly Unique Vision

Joko Anwar puts an Indonesian twist on one of Western cinema's most classic genres

By , 17 Oct 19 08:02 UTC
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Courtesy of MD Pictures.

Kala (known in English as Dead Time) is a Javanese neo-noir masterpiece from Indonesian director Joko Anwar. The first time I watched Kala, I was blown away. It reminded me of my first watch of Roman Polanski’s Chinatown, a revelatory experience which changed the way I viewed and thought about cinema. The two films share many similarities. They both invoke the cinematic language of the noir genre to tell updated and more cynical tales of moral rot and societal decay. Chinatown situates these themes in a gloriously re-imagined 1930s Los Angeles, while Kala places them in an unspecified alternate reality steeped in the symbols of Javanese myth. 

While Kala references Chinatown and pays homage to its noir roots, the film is wholly and uniquely an expression of Indonesian social and cultural themes as well as imagery. The film opens with a classic noir trope – a pair of hardboiled detectives (Ario Bayu and August Melasz) looking over a crime scene while lamenting that the world is sliding into amorality. A mob has just burned some random people in the middle of a street, and Kala immediately establishes that this is a world where such acts of random violence are both common and met with apathy by average people. 

The narrative then introduces its other wonderfully bizarre main character named Janus (Fachry Albar), a hapless journalist who suffers from a very specific kind of narcolepsy that causes him to faint whenever it deepens the mystery of the plot. In just a few short scenes, Joko Anwar establishes the otherworldliness of the Kala’s setting by using a washed out color scheme and employing early 20th century period details, even though the time period of the film’s events is otherwise unclear. He also establishes that in the world of the film, society is coming apart at the seams and the authorities are either too incompetent or too corrupt to halt the decline. 

Courtesy of MD Pictures.

Meet the New King

These are recognizable markers of the noir genre in Kala. But after the opening act, the film takes a sharp turn and metastasizes into something altogether different and more interesting. It introduces a brilliant conceit, a secret Javanese phrase shrouded in mystery and passed down orally from one person to another (the audience does not learn the complete phrase or its meaning until the end of the film).

The phrase contains directions to an ancient treasure, but whoever hears it is immediately hunted and killed by a demonic creature called Pindoro. The rest of the film is a race between various characters and shadowy factions to learn the phrase and find the treasure before Pindoro kills them. I won’t spoil it, but the film ends with a slightly unsatisfying twist and a note of cautious optimism. 

The secret phrase deserves some attention, as it is based on a real-life Javanese legend from the 12th century prophesying the coming of the Ratu Adil, or the Just King. In most versions of the story the Ratu Adil comes from a humble background during a time of great turmoil and strife, and restores order to a society in need of leadership. Some believe Prince Diponegoro, the leader of a Javanese war of rebellion against the Dutch in the early 1800s, was a Ratu Adil. Indonesians also associate the concept with Tjokroaminoto, an early 20th century nationalist hero who helped lay the foundations of independence. 

Courtesy of MD Pictures.

Same as the Old King

When Kala was released in 2007, Indonesia was still coming to terms with the social and political fall-out from the end of the authoritarian New Order regime in 1998. I don’t know if that is what Joko Anwar had in mind when he wrote and directed the film, but a movie depicting the rise of a long-prophesied messiah figure who would lead the nation into a prosperous future after years of neglect and decline certainly seems like it would have been particularly relevant at that period in time. 

Kala is thus doing something stylistically innovative but also very clever on a deeper level. It is a stylized re-telling of a Javanese myth that is seamlessly integrated with classic noir tropes, images, and archetypes. It even occasionally shifts gears and turns into a horror movie, particularly when the ghastly pale creature Pindoro is hunting its prey.

This hybridization of styles, themes, and symbols underlines the complex ideas Joko Anwar explores in Kala. It reflects Joko Anwar’s enduring interest in taking the home-grown myths, legends, and folklore of Indonesia and putting them on the big screen. But by cladding them in the visual language of one of Western cinema’s most classic genres, and then sprinkling a whiff of social relevance through the use of Javanese mythology, he imbues the film with a sense of style and thematic resonance that is both familiar and also wholly unique. 

This article is part of a series that will take a critical look at the work of Indonesian director Joko Anwar, with a focus on the ways in which he has used film to promote Indonesian mythology and explore social issues. 

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Kala—Indonesia. Dialogue in Bahasa Indonesia. Directed by Joko Anwar. Running time 1 hour 42 minutes. First released April 19, 2007. Starring Donny Alamsyah, Fachry Albar, and Ario Bayu.

Topics: Indonesia, Reviews

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