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Top Indonesian Films for Global Cinephiles

Top Indonesian Films for Global Cinephiles
Top Indonesian Films for Global Cinephiles

Time to be charmed by the best of Indonesian cinema but also, educated about all the things that make up this complex, yet diverse nation.

Contrary to what our parents might think, films can be a profound means of education. From watching brilliantly crafted films, audiences can discover the more colourful facets of the world that they may not necessarily encounter in their respective lives. Films can also help their audiences forge a sense of empathy for different manifestations of lifestyles and humanities.

For expats and consummated cinephiles who are not yet familiar with the Indonesian cinema (let alone the light and darkness that makes up this country as a whole), these following films could be the introduction and also, the education that they may desperately need.

These 10 Indonesian films not only highlight the best of Indonesian cinema but also illuminate the cultural, historical and sociopolitical fabrics of this nation. If films scream louder truth than any school textbooks, then these films pretty much summarise what Indonesia truly is – the good, the bad and the complicated parts.

The films, as curated and recommended by Indonesia Expat, are presented below and in alphabetical order. 

Top Indonesian Films - Fiksi
Fiksi. [International Title: Fiction], 2008

The 2000s was not exactly Indonesian cinema’s finest hour considering how the whole industry was still re-finding itself after its long slumber in the 1990s. Fortunately, one film managed to step up and, furthermore, stand out. Narratively speaking, Fiksi. is a tale of psychopathic fantasies turned into a more harrowing reality. Philosophically speaking, though, Mouly Surya’s acclaimed work is a sly commentary on Jakarta in the 2000s as symbolised by an apartment complex and its colourful residents — from a traumatised young woman and hedonistic homosexuals to drug dealers and high-class prostitutes. Considered a reverse take on Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, the psychological thriller subliminally paints Jakarta’s collective state of mind post-New Order regime, during which the metropolis seemed to be more confused and disarrayed than ever. The unhinged Alisha, played brilliantly by Ladya Cheryl, could also be seen as a spiritual symbol to a whole new Indonesian generation who could not shake off the nation’s historical trauma in what was supposed to be a better future. Fiksi. is currently available to stream with added subtitles on Netflix.

Top Indonesian Films - Istirahatlah Kata-kata
Istirahatlah Kata-Kata
Istirahatlah Kata-Kata [International Title: Solo, Solitude], 2016

Considered Indonesian cinema’s hidden gem, Istirahatlah Kata-Kata is a rare kind of biopic in which film director and writer Yosep Anggi Noen presents the life of an Indonesian dramatist and poet named Widji Thukul whose whereabouts remain unknown. Thukul (portrayed by the magnificent Gunawan Maryanto) and his life as a litterateur-cum-activist intertwine with the militaristic New Order regime, and suspicions remain that the real-life Thukul was secretly abducted by the army. Moreover, the film’s surrealism underscores how political paranoia and invisible restrictions on freedom of speech continue to be the New Order’s unfortunate legacy. In 2017, Istirahatlah Kata-Kata received a Special Jury Award at the ASEAN International Film Festival and Awards. Istirahatlah Kata-Kata is currently available to stream with added subtitles on Bioskop Online.

Top Indonesian Films - Lovely Man
Lovely Man
Lovely Man, 2011

Indonesian film director and writer Teddy Soeriaatmadja put a delicate and humane lens on one of the most overlooked members of Indonesia’s metropolis: the Jakartan transwomen, many of whom work as sex workers. Featuring a career-best performance from Indonesian actor Donny Damara, Lovely Man tells the story of a transwoman-cum-sex worker named Ipuy (Damara) who unexpectedly encounters her religious daughter in Jakarta, the latter wishes to mend their estranged relationship. By illustrating how poverty, religion and sexuality can either make or break an Indonesian modern family, Lovely Man made a huge splash at the time of its release and was regarded as a classic, with Damara receiving the Best Actor trophy from the Asian Film Awards. The film’s legacy was further solidified as it became the first Indonesian film that features a transgendered person as its primary protagonist, helping pave the way for future transgender-focused films such as the 2017 documentary Bulu Mata and the 2023 drama pic Sara. Lovely Man is currently available to stream with added subtitles on Netflix.

Top Indonesian Films - Mencari Hilal
Mencari Hilal
Mencari Hilal [International Title: The Crescent Moon], 2015

Ismail Basbeth’s Mencari Hilal, since its theatrical premiere, continues drawing respect and admiration from Muslim and non-Muslim audiences in Indonesia for being one of the smartest religious films ever made. The family drama showcases one of Indonesia’s all-time greats, the late Deddy Sutomo, as an ageing, yet devout Muslim who, after watching the news that the country’s Ministry of Religion requires nine billion Rupiahs to find hilal (the arch of a crescent moon that marks the beginning of the Hijri month), decided to spot the arch himself — accompanied by his modern-minded, adult son. Throughout the film, Mencari Hilal cinematically argues how Islam is not necessarily an overly conservative religion that the modern generation (and the whole world) might assume. For his performance, Sutomo was recognised as Best Actor at the 2015 Indonesian Film Festival where the actor also received a standing ovation. Mencari Hilal is currently available to stream with added subtitles on Amazon Prime Video and Bioskop Online.

