Indonesian filmmaker Garin Nugroho's requiem, Opera Jawa, commissioned for 2006's New Crowned Hope Festival - a celebration of Mozart’s 250th birthday - equates more with the composer's art than have the two previous entries screened in New York (Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Syndromes and a Century and Tsai Ming-liang's I Don't Want to Sleep Alone). After all, Nugroho's virtually all-singing Javanese musical adheres to the basic structure of Mozartian opera, replete with that mode's mythic universe (Così fan tutte and The Magic Flute, for example) and its conventional artifice. At the same time, Opera Jawa remains deeply immersed in the traditional arts of Indonesia - dance, theatre, music, the visual arts - producing a work that is on the surface one of the most singularly exotic in the recent cinema.
Opera Jawa adopts a tale from the Hindu Ramayana, wherein the marriage of a poor potter and his beautiful wife Siti (Artika Sari Devi) is challenged by a wealthy, handsome paramour. Nugroho inscribes the fears and anxieties of the constituent narrative doubly, through both an operatic narrative, articulated lyrically, and in the gestures of the picture's folkloric dance. With respect to the latter, the conventions of Javanese dance may not be immediately apparent to many Western spectators - that is, we may not know exactly what the gestures signify - though the fact of their signification and their relationship to the meta-narrative are both clear enough.
Ultimately, Opera Jawa emphasizes the degree to which the film's mythic themes and the recourse to poetic representation (that is to forms whose codes convey something beyond themselves, without always being directly mimetic) are each universal, while the particularity of its representational structure remains decisively local. Opera Jawa is to the new Asian cinema what The Color of Pomegranates (1968, Sergei Paradjanov) was to the European art cinema of the 1960s - it is a filmmaking that invents its own idiom, which nonetheless remains deeply imprecated with its regional tradition. Along with Apichatpong's cinema, Opera Jawa may provide evidence that Asian art cinema has entered a post-modern (not postmodern) folk-art phase.
Opera Jawa also compares to Jacques Rivette's corpus in both its examination of multiple narrative levels and its interrogation of the relationship between film and theatre. Moreover, like Rivette's cinema again, Nugroho does not always immediately distinguish between dream and waking. In fact, the two seem to bleed into one another; Opera Jawa underlines film art's fundamentally surrealist character. At the same time, Opera Jawa's elisions between the two clarify rather than confuse: this is a film that, on its many levels, examines the same series of themes. It is the film's subjects that provide the connective tissue between its somewhat disparate narrative systems.
However, Opera Jawa remains much more than the above rationalizations may suggest: Nugroho's film combines excesses of both beauty and poetry, whether it is visual, lyrical or gestural. These surpluses have created many of the best moments in the cinema of the past couple of years, as for instance when Siti's lover hides beneath her skirt; when she visits his candle-adorned, waterside bed; when she travels down the red cloth laid by he and his mother; when Siti crouches, covered in clay, on her husband's potter's wheel; and finally, when the couple meet under a saffron, beach-front tent. In a word, Opera Jawa is one of the year's most memorable films.
Update: Also, check out R. Emmet Sweeney's excellent, very enthusiastic Opera Jawa review at Termite Art.