Memories of My Body

A young man struggles with identity and sexuality in a country that doesn’t know whether to accept or shun him in Garin Nugroho’s drama.

[Summoning the chicken]

Queer representation in countries like China and Japan gets something of a fair amount of coverage in the West, especially when tied to specific films like Happy Together and The Wedding Banquet, or even anime such as Yuri!!! On Ice, Wonder Egg Priority and Revolutionary Girl Utena. Occasionally queer media makes waves in Asia, but overall it’s still so little, and little is said about the other, smaller and even more conservative countries. After all it was only in 2019, Taiwan became the first Asian country to legalise same-sex marriage.

So I’m not going to lie: my knowledge of LGBT rights in Indonesia is not what anyone would call thorough, but it’s thanks to the Queer East film festival that the topic was even brought to my attention, with the screening of the controversial (but still somehow Indonesia’s submission for the 91st Academy Awards) Memories of my Body.

Broken down into roughly four episodes, Memories of my Body deals with a different part in the life of our protagonist Juno (Muhammad Khan) and how the lengger dance shapes and influences his life. In the first segment, a young Juno (Raditya Evandra) is introduced to the dance – where men play the female roles – and is immediately taken in by the fluidity, and the way the dancer’s bodies move. He is also introduced to the dancers’ oppressive master (Sujiwo Tejo). It’s there that Juno’s childhood innocence is lost when he witnesses the old man bludgeon a follower to death for sleeping with his wife – the same one the master forcefully undressed before Juno minutes prior.

The harsh life lessons continue throughout the other chapters: in the second one, he is stabbed in the finger by an overbearing aunt whenever he check the fertility of other people’s chickens without her permission, and his sexual curiosity causes chaos when his dance teacher lets him touch her. By the time he reaches his young adulthood in the last two segments, Juno’s worldview has been strongly shaped by his relations with both men and women, and the way they interact with each other.

Dramas like this rely a lot on the interactions between its main characters and the world around them. In Memories of my Body this is also true, though not every segment does this equally well. While the relationships he forms with his teachers in the first two parts don’t feel especially rich (considering how much they shape his character going forward), the movie kicks things up a notch when, while working as a tailor’s assistant, Juno encounters a young boxer who’s engaged to be married and is seemingly trapped in a place where he is only able to express his masculinity in the most traditional ways.

Randy Pangalila’s boxer character is a perfect counterpart and love interest for Juno, and the huge difference in the way they approach about their sport, their body types and the way they express their own masculinity makes for a highly touching and sometimes unsettlingly realistic experience. It’s the best segment of the lot, though that’s not to say that the three others aren’t good by themselves, but Pangalila and Khan have excellent chemistry together, and the way writer-director Garin Nugroho shows the differences in their lives really hits the film’s themes on the head.

Not every chapter is equal here, though I’ll admit that my at-best-hazy knowledge of 80s and 90s Indonesian politics has coloured the way I saw the film. The fourth part, which sees Juno join a travelling dance troupe, leans a lot more on the socio-political side of things, and lacks the subtlety of the first three parts. But it’s also the most straightforward, outright pointing out the country’s conservative failings in a story that sees Juno become the gemblak (young male lover) to the troupe leader, who is also the village’s warok – a type of sorcerer who is forbidden to have sexual relations with women, but gains powers from sleeping with young men.

Nugroho’s story deals with a lot of aspects of Indonesian life that I never knew about, and explores the complicated relationship the country has with its LGBT population, as well as the history it has of exploiting, tolerating or even criminalising these very people. The lengger dance and the concept of warok are inherent to a culture that seems to despise, and Nugroho (as well as his talented cast) do a lot of work in pointing out these hypocrisies. Interspersed are clips of famed lengger dancer Rianto waxing philosophical about his life – of which this movie is loosely based on. Those moments help give the film context, but also grinds it to a halt whenever he decides to bounce around on a pile of corn. Because of this, Memories of my Body can occasionally drag on, but it never goes on for too long that you start checking your watch. In this regard, Memories of my Body succeeds in both telling a compelling story and also in bringing to the popular discourse a lot of issues in a country that might need a brighter light shone upon it.

Verdict: Provoking in more than one way, Memories of my Body knows what it wants to say, and does so (mostly) successfully.

Overall entertainment: 8/10
Violence: 3/10
Sex: 2/10
Crickets: Delicious as a road-side snack
When in doubt: Accuse your enemies of being communists
Chickens: Not one unmolested.
The final thing I wrote in my notes while watching this was “Demon corn eating” and I can’t for the life of me remember why.

Memories of my Body (2018)
Also known as: Kucumbu Tubuh Indahku
Javanese

Director: Garin Nugroho
Writer: Garin Nugroho

CAST

Muhammad Khan – Juno
Raditya Evandra – Juno (child)
Rianto – The Dancer
Sujiwo Tejo – The Lengger instructor
Teuku Rifnu Wikana – The Regent
Randy Pangalila – Boxer
Whani Dharmawan – The warok
Endah Laras – Juno’s aunt
Dwi Windarti – The dance teacher

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