SGIFF Review: In the Absence of the Sun by Lucky Kuswandi
In the Absence of the Sun opens with the sound of Muslim calls to prayers (salat). It's probably the last prayer of the day and a signal to the start of the night, in which most of the film occurs. The film is really a portrait of the bustling city of Jakarta when night falls and presents a meeting of hearts and minds, of honesty and vulnerability. The original title, Selamat Pagi, Malam (Good morning, Night, in Bahasa Melayu) in fact, seems to sum up what underlying sentiments in the film, and perhaps 'Jakartans', - to embrace the night.
Three stories intersect throughout this melancholic-bittersweet feature, with a nice mix of humor interjected within. It is quite clear from the start to the audience that the primary themes in In the Absence of the Sun are loss and longing. The first story of Gia, an Indonesian born New Yorker, finds herself slightly overaged (in terms of marriageability in the Indonesian society context) and misplaced as she returns to the country she came from. Gia looks a long-time friend up, only to find that the latter has adjusted comfortably in this city they now both reside in. Despite the obvious gap between them that has grown since they last met, the duo bond over roadside stall noodles, laughing at the chichi practices of high society Jakarta. Though the inner conflict of identities in each of the girls, director Lucky Kuswandi seems to paint a analagous picture of a city in transition and transformation, creating a thoughtful link between people and space.
In the next plotline, Mrs Surya who has been recently widowed, discovers that her late husband had been cheating on her with a lounge singer. Seeking answers and solace, she visits the nightclub where the mistress works to understand the betrayal and cope with her grief. Comic relief ensues with the introduction of a drag queen, who lets Mrs Surya on about her late husband’s mistress’s own troubles. Later on, she also takes a leap and hires a gigolo (the mistress’s husband) with money from her late husband’s wallet and leaves her number for the man to call her back with as she slips out in the morning – a final act of vengeance on her dead philandering spouse.
Parallel to these two stories, Irini, an aspirational social climber working as a towel girl in a gym brands herself as a sales girl on an online dating app and encounters a disappointing date with a wealthy (but very unattractive) man. She later meets a kindred spirit (who else but the charming waiter at the restaurant whom she was checking out) over the course of the night and loses her virginity to him at the dingy love motel (The Lone Star) where all three characters end up staying at by daybreak.
The motel, aptly named, offers temporary comfort to the characters, but as far as pay-for-service accommodation go, they can never provide the repose our characters are really looking for. In fact, the characters seem to find solace and cover in the night sky (which visually frames the film) which has a disarming effect and allows them to discover more about themselves (and things about the people close to them).
Credit goes to Lucky who also wrote the screenplay for blending these three stories seamlessly without feeling too contrived. While the mechanics of a characters meeting in a motel is interesting, the film is firmly grounded in its rich characterisation and its sensitive approach to portraying these characters, from their lingo to their mannerisms. Another notable aspect of the film is the well-paced editing that transported us from one character's world to the next, at a highly comfortable and natural tempo. And while the film aims to inject a sometimes humorous look at these lives, it never succumbs to 'humour orchestration' but instead draws humour from the nature of the characters and the situations instead.
An entirely honest and unpretentious piece, it is very likely to strike the chords in many audiences’ hearts and strangely, Singaporeans are also likely to find many parallels to their own lives in this film, even though we are two different cities. What I liked most about it were the poetic sensibilities evident and consistent across the entire film, all steadily paced across its 94 minutes. Now, if only I may know what happens to the three women after dawn..
Review by Gwen Xu & Jeremy Sing
'In the Absence of the Sun' is filmmaker Lucky Kuswandi's second feature film. It was the closing show of the 25th Singapore International Film Festival.