Text by Julia Suryakusuma
Looking at Indonesia today, what do we have to be proud of? Here's one tip: not politicians!
But putting our disappointing friends in the DPR to one side, I think we Indonesians actually have a lot to be proud of, even if we sometimes forget it. That's why I enjoyed two new children's films about sports: "Garuda di Dadaku" (Garuda on my Chest), directed by Ifan Ivansyah, and "King", Ari Sihasale's directorial debut. Both are about inspiring pride, through hard work and achievement.
The two films have identical themes, about boys who dream to be champions in the sport of their choice (or, rather, obsession). For Bayu (Emir Mahira) in Garuda it's making it to the national junior football league; for Guntur (Rangga Raditya) in King it's aiming to be selected for national junior badminton. The films are essentially about their trials and tribulations in achieving their goals, a simple and clichéd-enough theme but presented in entertaining and moving ways.
Both boys have single parents (Bayu has a widowed mum, and Guntur a widower father), both come from poor families, and both form a gang with their two best friends. For Bayu, it's Heri (Aldo Tansani), a wealthy, wheelchair-ridden, bespectacled and plump boy, with more gaps than teeth in his mouth, but blessed with a healthy dose of self-confidence, and boundless enthusiasm and support for Bayu. Their other buddy is Zahra (Marsha Aruan), a mysterious girl with a talent for painting, who lives in a graveyard with her sick father.
Guntur's best friend-cum-sidekick is Raden (Lucky Martin), a school chum with a mop of curly hair, irrepressible good-natured cheekiness, and a bottomless bag of schemes to help his friend. The third member of this gang is Michele (Valerie Thomas), a rich Indo (mixed Western and Indonesian parents) big-city kid who moves to the village with her mother.
But the films are far from carbon copies: there are important differences too. Bayu, for example, is a city boy who practices football in the alleys of his crowded kampong neighbourhood. Although Guntur, a native of the rural town of Banyuwangi, is much poorer, he is richer in terms of environment, surrounded by majestic mountains and vast expanses of green fields. So, in between scenes of Guntur's struggles to attain his badminton dreams, we can feast our eyes on breathtaking views of Central Java. In Garuda, however, the uninspiring urban scenery of highway lanes and overcrowded housing complexes is only relieved by the green of the graveyard where Bayu practices his football moves, the one open place he can find in the concrete jungle.
And if Bayu is frustrated and sneaks around to get in a bit of footie practice because Usman (Ikranegara), his well-meaning but authoritarian grandfather, hates football, Guntur feels equally oppressed by his father Tedjo (Mamiek Prakoso), who earns money making shuttlecocks from goose feathers. Tedjo pushes him too hard to become like his idol, Indonesia's legendary badminton champion, Liem Swie King, from whom the film's title is derived.
But Guntur's dysfunctional family turns out to be his launching pad, as well as the mesh that holds the film's narrative together. Tedjo's harsh discipline is not just awkward, misguided parenting, it's also his way to overcome the loss of his wife, Guntur's mum, whom he misses as much as does Guntur. It is her loss that is the ultimate source of Guntur's lack of confidence and faith in himself.
Both King and Garuda were made to inspire kids, and while Garuda is not bad, it stays at the level of being a children's film, and nowhere near achieves the richness of King in its treatment of the diversity of Indonesian life. So, while the badminton storyline is the red thread that runs through King, there are also many side themes, and together they offer a romantic vision of Indonesian (rural) life and character, of people trying to do their best. In the end, it is only the support of his tiny community that teaches Guntur to believe in himself, and win, and the relationship between Guntur and Tedjo is only transformed after a young neighbour who quietly tells Tedjo that, in the end, win or lose, Guntur will always be his son. It is a compelling message to all parents that unconditional love is their primary obligation to their kids, no matter what.
Likewise, the film deals with the honour of achievement, rather than the satisfaction of the financial rewards for which Guntur initially hoped. You are a champion, he comes to realize, only when you can claim victory over yourself. All the rest - including money – comes after that.
"King" is also not afraid to touch on some Indonesia's deeply-embedded social cleavages. Since the Thomas Cup badminton world championship was set up in 1948, only three nations have won – China, Malaysia and Indonesia, but Indonesia has been the most successful, wining thirteen out of twenty-five championships. And the vast majority of our winning players have always been ethnic Chinese, like Rudy Hartono, for example, who preceded King in the 1960s-70s, won the prestigious All-England championship eight times, (seven times consecutively), and become one of the most famous players in the history of the sport.
In the film, Guntur has to compete with many Chinese players, and it hints at the economic superiority of the Chinese boys, decked out in the best gear to play against Guntur with his tatty, worn-out shoes. King reminds us that it takes more than financial means to excel! There is also a brief scene of a postman on an orange postal motorbike delivering a letter to Guntur's house. He opens his helmet, revealing a Papuan face, and asks in a strong Javanese accent, "Is this the house of Guntur?", a moment that drew peals of laughter from the audience. Is this a reference to Papua's integration, a reminder that they are also our brothers and sisters? The closing scenes are perhaps the most touching, with the villagers huddled up, watching a TV screen set up on a little platform in the badminton field, transfixed by Guntur playing for a badminton scholarship. When finally he wins, they break out screaming and crying, and then burst into "Indonesian Raya", our national anthem. Talk about feeling good about your country!
So, congratulations and thanks to Ari Sihasale (director/producer), Nia Zulkarnaen Sihasale (executive producer) and all the cast and crew of King for making us believe that we can believe in ourselves, and overcome all obstacles to achieve greatness, no matter what the odds. Let's just hope our politicians get the message too!
Julia Suryakusuma is a well-known writer, speaker and columnist on various political, social, cultural and gender issues. She has a regular fortnightly column in The Jakarta Post, and in English TEMPO magazine and is the author of "Sex, Power and Nation". She can be contacted at email@example.com
Source: Garuda Magazine