Film Review: Fiction | fiksi. (2008)

Winner of the Best Director award at JIFFEST 2008, Mouly Surya’s directorial debut, fiksi. details the physical emancipation and resultant psychological unravelling of a young woman, Alisha (Ladya Cheryl).

Opening with an eerie instrumental score—its opening notes reminiscent of a music box—and a shot filled with a row of wide-eyed, immaculately dressed dolls, we watch as Alisha reaches out to take a doll, peering out of her bedroom window. As though a doll trapped within her own dollhouse herself, Surya’s protagonist is the quintessential rich girl trapped in a gilded cage. 

Bound to a sheltered life in a large house under the watchful eyes of family maid and driver, Tuti (Rina Hassim) and Bambang (Egi Fedly), her days are occupied by literally nothing more than playing the cello and dreaming of a life of her own. Beneath the life of luxury, Alisha remains plagued by the trauma of witnessing her mother's violent death.

The lull of her monotonous existence is broken by the charming Bari (Donny Alamsyah), a part-time pool cleaner and aspiring writer temporarily contracted at her family home who catches her attention. After following him home and seeing that he cohabitates with his girlfriend, Renta (Kinaryosih), she moves into the empty flat next door, and emerges as the seemingly ideal neighbour.

Surya’s direction is thoughtful in its attention to detail: in her first taste of freedom, Alisha’s demeanour is more sociable, a little less prim in her dress though still noticeably better put-together in her appearance than all of the other tenants in the building. The scene where she practices her cello playing for the first time in her new flat symbolically conveys the coalescing of two worlds as her old life and this new life she has crafted for herself come full circle—she plays Camille Saint-Saëns' “La Cygne” in her room, bright and full of light, a stark contrast to the dark, mouldy hallways of their block of flats. As the Saint-Saëns piece fills the air, a guitar accompaniment joins in, and Bari hurriedly enters with his guitar in tow, cleverly alluding to this merging of two worlds, or perhaps, foreshadowing the intrusion of Alisha’s into his own.

Like Virgil did for Dante, the neighbourly Bari tours Alisha through their gloomy block of flats, climbing an apt 9 storeys. Each storey is a world of its own, a microcosm for each of these classes of individuals and the lives, both public and private, that they lead. Here, we see arguably some of the best cinematography in the film, as each floor varies so greatly in its depiction of how its inhabitants are framed onscreen, the stolen moments of their lives that we are able to catch glimpses of, and how that is artfully conveyed with different lighting and composition.

Just as how Bari’s stories are tenuously dependent upon reality, he is eager and frustrated to see how these private narratives he observes from afar will culminate but denies himself the creative agency to determine those endings for himself. He explains, “the difference between fiction and reality is that in fiction there’s an ending; in reality, life goes on.”

Eventually, the plot becomes a touch too predictable, falling into the trope of an infatuated young girl willing to do anything and everything for the object of her affection – here, manifesting as her willingness to help Bari to finish his book. As dictated by conventions of the thriller genre, Alisha inevitably becomes something of a fille fatale; her seemingly naïve exterior and childish affection gradually giving way to an unstable malevolence and obsession. When she seduces Bari after her first foray in rendering his speculative narratives into reality, she mirrors and succeeds in what he failed to do in writing within the realms of the real.

As the climax of the film approaches, dreams – the very intersection of reality as manifested in memory intensified by the imagination – acquire a sudden importance of their own, prompting questions of the power of agency, shared narratives, and the intrusion of external forces into internal worlds. Events begin to confusingly intersect and the screenplay, co-written by Joko Anwar and Surya, begins to feel a little disorganised in its relaying of the sequence of events, but one could argue that it adds to the unreality of the circumstances surrounding the three central characters, as their own lives are transformed into something worth writing about, a story in itself.

For its genre, the pace is a little too slow to really deem the film a true thriller as it delivers a slow burn in plot development and throwaway characters that never seem to reappear. Despite the obvious plot devices, an ambiguous ending is forced upon the viewer, the debate of imaginary v. real driven home once again, though seemingly redundant this time around. Despite its shortcomings, Surya capitalises on the use of overlapping mediums and interwoven narratives as a device to drive her direction and the plot.

In fiksi., we see multiple expressions of reality – as dreams, distorted memories, written narratives, word-of-mouth tales – and we see them as concentric circles, one nestled within the other like Russian nesting dolls as one sphere of reality borrows from the other, only to collide against the next. Surya delivers an exploration of the thin line between reality and fantasy and how we all live our own little subjective realities, overwrought and motivated by the need for self-agency; for what narratives we write for ourselves are ones equally subjected to our own erasure.

- Melissa Noelle Esguerra
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