Top Indonesian Films - Posesif
Posesif, 2017

Indonesian teen dramas rarely depict the country’s adolescence for what it factually is – with the exception of rare, thought-provoking treasures such as Posesif. Even for the global film standard, the Indonesian psychological teen drama stands out for exploring a topic that remains, arguably, a niche to be explored by filmmakers around the world: Physical violence in dating. The film’s screenwriter, Gina S. Noer was inspired by her research in which she discovered that physical violence typically manifests in the early stages of a romantic relationship, and the victim is typically a teen or a young adult. Not only did Noer and the film’s director, Edwin, manage to shed light on the dark realities that have privately plagued many adolescents in the country, but they also managed to imbue heart and humanity to both the victim and the perpetrator. Edwin was later awarded Best Director at the 2017 Indonesian Film Festival. Posesif is currently available to stream with added subtitles on Netflix.

Top Indonesian Films - Sekala Niskala
Sekala Niskala
Sekala Niskala [International Title: The Seen and Unseen], 2017

Blending Balinese supernatural and spirituality, Kamila Andini’s indie drama Sekala Niskala unravels a different side to the Island of the Gods. The family drama follows Balinese twins whose lives change irreversibly when one of them discovers that the other twin is losing his senses and about to die. The twins decide to create a fantasy world of their own, in which they can always meet, play together and protect their bond. Through the twins, Sekala Niskala also illuminates the idea of ‘buncing’ to non-Balinese audiences. Regarded as one of the finest Bali-inspired films to date, Sekala Niskala charmed the audience and critics alike at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival and won the Grand Prix at the 2018 Berlin International Film Festival. Sekala Niskala is currently available to stream with added subtitles on Amazon Prime Video.

Top Indonesian Films - Salawaku
Salawaku, 2016

Wishing to educate yourself about The Maluku Islands and their culture? If that is the case, then Pritagita Arianegara’s Salawaku is the pic to watch next on your film playlist. The film’s titular protagonist is a Moluccan boy who wishes to find his lost sister, setting himself on a road trip with a wealthy Jakartan who harbours different perspectives and values than Salawaku. Not only does Arianegara delicately showcase the Moluccans’ distinctive heritage, but the film director also presents the modern, more complicated Indonesia in which a liberal-minded set of values can easily (and unexpectedly) collide with a traditional one, sparking both changes and tensions. Salawaku was also noted as the first Indonesian feature that received official support from the country’s Creative Economy Agency (BEKRAF). Salawaku is currently available to stream with added subtitles on Amazon Prime Video.

Tanda Tanya
Tanda Tanya
Tanda Tanya [International Title: Question Mark], 2011

Drawing both acclaim and criticism at the time of its release, Hanung Bramantyo’s Tanda Tanya touches on the not-so-sunny realities concerning interracial and inter-religious relationships in Indonesia – a theme that used to be a big no-no during the New Order regime. Tanda Tanya is a drama that tells the story of three different families who happen to reside in the same village in Semarang, Central Java: a Chinese family, a Muslim couple, and a born-again Catholic whose religion differs from her child. Even though the critics praised the film for its unflinching portrayal of Indonesia’s pluralism, the Islamic conservative group Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) petitioned Hanung Bramantyo to cut some of the scenes that the group found offensive, sparking nationwide conversations about how Indonesia’s religious pluralism should or should not be depicted in the media. Tanda Tanya is currently available to stream with added subtitles on Netflix.

Tjoet Nja' Dhien
Tjoet Nja’ Dhien
Tjoet Nja’ Dhien, 1988

Among all the Indonesian films depicting the nation’s colonial centuries, perhaps nothing shines more radiantly than the 1988 biopic Tjoet Nja’ Dhien. Still hailed as one of the greatest Indonesian films ever made, Tjoet Nja’ Dhien recounts the life of an Acehnese strategist, political mentor, and freedom fighter named Tjoet Nja’ Dhien who attempts to repeal the Royal Netherlands East Indies Army in Aceh in the late 19th century. The film is a creative showcase by two legendary Indonesian cinematic icons: Director-writer Eros Djarot and actress Christine Hakim. The film was later awarded Best Picture at the 1988 Indonesian Film Festival, with Djarot winning a trophy for Best Director and Hakim for Best Actress in a Leading Role. The film was also notable as the first Indonesian theatrical feature that was screened at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival. Tjoet Nja’ Dhien is currently available to stream with added subtitles on Netflix.

Yuni, 2021

First premiered at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival, Kamila Andini-helmed Yuni deftly illustrates a coming-of-age passage of an Indonesian young villager named Yuni — with the Bantenese culture as the backdrop. Global cinephiles, in particular, might be drawn to how the niche heritage could mould a young woman’s values and behaviour in a modern world, all while also relating to her desire to break free and establish her own identity. Yuni also stands out for being, arguably, the first Indonesian theatrical film in which almost all of its dialogues are presented in Bantenese and not Indonesian. For her performance as the wayward Bantenese girl, Arawinda Kirana was awarded Best Actress in a Leading Role at the 2021 Indonesian Film Festival. Yuni is currently available to stream with added subtitles on Disney+ Hotstar.

Honorable Mentions: Perempuan Dalam Pasungan [International Title: Shackled Woman], 1980; Daun Di Atas Bantal [International Title: Leaf on a Pillow], 1998; Autobiography, 2022.

Also Read Top 10: Best and Worst Movies Set in Indonesia

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