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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

Betting on a Defender of the Faith

A tepid bid to fire up Indonesia's film industry

By Yenni Kwok


Go to a review of Surveillance from China

Go to a review of School Ghost Story III, from Japan

ANTI-COLONIALISM AND JIHAD are potent rallying cries. Perhaps Indonesian film-makers had that in mind when they set out to make Fatahillah, an epic about a 16th-century Muslim cleric who mobilized the faithful to oust Portuguese invaders from the port city of Sunda Kelapa. The historic themes can be expected to strike a chord in a country where 90% of the population is Muslim and which ultimately won its independence.

A pair of high-powered producers -- Johan Tjasmadi, chairman of the National Film Advisory Board, and Surjadi Soedirdja, the governor of Jakarta -- ensured plenty of official support. Soedirdja allocated $1.2 million from city coffers for the production, making it the most costly Indonesian film ever. After all, Fatahillah was to be the "locomotive" that would revive Indonesia's ailing movie industry. It opened amid a blaze of publicity in June, with the government urging civil servants and students to attend.

If success were determined by moral authority, Fatahillah would be a hit. The cast and crew seemed to be chosen as much for their Islamic credentials as their cinematic skills. Scriptwriter Misbach Yusa Biran is known for his religious devotion. Of the two directors, Imam Tantowi and Chaerul Umam, the latter is a veteran of movies with Islamic themes. Even lead actor Igo Ilham appeared to be selected on moral grounds. The 27-year-old accounting student is also an ustadz, or religious teacher, who instructs neighborhood youngsters in his spare time.

At least with an ustadz, the backers felt assured of a clean-living performer in the title role. "It would not be funny if we chose somebody who might go on to act in some porn movie after Fatahillah," says Tantowi. Most of the 20 to 30 local movies produced annually bear titles like Forbidden Lust. Indeed, the producers see their 138-minute work almost as a religious crusade. Says Tjasmadi: "Fatahillah is about the Islamic way of fighting evil."

A weighty message, but one that the film-makers may not have been up to delivering. Many reviewers have panned the plot as poorly developed, the acting as wooden and the climax as badly shot. "It does not show Islam as being smart," says critic Seno Gumira Ajidarma. Some even found the film disturbingly hostile toward non-Muslims.

The movie has performed modestly so far, selling about 350,000 tickets across the country through mid-July. In Jakarta and surrounding towns, the epic grossed about $120,000 -- far from breaking even. But then money is not the priority. "This film is not to earn profits," says Tjasmadi. Besides, its religious theme goes down well in some quarters. Parmin, a tailor, found it lively. A student wrote to the Muslim-oriented Republika newspaper to give her thumbs-up.

Audiences around the region will have a chance to find out for themselves. Fatahillah is to be released in Malaysia in November, and possibly Thailand and Brunei at a later date. Against critics' advice, it has also been chosen to represent Indonesia at this year's Asia-Pacific Film Festival in South Korea. For fans, there will be more of the same: the directors have made a 13-part series of the story for television, with Ilham reprising his title role. The film-makers clearly have faith in their work.


Two China Watchers

A tragi-comic portrait of everyday people

By Stuart Whitmore

WHILE THE OPIUM WAR hogged headlines recently, another Chinese feature has emerged largely unheralded despite its entry into competition at this year's Berlin Film Festival. Huang Jianxin's Surveillance focuses on a couple of ordinary Zhous roped in for a police manhunt. Following a brutal murder, security guard Ye Minzhu (Feng Gong) and his boss Lao Tian are put on a stakeout to catch the wily chief suspect.

The exercise is called off after a week -- except no one remembers to tell the hapless pair, who keep up a 24-hour vigil inside an abandoned water tower for a full month. Meanwhile, Lao Tian is slowly dying of liver cancer and when his pain becomes too great, Ye is left to man the fort alone. This plays havoc with his love life: his girlfriend Bai Lin (Jiang Shan) demands an explanation for his absence which he cannot give.

But the police yarn merely sets the scene: the real story is about Ye and his relationship with those closest to him. A less-than-model employee, the impish, work-shy Ye just wants an easy life. But during his time with Lao Tian, he discovers a sense of responsibility which helps him through the long nights alone.

The intimate scale makes for a range of sharply observed characters, from the stoic Lao Tian, determined to do the right thing despite his painful illness, to the police chief who practices his fierce look in the mirror before an interrogation. Ye's desperate search among the remnants of his supplies for a few edible crumbs is an outstanding moment of tragi-comedy.

In drawing vignettes of ordinary life, director Huang avoids stereotypes. Ye and Bai Lin consider get-rich quick-schemes and joke about watching pornography with "a critical, Marxist eye." The police are real people with actual problems such as dealing with an intrusive TV cameraman on an armed raid. And the Communist Party is shown as an integral part of the community, without judgment.

It is with these slices of life that Huang's film scores. While better-known directors often play safe with period pieces, pictures such as Surveillance make their own cinematic mark by chronicling change in contemporary China.


Hooked on Fright Nights

Japan's latest hit movie is a serial chiller

By James Bailey

WHERE JAPANESE MOVIE-GOERS are concerned, familiarity breeds content. Of the top 20 domestically produced box-office hits last year, no fewer than 13 were installments in a series. Some characters have been around so long they make the venerable James Bond seem like a mere toddler. For example, the scaly star of Godzilla vs Destroyer -- last year's most successful local production -- debuted in 1954. Doraemon, an animated cat whose 18th feature was outgrossed only by Godzilla last year, has been a favorite since 1980.

So with its third outing, the School Ghost Story series is still wet behind the ears by comparison. Nevertheless, it is set to be a profitable franchise for Toho studios, which also distributes the Godzilla and Doraemon movies. Part II attracted 3.5 million viewers last year, nearly 20% more than the original had in 1995. That put it in second place among Japanese features, tying with two other films. Last month School Ghost Story III opened with a splash -- in more theaters than before and accompanied by such merchandising gimmicks as chocolates and soda pop.

Despite the commercial tie-ups, there is something pleasantly old-fashioned about the series. Each installment has been released at the height of summer -- a practice that goes back to the days before air-conditioning was common in homes, when viewers would turn out to be chilled in both senses. All begin with a flashback to show how the school got its reputation for being haunted. And each features a stock character: the dedicated teacher who will do anything to protect his or her young charges. The plot is similarly familiar -- children are placed in peril and save themselves after finding inner resources they never knew they had.

As in parts I and II, the class ends up in a haunted school on a night when the ghouls go crazy. However, this being the 1990s, the teacher is a woman (a very likeable Nishida Naomi) who not only has great moral courage but the physical bravery befitting her position as a gym instructor. And her students include a Bill Gates wannabe who sports the same hair style, wire-rimmed glasses and nerdish couture as the Microsoft chairman.

Director Kaneko Shusuke doles out shivers and chuckles in equal measure. In a nod to old disaster films, the characters in School Ghost Story III have personal problems that are resolved during their night of terror. A boy whose mother is about to remarry discovers that his future half-siblings are not the brats he imagined; a chubby mama's boy earns the respect of a sharp-tongued schoolgirl who once held him in contempt.

The fourth ghostly installment is set for 1999. But at that leisurely pace, the series is no match for the real long-runners. At least three spawned more than two dozen installments before expiring. And the granddaddy of them all -- Shochiku Studio's Tora-san movies -- ended a nearly 30-year run with entry No. 48.


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