J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

NYAFF: Kala

It rains a lot in Indonesia—perfect film noir weather. Screening tonight at the New York Asian Film Festival, Joko Anwar’s Kala (Dead Time) has plenty of noir, wrapped up in a horror movie, with a fair amount of existential dread thrown in (trailer here).

As the film opens, a particularly grisly vigilante attack has gone down and two cops, Eros and his older partner Sutrisno, must investigate the charred debris. The nature of the attack shakes the hard boiled detectives, leading Eros to ask if “our nature is just like this?” Coming late to the carnage is the narcoleptic Janus, a reporter in danger of losing his job because of his condition. While following up at the morgue, Janus has another untimely spell, but his tape recorder fatefully captures the film’s macguffin.

Kala is in large measure an Indonesian combination of The Ring and National Treasure, by way of the Coen Brothers. Like The Ring, Kala is most effective when the fear builds through suggestion and suspense. When the supernatural being is actually seen, it loses much of its power. The trigger for each bloodletting also somewhat parallels that of The Ring, but leads to a particularly clever obliteration of a government death squad. In fact, much of the gore in Kala is kept just off-screen (or pouring through crevices after the fact).

Although set in an unspecified time and place resembling Indonesia, Kala creates its own history as part of a fable of the wise “first president” and the treasure he hid for the future glory of his country. Seen only briefly in deliberately blurry newspaper photos, he does not seem to suggest to Sukarno, who probably would have had others ideas of what to do with riches untold, besides waiting for destiny to claim it.

Director Anwar creates some dramatically creepy scenes and his script ties together each story element in a conclusion that bears up under post-viewing scrutiny reasonably well (especially for a horror movie). The woeful Janus is a bit of a one-note sad sack, but as Eros and Sutrisno, Ario Bayu and Frans Tumbuan play their world weary cops with intelligence and nuance.

Kala has a lot of style and it consistently respects the internal logic of its story (of course with allowances made for characters’ occasional superhuman feats). For horror fans, it is well worth checking out tonight and Thursday, when at screens at the IFC Center as part of NYAFF.

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