With the recent release of Walt Disney Studio’s Oz the Great and Powerful (2013) and the upcoming release of the Steve Carrell, Steve Buscemi, and Jim Carrey comedy The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, magicians appear to be a hot commodity in Hollywood. And at least one Indonesian film got a jump on this magic meme well before it’s bound to go up like flash paper by the end of this year. Screening as part of CAAMFest in San Francisco running from March 14-24, Edwin’s Postcards from the Zoo is a magical ride through a zoo and an illicit massage parlor, with striking images peppered throughout.
Lana (played by Ladya Cheryl) is introduced as a young girl getting lost in the zoo. Soon after, she’s all grown up, presenting the possibility that she’s never left the zoo since entering its labyrinth. As a young adult, she is a Jane-of-all-trades , helping with the rides and the feeding and cleaning of the animals. The film consists of many images of Lana watching the animals, plus the animals watching her. She’s particularly fond of the giraffe, reciting various factoids about the creature.
Eventually Lana’s attention is drawn to a fellow human, a modern day urban Indonesian cowboy who performs magic tricks (played by Nicolas Saputra, the character is a man with no name.) Lana finds herself so drawn to his personal magic that he convinces her to leave the zoo for what appears to be her first steps into the outside world since she was three years old. It’s as if she is being re-introduced to the wild like some of the animals at the zoo will be. (Animal conservation terminologies are interspersed as title cards throughout the film.) Putting on a Native American costume to complement the magician’s cowboy persona, they become the two parts of a magic act. Searching for a space to perform, they consider a venue owned by a shady club owner. It is in this club that Lana later takes on the role of a different kind of magician, a masseuse/sex worker who constructs the make believe of fraudulent intimacy conjured up in such places.
How sex work is brought into the film is causal, too smooth to the point of being ironically a tad disruptive. It seems to be, at least partly, a means to get the film to sell to a Western market, bringing in the exotic and erotic. I, like Lana, was perfectly happy staying in the enclosure of the zoo, watching the dreamy images of the animals and the surreal state of the often patron-less trains still moving along the tracks. At one point, we see tight focus on an elephant’s skin getting doused by the rain. If I were to have a Tumblr account, it would be the perfect segment to gif from this film. The voyeuristic vantage point of Lana’s eyes on the cowboy magician was an equally compelling dialogue-less narrative propelling the film.
The massage parlor is presented as another zoo, a visual rhyme with the enclosed animals we saw previously. (One of Lana’s customers apparently has some furry fantasies.) Still, it is women who are placed in that confine. And they are left conveying as if it is OK with them to be caged up for the viewing, and pleasure, of the male customers. Yet, another argument can be made that it is the male clients who are the animals, massaged, cleaned, and taken care of (‘finished off’) by the women. Now, I know enough from academic studies of sex workers that the range of work performed varies. (Is masturbating or fellating your client ‘sex’ or a means to avoid having to have intercourse with them?) And I also know that there is still room for ‘choice’ in such underground trades. (For a deeper discussion of the complexity of agency in sex work, see Rhacel Salazar Parreñas’ Illicit Flirtations: Labor, Migration, and Sex Trafficking in Tokyo, Stanford University Press, 2011.) But there is also a great deal of dangerous activity going on, from sex-trafficking to economic coercion. The creepiness of the brothel owner and the clear disinterest, if not unhappiness, of the naked woman sitting next to the owner in the scene where Lana and the magician agree to work as entertainers for his club is, perhaps, a hint at the evil that lies beneath the otherwise magical aura that permeates elsewhere throughout the brothel scenes in Postcards from the Zoo.
Director and co-writer Edwin (he goes professionally by only that single name) brings a soft-focus to sex work in the film. The kind of sex work advocates of legalization would hope for when we bring this work out of the shadows of economic illegitimacy. Yet, it’s clear we aren’t supposed to take this massage parlor seriously. The wider story of Postcards from the Zoo is perhaps one of Lana ‘growing up’ and learning how to handle the dangers of being re-introduced to the wild that is, I’ll assume, Jakarta. But there’s a part of me that finds this side venture more distracting than illuminating. Since the story doesn’t really require this subplot, it ends up feeling like something more for the titillation of the Western male viewer in order for Indonesian cinema to gain greater worldwide recognition then something necessary to demonstrate aspects of the character Lana’s growth as a person. The massage parlor isn’t a site for Lana’s pleasure. She seems to find her joy at the zoo.
Postcards from the Zoo screens tomorrow (03/22) at 8:45pm at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley as part of CAAMFest 2013. For more information and tickets: http://caamfest.com/2013/films/postcards-from-the-zoo/