Screenplay: Edwin, Titien Wattimena and Daud Sumolang
Cast: Ladya Cheryl as Lana; Nicholas Saputra as The Cowboy; Klarysa Aurelia as Young Lana
Synopsis: Lana (Ladya Cheryl) has been brought up in a zoo since she was a child. She will come to see the world outside the zoo when a cowboy magician (Nicholas Saputra) walks into her life.
This was something of a disappointment after all these years of wanting to see the film...Edwin, he with only one name, made some pretty inventive and idiosyncratic short films before this feature, from slice of life realism with a hazy sheen similar to Apichatpong Weerasethakul to an odd silent film, mythological tale hybrid. From these shorts, any chance for there to be an idiosyncratic filmmaker from Indonesia would've been welcomed, as long as he either honed his style into a distinct one from these vastly different sources or just made a great feature. As much of this is a desire to be a celluloid tourist of the world, that cinema should spring up from all the countries of the world, even the most obscure former colony islands, and have individuals within them who produce films uniquely of their own heritage and styles. Indonesia in particular, considering its exceptionally large cinematic output, is talked about with more interest (and availability of the films) in terms of cult audiences, from the crazier films of the eighties or so like Mystics in Bali (1981) to Gareth Evan's work with films like The Raid (2011). Considering the size of its industry, it's bizarre you only hear of films in detail with a festival review, rarely accessible for the common folk. In fact only Postcards from the Zoo has really had any extensive availability in terms of Edwin's work.
That said, Postcards from the Zoo is not the film I wished for, having waited years to finally see it. Those shorts Edwin made were wildly varying in their stylistic influences, and sadly this feature is an unfocused mess of influences, one which manages over ninety minutes to not have any real interest to it. Thankfully we live in an era where films from the furthest regions of the globe can be made with greater ease and presented to someone in a far away country...unfortunately, there are also films like Postcards from the Zoo structured around the homogenised version of post 2000s art house aesthetic, where the camera rarely moves and realism means there's little sense of individuality to these films, less about a person's home land and possible to switch geographic location of with little impact to the string bare plots. For every director who has used this style to create their own voice - from Weerasethakul to earlier directors from beforehand like Tsai Ming-liang - there's also those which cause me to reconsider and realise that the rushed and hurried genre films churned out from countries like Indonesia actually more rewarding as cultural artefacts as they are more entertaining.
It's quite dumbfounding how little actually happens in Postcards.... With its chaptered structure based on dictionary explanations for words that would be discussed in a zoo-based environment, metaphorical of the female lead's change from a young girl who grew up in the zoo to the giraffe obsessed, Amelie-like pixie she is as an adult, there's little that actually happens in terms of her plot or any events that happen within the film. Neither is there a fully fleshed out sense of this being merely a slice-of-life story of zoo keepers which would've been as rewarding, especially as the few slivers of joy to find in the film surround the zoo animals. Be it a keeper trying to convince a tiger to eat, role playing its fear of killing and eating chickens, to the film camera merely shooting a live hippopotamus, these are the only periods where a real sense of pleasure comes from the film. The story of this young woman we follow could've been a fascinating mix of naturalist slice of life (especially as the zoo follows both zoo keepers and unofficial staff who live on the premises in tents), zoological facts, and magic realism but the final work is none of this.
Edwin does tries to have a plot eventually, but with our heroine joining a cowboy magician, a plot thread that never reaches anything remotely interesting in itself, the film never committing to it as a plot and having become too wacky as a result of this plot thread to change directions. The material surrounding this - the woman suddenly dressing like a stereotypical Native Indian maiden and being his assistant - is strange with no connective tissue to the story before. Neither does her transition to working in a message parlour that also offers sexual favours, when the cowboy disappears inexplicably, reach anything of interest as its also unfocused and like Audrey Tautou's Amelie, the heroine is completely in her own world of whimsy even in those circumstances, undermining the sharp transition. Neither strange and whimsical, continually returning to an animal theme playground with rides, neither realistic and adult with anything of interest to say.
Abstract Spectrum: Magic Realism/Whimsical
Abstract Rating (High/Medium/Low/None): None
In the best of esoteric art cinema, you will be surprised to find the best directors even with their slow, minimalist styles can have levity, lightness and even full blown playfulness, the cultural vegetables of the medium as they're unfairly described having a surprising amount of sauce and flavour to them. Postcards from the Zoo is not one such work. Neither one tone or another, just a cobbled together creation that I sadly anticipated for years to see.