Review: Normal Love - Shorts by Edwin


Hulahoop Soundings 

‘“Normal Love”—we title this programme thus with a sense of irony, to say the least.’

So goes a sentence in the synopsis for a catalogue of Edwin’s short films, which rounded off a month of screenings under Asian Film Archive’s SEA of Sadness programme. This line, equal parts bold and bizarre, inevitably caught my fancy. As someone who regularly absorbs non-Hollywood cinema and considers herself fairly open to the occasional oddball of a film, I know that it would take a lot for fellow filmgoers to regard something as well-balanced on the tightrope of normalcy/strangeness. That they do not hesitate to call it “normal”, and then assess their judgment as ironic in one fell swoop, testifies to the successful integration of nuance in Edwin’s films.

It is with this consideration in mind that I settled myself into the now-familiar comforts of Oldham Theatre. When I emerged over an hour later, strung briskly along seven of the multi-hyphenate mastermind’s productions, it wasn’t difficult to see what the programming team had meant.

Variable No. 3 

The body of work exhibited here is fascinating. It begins on a realistic note with Variable No. 3 (2018) (though in hindsight this appraisal is made possible only by the appearance of indecipherable narratives later on) when a couple finds themselves on vacation in Tokyo. Soon, however, one begins to notice certain unconventions: not only is the Indonesian couple sexually liberated onscreen, they are also not bound to conservative Muslim-motivated portrayals. In other words, Edwin’s exploration of issues of intimacy, amongst them marriage and sexual taboos, has been carefully eviscerated from a religious context. I obsessed over this detail, which went on to prove itself a key feature in his subsequent short films.

At first, the obsession was self-reflexive. What does it say about me and the position I occupy in society that I find dissonance in watching sexually-charged depictions of Indonesian characters? What lens am I bringing with me into the cinema, consciously or otherwise, when I realise that these depictions shake me up though I identify as a social progressive? We often hear about film as a medium that holds up a mirror to ourselves; it absolutely delighted me that I should experience this so wholly and vividly here.

Later, the questions began projecting themselves outwards. One of the biggest questions I had was about the filmmaker’s distorted relationship with sex.

We often identify sex as the problem but this, Edwin proposes, is misguided. He argues that as a core facet of lived human subjectivity, sex is objective, neutral and universal. Per the programme title, it isn’t that love is the do-gooder and sex the devil in the dark; rather, sex springs from love, and what sex produces is irrevocably shaped by the love it had proceeded from.

Hulahoop Soundings

In Hulahoop Soundings (2008), Heidy suspects her boyfriend Nico has been bewitched by their colleague, Lana. Whether black magic is involved or not, the point is, the moments of sexual intimacy that arise between Lana and Nico are so much more powerful because of how intensely Nico desires her. When Heidy tries to rekindle their relationship by imitating Lana’s peculiar hula hoop antics in bed, Nico spares little more than polite disinterest. His love for Lana is all-consuming; it naturally follows that the sex should be bursting with passion.

Trip to the Wound

Likewise, the sexual encounter in Trip to the Wound (2008) is expectedly jarring. When Shila and Carlo meet on a bus one night, she plies him with stories about scars that she has collected, her enthusiasm overly palpable. However, it takes someone as daft and oblivious as Carlo to not realise that if he must trail his fingers up her legs to find her scar, then perhaps we are no longer talking only about scars in a physical sense. Since what could have been a pleasurable sexual encounter had issued from an invisible but traumatic part of Shila’s history, it becomes unavoidably bizarre.

Given these, it is easy to see why Variable No. 3 suggests a ménage à trois as the solution to a troubled marriage, particularly when both individuals in the marriage are unable to see the problems brewing beneath the surface. If a broken heart produces dysfunctional sex, and passionate lovemaking originates from fierce desire, then the only way to diagnose and cure one’s marriage troubles is to put it to a test—specifically, a sex test. Toss in a new variable. Shake things up. All truths will come to light.

It may sound like I’m at the apex of analysing Edwin’s films, but I have barely scratched the surface. The rest of his showcase—which also draws back further in time—veers into more unsteady ground. A Very Boring Conversation (2006) and A Very Slow Breakfast (2002) are two pieces that hint strongly at sexual relations that cross certain unquestioned boundaries. Meanwhile, Dajang Soembi, the Woman Who Was Married to a Dog (2004) is a silent film retelling of an Indonesian folktale with a clear Oedipal theme, Sangkuriang. What is apparent here is Edwin’s continual negotiation of his relationship with sex.

A Very Boring Conversation

A Very Slow Breakfast

Dajang Soembi, the Woman Who Was Married to a Dog

What I found most perturbing and prevailing throughout Normal Love was Edwin’s problematic portrayals of women and female sexuality. Sure, maybe they hint at his own issues with the feminine figure in his personal relationships, but I’m not interested in that. What I’m more concerned with is the aftermath of being seized by these rather vapid projections of women through his otherwise bold and innovative lens, and how that might inhibit the audience's understanding of what it means to challenge stereotypes in a conservative country.

For instance, just because a society considers it de rigeur for a woman to be cloaked in lengthy garments, doesn’t mandate that a liberal female, in contrast, must traipse around wintry foreign countries in a miniskirt and thigh-high boots. It would not do to free a woman from one stereotype only to pigeonhole her in another. Edwin’s female characters come across uncomfortably as stock characters and rarely have the opportunity to explore their interiorities, even when they are the lead character.

Male filmmakers traditionally have a history of failing to do justice to their female characters. Though my critique may come across as overwrought, it exists precisely because of the merits I recognise in Edwin’s stylistic quirks. His films are bold, experimental and deeply invigorating in a nearly saturated scene, where filmmakers often make the mistake of condensing what should be a feature-length story, or bisect a story so much it is essentially a prolonged snapshot. If we are going to talk about shattering stereotypes, let us not forget that the biggest faux pas to avoid making is a rule to be adhered to for good reason.

Review by Eisabess Chee

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