Freak Folk

I just love it when this happens: Barely two weeks into the new year and here comes Opera Jawa, a surrealist Indonesian pomo-folkloric/funkadelic musical–slash–avant-garde pop-and-lock revolutionary romance–slash–Hindu song-and-dance-installation art extravaganza. It would be unseemly, so soon, to big-up OJ as one of the best films of 2008, so to keep things circumspect, let’s just call it a nonpareil Ramayana boogie-down gong drum, with a tembang gamelan xylophone huzzah and super-tight moves on the wayang orang tip.

You feel me?

Clap hands for Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, the man who made it possible. Opening for a weeklong run as the featured title in the Museum of Modern Art’s annual Global Lens series, Opera Jawa bounces on-screen courtesy of New Crowned Hope, a multidisciplinary arts festival commemorating Wolfie’s 250th birthday. Sponsored by the city of Vienna and inaugurated in 2006 by director Peter Sellars, NCH chose renowned programmer Simon Field to curate and produce its film selection. They chose very well indeed. Opera Jawa follows a hit parade of NCH knockouts: Syndromes and a Century, I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone, Half Moon, and Daratt, highlight of Global Lens 2007.

Opera Jawa honors the spirit of Mozart with its playful, joyous musicality, which sounds to my ears—unschooled as they are in Southeast Asian instrumentation— like the sprightly early works of minimalist composer Terry Riley coupled to the pad-like percussion twangs of John Cage’s prepared piano.

Visually, the movie is a radiant folk fantasia, at once sophisticated and elemental, freewheeling and composed. Keenly observed naturalistic details segue into elaborate puppet nightmares (regional artists collaborated on the production and costume design); demonic pantomime mixes with proletarian breakdancing; erotic duets give way to egotistical solos staged beside a bloody slab of beef on a floor strewn with bright red candles in the shape of melting man heads.

Written and directed by Garin Nugroho, OJ derives its libretto (yes, there is a plot, which I’ve avoided talking about since, having devoted all of my attention to gobbling up the sights and grooving to the music, I’m relying on Google to reconstruct what, exactly, this wondrous thing is “about”) from a popular segment of a canonical Hindu epic. Siti (lovely Artika Sari Devi), a retired dancer, plies the pottery trade with her husband Setia (handsome Martinus Miroto). Once Setia sets off from the village to drum up more business (never have the words “The market for earthenware has crashed!” sounded more divine), Siti is set upon by local bad boy Ludiro (ferocious Eko Supriyanto). Various conflicts—sexual, Oedipal, Marxist, mythological—ensue.

As do a maze constructed of coconut shells; an enormous ribbon of bright red fabric wound through an emerald landscape; a Javanese honky-tonk jam led by a fat man with tits nearly as big and impressive as his voice; and more—much, much, and marvelous more.

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