Indonesian director Edwin at a park in Hong Kong. (Kin Cheung / For The Times )
HONG KONG — It's a warm, humid day halfway into the city's International Film Festival, and Edwin — a rising Indonesian indie filmmaker with his single name born of tradition rather than manufactured Hollywood artifice — is trying to explain how he shapes the aesthetic of his films. It all begins with a single image.
For "Postcards From the Zoo," an ethereal fairy-tale-like story of a child abandoned at Jakarta's Ragunan Zoo that is in competition, it was raindrops on an elephant's hide. The rain comes only rarely in the film, a gentle, cleansing caress of an image that you see early on; but its sense of cooling grace and intricate patterns carries through the film.
The story begins with a little girl lost, a 5-year-old wandering the zoo and calling for her father, but soon shifts to a teenage Lana (Ladya Cheryl), the child now grown, raised by the zookeepers and the vagrants who live on the grounds. Lana, filled with the wonder of the zoo, may be lost but she is not sad or lonely.
Though it is a feelings-driven film, it is also one of metaphors, with the line between what is animal and what is human, at least when it comes to behavior, a thin one. Statements on title cards — "Conservation: removing a species from its habitat" — are dropped in along the way as commentary. At other times the filmmaker turns to something more evocative — a scene showing Lana reaching for the soft underbelly of a giraffe that is out of reach.
"I want the audience to feel that longing for touch, for being touched," says Edwin, 33, by turns introspective, funny, insightful and candid.
As distinctive as Edwin is, he is just one of a new wave of Indonesian filmmakers testing boundaries as the country figures out just how liberated it wants to be since a dictatorship dissolved in 1998. Popular, Jakarta-based indie director Teddy Soeriaatmadja has a film in competition here as well. His "Lovely Man" is a father-daughter story with cross-currents of religion and cultural taboos, since the father is a transvestite, a modern-day outcast, and the daughter is a devout young Muslim, in a country overwhelmingly Muslim, who at 19 has gotten herself in a bit of a mess.
Indeed, it seems that the Indonesian avant garde is having a moment. "The Raid: Redemption," an action thriller that just had a surprisingly strong opening in Los Angeles, is from Welsh-born director Gareth Evans, whose love of martial arts films, and some hard economic times back home, led him to relocate to Jakarta. The country's state of transition and internal turmoil seem to be helping ferment a richer stream of creative risk takers, even as it tries to control it. Regardless, the country's emerging filmmakers are producing some of the most original and exciting cinema we've seen from that region in years, though Edwin has decamped to Amsterdam for the near term to pursue his master's degree.
As gentle as Edwin's new film is, it is talking about types of captivity. Like the animals, Lana lives within the safety and the confines of the zoo; and like the animals, she watches and is watched by those who visit. Still, this captive world is an idyllic and exquisite one, the shots lingering on the animals, particularly the lone giraffe.
Edwin was just named the Asian Film Awards' Edward Yang New Talent winner, in part because, as festival executive director Roger Garcia puts it, Edwin is "a game changer." "Postcards" was in the running for the Golden Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival in February. His next stop will be the Tribeca Film Festival in New York later this month.
Part of Edwin's originality rests in his visual style, which always has a surreal element. In "Postcards" it comes in the form of a handsome magician in a cowboy hat (Nicholas Saputra), his glowing light tricks and dark intrigues luring Lana over the wall and into the real world.
For Edwin, the film is a mix of childhood memories and his lyrical musings on life and relationships.
"I remember zoos as a child as very comfortable places, quiet against the noise of the city. If I go to explore in new places now, what kind of people live there, to get a sense of it, I spend time at the zoo," he says.
Indeed, the time he spent shooting at the Jakarta zoo softened his opposition to the notion of confinement. He found an ecosystem that allowed for some independence, with one hippopotamus notorious for climbing out of his enclosure at night to amble over to the elephants, always making his way back before morning.