Indonesian writer-director Kamila Andini (The Mirror Never Lies, The Seen and Unseen, Yuni) describes her fourth feature as “a simple period film, employing a gentle touch and subtle compositions,” although that’s a bit of an undersell. True, it’s not a loud or particularly flashy work. But Andini and her collaborators, especially lead actor Happy Salma, offer a precisely calibrated, emotionally nuanced exploration of one woman going through a mid-life crisis in rural Indonesia during the 1960s that both looks and sounds stunning thanks to above-and-beyond craft contributions.
Given Andini hasn’t broken through to the arthouse market in the same way as some of her Oceanic contemporaries have, especially certain male directors from the Philippines like Lav Diaz and Brillante Mendoza, exposure beyond festivals, upmarket streamers and very niche venues is unlikely for Before, Now & Then.
Before, Now & Then
An intoxicating, slow-burn melodrama.
But never say never, especially when a film is backed by influential boutique sales agent Wild Bunch. Maybe if it wins an award here and there after its debut in competition at the Berlinale that will help boost exposure for a consistently compelling work from a woman director on the ascent.
Andini’s previous, Toronto Platforms-award-winner Yuni delivered a lively, contemporary portrait of a bright teenage girl (Arawinda Kirana, contributing a cameo here) quietly bucking the patriarchy with her hope of attending university. This latest work looks at the experience of a woman Nana (Salma) from several generations back, around the mid-1960s when vaguely leftist-nationalist President Sukarno, the first leader of the newly independent Indonesia, was violently deposed by CIA-backed General Suharto.
Here, the political strife and violent conflict quietly rumble away in the background, often preoccupying the attention of Nana’s much older husband Mr. Darga (Arswendy Bening Swara, showing off some very nifty dance moves throughout), who monitors the situation on his old-school vacuum-tube radio.
In essence, this is a portrait of a marriage, not a terribly happy one but one that still has a few embers of love, respect and affection glowing. The opening scene, set during the struggle for independence in the 50s, finds local beauty Nana trying to hide with a babe in arms in the forest with her sister. They’re hiding from soldiers who would take the women for their own now, especially since their father has been killed (performed as if it’s happening in the present a few yards away) and Nana’s first husband Raden Icang (Ibnu Jamil) has disappeared, presumed dead.
That whole sequence is presumably the story’s titular “before”; its “now” unfolds in the 60s, with Nana remarried to plantation owner Darga, by whom she’s had four further children, the one from her first marriage having died. Andini’s earlier features were notable for the way she elicits terrifically natural performances from kids, and that’s just as much the case here, especially from adorable Chempa Puteri, who plays seven- or eight-year-old Dais, a lively, warmhearted kid especially attached to her mother.
Nana is likewise attached to her, but accidentally harmonizing with a suddenly topical theme of women with ambivalent feelings about parenting (see The Lost Daughter), she’s also a bit distant with the other kids. A wealthy woman now who married well and is looked down on by the other, snobbier women in the community, she takes her work guiding the farm’s agronomic regimen seriously and has made the family business a success. Meanwhile, various maids and nannies look after the children. That emotional distance has been enhanced, we later learn, by the fact that Nana and Darga were advised by a witch doctor to farm the older kids out for a while in order to avoid an assumed curse that killed Nana’s first born.
The biggest dampener, however, of Nana’s domestic bliss is her discovery that Darga has been cheating on her with Ina (Laura Basuki), a butcher in the town market who looks, with her fall of raven hair and frank gaze, like a a younger, not quite as stunning version of Nana herself. (If it’s not too objectionable to say these days about an actor: Salma really has the most astonishingly beautiful face, enhanced with an immense range of expressive subtlety that’s reminiscent of Juliette Binoche, and the curvaceous figure of a young Sophia Loren, or Kim Kardashian if that’s your frame of reference. She also moves with an uncanny, slow grace, like she’s moving according to a frame rate from the silent era.)
Just when you think this is all setting the story up for a huge girl-on-girl showdown, Andini and co-screenwriter Ahda Imran pull the rug out from under us by having Nana and Ina become friends, drawn together in part by their shared love for little Dais. There’s something more to their friendship, which has a very faint Sapphic vibe (perhaps due to Indonesia’s strict censorship), but either way both women have secrets they keep, as Nana tells Dais, hidden in the knotted buns of their prim up-dos, secured with ornate hair pins.
The plot, with its clandestine meetings and sudden reappearances of characters thought dead, is essentially melodrama, but told with sly obliqueness and high cinematic style. Composer Ricky Lionnardi’s swooning, string-forward score, all tango syncopation and plucked notes, owes a huge debt to Michael Galasso and Shigeru Umebayashi’s indelible soundtrack for Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood for Love, with choice vintage needle drops from Indonesian popular music of the time. (Please release a soundtrack or at least a playlist somewhere.)
Wong’s masterpiece is also a bit of a touchstone here for DP Batara Goempar’s woozy, saturated camerawork, and the deeply coded use of color in the costumes. The result is an intoxicating work that holds the viewer in a tight, loving embrace that won’t let go.