Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Keramat (2009)

aka Sacred

An small Indonesian film team from Jakarta travels to Yogyakarta to make last preparations and rehearsals leading up to the shoot of the debut film of Miea (Miea Kusuma) that's supposed to begin a week later.

Things don't begin too well: Miea seems to want to shape herself after all the great asshole directors, reacting to the most minute of setbacks with a full-grown shouting attack that'll guarantee nobody will ever want to work with her twice in the future. Worse, the crew is haunted by bad omens the minute they enter Java. Lead actress Migi (Migi Parahita) suddenly grows ill, a random crazy person that somehow knows the name of Migi's father screeches at them to go home, and even a minor night drive leads to an encounter with curious lights and what may or may not be a ghost.

After about a day or two of actual work, Migi becomes possessed by a ghost. Because this isn't a Western movie, the crew or their host at once call in an expert (I assume he's an abangan kyai, but I may very well misreading cultural cues here). After an interview in which the possessing spirit says she's trying to protect Migi, an exorcism seems to get rid of the unwanted guest. However, soon after the ghost is supposed to have been cast out, Migi just disappears - with the priest diagnosing she has been brought or gone over to "the Other Side".

He isn't outright saying it (and really should explain how dangerous what he's going to do is), but getting Migi back will mean to transport her friends to the Other Side too, to a place so full of spirits and curious dangers not everyone will make it out alive.

It turns out Japan isn't the only country in Asia that got bitten by the POV horror bug. Monty Tiwa's Indonesian Keramat supposedly consists of footage shot for a behind the scenes documentary for Miea's movie, and ends as is traditional with quite a few scenes of people shaking their cameras and crying while running through the woods at night.

So far, so every POV horror film ever made. However, what makes Keramat an interesting and effective film is that the supernatural forces our protagonists encounter are deeply rooted in Indonesian (and I think specifically Javanese, though really, I don't know enough to make this call definitely) culture, religion and myth, which more or less automatically provides the film with an amount of originality your basic Blair Witch Project rip-off can only dream of, at least for these tired pair of eyes from Germany.

Tiwa really knows how to run with this basic advantage of his film, too, using simple yet effective ways to stage what in the later phases becomes a literal journey of his characters into a place of myth. Once again, this is a film tailor-made for my old pet theory that films made outside of the Hollywood machine (and yes, I'm quite clear about the fact that Indonesia has its own commercial film machine that churns out cheap genre movies in dozens, and Keramat is a part of it) are generally more artistically successful when they infuse genre movies with the local, using genre structures as seen in western cinema but infusing them with an identity of their own; if only because you just can't compete with Hollywood on its own term anyway. This approach works quite wonderfully for Keramat, resulting in a film that uses the basic structures of Blair Witch-style POV cinema but fills it with a personality all its own.

It's not all the lure of the "exotic", either. As a European, I am again reminded of European fairy tales and myths by some of the things going on in the movie, specifically of tales about people stepping into the otherland of Fairy and generally suffering quite comparable fates to those our protagonists here suffer. While Keramat isn't  even the first Indonesian film in the 21st Century horror wave that left me with this feeling; it surely is one of the best.

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