Friday, January 11, 2008

Ghost World

It was a delight to discover that Joko Anwar's Kala had appeared unannounced in our cinemas. And so it wasn't a big surprise to find that I was the only one in the cinema hall this afternoon, having the place all to myself, although the darkness became slightly scary during the creepy bits.

Kala has been deceptively labelled as a noir thriller, and it certainly had me thinking it was a hard-boiled detective story. But what a complete surprise the first half-hour or so turns out to be. Kala isn’t just a noir crime thriller. It has elements of horror, fantasy and political intrigue. It’s a nice mix, with gorgeous visuals and a creepy and disturbing atmosphere, but it also has a huge problem towards the end.

I loved Janji Joni, Joko’s 2005 loving ode to cinema, one of the best films to come out of Indonesia. You could see how much Joko is influenced by Hollywood cinema, from the Fight Club-like opening minutes to the old-time romance at the heart of the film.

But don’t expect the same feel-good-ness in Kala. This is one very dark, very ominous and graphically violent film. The first two-thirds of it is almost like Dark City as envisioned by Kiyoshi Kurosawa.

The story takes place in an unnamed republic where political tension is at an all-time high, where mobs are going wild with rampage and indiscriminate killings. It’s never made clear what the problems in the country are, but Joko clearly paints a portrait of a society quickly degenerating into civil unrest, apathy, corruption and blind rage, a society on the brink of swallowing itself whole.

The story involves the murder of five men, a not-so-typical detective, a narcoleptic reporter, the name of a mysterious place that everyone's after, gangsters, and the frightening apparition of a pale man. Interesting, eh?

Joko plays with noir conventions, but sometimes he turns some of them on their heads. The world the director creates feels extremely real, full of dilapidated buildings and decrepit apartments, and smoky underground jazz bars and rain-soaked streets. The disturbing atmosphere, draped mostly in dusky light, is very, very unsettling, and Joko punctuates the moments with equally dreary music. This looks like a ghost world, where people move through the shadows like lost spirits, and the air has the mossy taste of a tomb. Joko takes the shadowy noir setting and builds it into the perfect backdrop for horror.

From the very first frame, you’d know that you’re watching a very unusual, offbeat thriller. The story keeps you guessing at every turn. Clues are dropped, characters are introduced who add to the web of intrigue, and there’s constantly the feeling that there’s a huge surprise waiting just around the corner. The supernatural and the noir sit so well together in Joko’s hands that it seems like a forgone conclusion that they’re natural partners in crime.

But as the mystery gradually unravels, so does the story, losing itself to some degree of video-game its suddenly hip ending. The wonderfully realised atmosphere gives way to a stylised, hipped-up idea of archipelago myth and mysticism, with a touch of sword and sorcery. Suddenly, from Raymond Chandler-meets-Clarke Ashton-Smith in an Alex Proyas city, we’re right smack in Resident Evil territory. It’s a very bizarre direction to take, and one that makes the ending seem like it’s from another film.

But there’s no denying Joko’s visual artistry here, and his ability to build a palpable, otherworldly mood and atmosphere. Despite the strange turn of events at the end, Kala is still quite a film, and definitely something very different. I don’t believe I’ve seen anything from Indonesia quite like it. It’s worth checking out for its seamless mix of noir, horror and a good old detective yarn. Just watch out for that ending!

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