In The Absence Of The Sun sees love and hate for Jakarta

Mrs Surya (Dayu Wijanto, left, with an actor playing a club patron), a wealthy widow, discovers her late husband’s disturbing secret. -- PHOTO: SINGAPORE INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL
Mrs Surya (Dayu Wijanto, left, with an actor playing a club patron), a wealthy widow, discovers her late husband’s disturbing secret. -- PHOTO: SINGAPORE INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL

Film-maker Lucky Kuswandi expresses his mixed feelings towards the megacity through the lives of three women

The closing film of the Singapore International Film Festival is both a love letter and a fist shaken at the megacity of Jakarta, home of Indonesian film-maker Lucky Kuswandi.

The drama In The Absence Of The Sun (Selamat Pagi, Malam; 2014, 94 minutes, M18) expresses his mixed feelings towards the city of his birth and where he lives today.

"There is this chaotic energy that keeps drawing me in. Every time I leave, I have to return. It is addictive," he says in an e-mail interview.

But the most populous city in South-east Asia has a way of sucking the individuality out of each of its 10 million citizens, turning them into people who "cannot stop consuming and taking, constantly receiving without any intention of giving back".

The 34-year-old writer-director puts the focus on three female inhabitants, each representing a different life stage and socio-economic class.

Gia (Adinia Wirasti) is a 32-year-old who has returned from years spent in the West and finds that she no longer belongs. Mrs Surya (Dayu Wijanto), a wealthy widow in her late 40s, discovers her late husband's disturbing secret. Indri (Ina Panggabean), 24, is a meagrely paid gym assistant who dreams of meeting a rich man.

In their lives are the details that make the city both a source of affection and frustration for Kuswandi, who will be attending the screening of his film on Dec 14 at 7.15pm at Marina Bay Sands. He will take questions after the screening.

Satirical observations are scattered throughout.

From a street hawker, Indri buys a shopping bag emblazoned with a luxury brand to impress a date. Mrs Surya is importuned for a donation to make herself look good to a priest; and Gia meets friends at a restaurant, only to find that they whip out their smartphones at the tiniest lull in a conversation.

Everything - religion, relationships, food - has been commodified and turned into a signifier of class status, says Kusmandi, who studied film at the Art Centre College of Design in California and released his first film, the action-comedy Madam X, in 2010.

For his second feature, he made the protagonists female because "women are the most disadvantaged in this city".

"They are expected to conform. We call Jakarta 'ibu kota', meaning the mother of all cities. It will always be female in my eyes, yet it employs a patriarchal viewpoint," he says.

The three women, over the course of a night that ends in the same love hotel, discover more humane truths about their city. "At night, the city seems to take a pause from the traffic and the madness. People unmask themselves and show who they really are. Maybe because it's dark and nobody's watching. They don't have to pretend," he says.

Kuswandi and the crew took to the streets last year to make the low-budget work. Finding locations that mirrored the emotions in the story was crucial, he says.

"Most of the outdoor scenes were shot guerilla- style. But we planned the shoot in detail, so it was very quick - in and out," he adds.

And for one place, the film has inadvertently become a historical document.

"Some locations, like the cake market, are open only at night. It's now closed for good because of a recent fire. Nothing stays forever in Jakarta," he says.

johnlui@sph.com.sg