One imagines most of the corps of Java’s singers, dancers, actors, mime artists, and designers worked on this delightful, sexually charged and revolutionary ‘opera’, played out in the colourful fields and bustling towns of Java. Co- produced by director Garin Nugroho , it has its origins as one of the sometimes inspired, sometimes wacky, projects engendered by Peter Sellars’ New Crowned Hope festival which aimed to combine ‘art and social action’. Thus, Nugroho’s semi-naturalist, though all-sung, modernist spin on the ancient (Sanskrit) tale of the divided heart of Rama’s wife Sinta, reverses and gently undermines traditional moralities and points of view, allowing him to qualify his extravagant celebration of Indonesian culture while simultaneously acknowledging some of the discomforts of political, social and sexual inequality.
If all the spectacular artifice seems a little overwhelming at times, Nugroho’s film, nevertheless, retains a simple emotional core sustained by sensitive and expressive performances from, among others, Artika Sari Devi as the beautiful, ex-dancer Siti and Martinus Miroto as her (wrongfully?) jealous potter husband, a sweet and involving, Gamelin-based score by Rahayu Supanggah, and some exquisite cinematography by Teoh Gay Hin. Even if you’re an east Asian film expert, you won’t have seen anything like this before nor be quite prepared for some of its erotic, even camp excesses. Some of the cut-away dance set-pieces seemed a little de trops for this writer, as did some of the kaleidoscopically changing design, but approached as a nationalist re-envisioning of the film musical, in the manner of ‘Black Orpheus’, it’s a treat, vital, fresh, and surprisingly emotionally involving.