The Big Surprise at the Taipei
International Film Festival of 1978:
“In this town, Semarang in Central Java, every Saturday night they are singing,” says Wim Umboh, director of KEMBANG KEMBANG PLASTIK.
On the Tuesday morning I came to see the film at a film theater in downtown Taipei, I learned it had just been banned by the government.
When it was shown, in the afternoon of the same day, to a group of selected journalists, the host introduced it as a doubtful movie about callgirls.
It is a film that carries you away by its filmic rhythm and stops often enough to give you time to think. It uses folk songs to interrupt the flow of the action just like Brecht used songs to break up the unity of his plays into perceivable elements. It entertains by teaching – by demonstrating something – about this town, Semarang: a part of the social reality of Indonesia.
* * *
Long shot: the village, the roofs of the village, of – as we know only later – the red light district of Semarang.
First sociological fact: the children. So many children. By themselves. Young human beings who should be the hope and future of their country (and ARE, after all) – and who also grow into the same position of misery, and of exoploitation that today’s adults got caught up in.
The little girl. Her face. She is kissed by a little boy. Is it natural and beautiful? (The natural, sensuous life of real human beings!) Or is it already the imitation, the repetition of what these kids see all around them: imitation of the everyday life in a red light district?
Do you see how she lets it happen: quietly, passively – knowing her price, a beautiful fetish?
Is it the janus face of love that becomes visible in this shot, that is held by the filmmaker as he “freezes” it into a motionless still? – We will be confused by it the way commercial movies don’t confuse us. We will wonder: is it beautiful & innocent, or is it the mirror of prostitution – of being forced to see yourself becoming merchandise? No, it is both. Later on we will find it again in the lives of the real whores. Both. It could wake us, make us see reality instead of the myth: the ordinary lives of people living in an economic unit depending on and thus reflecting the laws of society in general.
But there is more: there is also an accusation, a protest in addition to the demythologizing aspect. Must we let the children grow up to suffer the same conditions which impose themselves as “fate” on their mothers, sisters, and brothers.
2nd sociological fact: a shoddy corridor. A room, a girl
inside. The girl is greeting the madam of this place.
Yes, they are people who work. Normal everyday people. Women. What do the women of the poor do in an ‘underdeveloped’ country with so much unemployment and underemployment – “hidden unemployment”? – They struggle to survive. They find odd jobs to eke out a living. Some may only see one way out left: They sell what is most sellable: not their ability to produce goods. But to produce “amusement,” “entertainment,” “love.” They are part of the service-sector. They bring their own tools to their jobs like artisans did, fifty or a hundred years ago. Their work tool, their capital investment is their body, their beauty, their youth, their own mattress.
3rd sociological fact: the guys. A village does not consist simply of children (left largely to spend the time by themselves) and women. The men are (and they got to be) there, too. They have to survive, too.
We see them in the old shack, the old man looking them in the eyes, deciding who is fit to work today. (We don’t discover it now but we will soon know what they do: they are pickpockets, they perform burglaries – and how many are performed in ‘underdeveloped’ countries! – they earn a living somehow. – Others, luckier ones, in the better parts of town may live by procuring trade chances, peddling influence. So many odd jobs in a dependent economy! – They are at the bottom of it: the poorest stratum.)
The farmhouse is their hide-out. They get on rikshaws
– the small man’s transport – and off they go.
The children – who grow up to take the place of the older ones; the women who work as prostitutes; the men who are pickpockets and-what-not: by contrasting images of these, what we discover is nothing less than the elements of the economic structure of a red light district. What we have seen is who they are and where they live: where they have their homes, their hide-out. But functionally, this is not the same as the place where they work. That is what the movie shows next.
One guy, three guys coming down the village street.
Yes, the movie shows work, it shows preparation for work (girls shampooing, getting a mattress). It also shows time off (of guys who are perhaps unemployed or thought not to be fit today for work as a pickpocket). It shows an economic investment (the mattress).
The market, next. Cars parked. So many cars! A slogan on the wall. (What does it say, actually?) So many people! It is the downtown section of Semarang. A different economic zone of the city: Where the cars of the rich are. Where the “petty criminals” work. People running. A guy talking about pickpockets, warning somebody else. A little later, on the bus, his own wallet has vanished.
Quick shot: the old man (the chief of the robbers).
The fat madam in the whorehouse. The young prostitutes – some are film stars making perhaps US$ 20,000 while working on a movie like this. They look like it, they are too much like it’s going to be fun to be a prostitute, at moments. But it will help sell the movie, to make it “lighter.” The chief of the district is arriving at the whorehouse. “Yes, please come in.
” It is faintly satirical. Especially with the official moralistic propaganda on the radio cut in a while ago.
THE COMPETITION, THE WHORES. Competition doesn’t stop in front of whorehouses. The laws of a society make themselves felt in these spots, too. “Why don’t I get any customers? – Lots of girls are prettier.” “Just leave everything to madam.” A tired old face of a woma
THE VIOLENCE. People in the market. Running. Catching somebody. Somebody is bleeding. Dead. Beaten to death because he took a wallet. The crowd is standing around him. The ambulance comes. They put him on a stretcher, shutting the door of the ambulance.
THE ILLUSION. “Let’s have fun,” they sing. We start to hear it the second they have shut the door of the ambulance behind the dead man. A stark contrast, an accusation. The girls we see are singing. Entertaining. Working. “Every Saturday night they are singing” in this place, says the director when asked about it. What do they want to forget?
THE FACT THAT PERVADES ALL ASPECTS OF LIFE IN THIS PLACE. Two guys come by. “Cruel,” says one, as they sit in the parlor. “Cruel, a pregnant woman as a prostitute.” – She is angry, throwing them out, telling her husband, “Put up a sign – THIS IS A HOUSEHOLD.” The husband says, “There is already a sign.” She: “It’s too small.” – The conditions of prostitution affect those who are part of it and those who believe they are not part of it. In a poor section of town like this, how can a woman not be a prostitute? – The conversation is both realistic and satirical: What kind of society does it take to make prostitution omnipresent? But people prostitute themselves in developed countries as much as in dependent ones. (Think of the Hollywood filmmakers using what skills they have to make lousy commercial movies.)
We get another close look at all the amusement. Guys. People dancing. Children. Girls. Dancing. Two guys. They are “happy.” (Wrongly so?) One says, “I’m your student.” What do they learn? Do you see the terribly colored hair of the singer?
Silence. The dance has ended. And now, a cut: to boy and girl in bed.
FAMILY RELATIONSHIPS. The next cut, a child. Two guys. Guy and woman. The madam, her grandson, a patron, the room, the girl inside, somebody banging at the door,
A young guy. “Don’t be so huffy/as if I were still your wife,” the girl-prostitute tells him. “You are free to go on gambling or whoring.” Gambling and whoring – is that the normal thing for men with hard, unsatisfying jobs, especially in a society that offers nothing but poverty? The distraction from hard work (if there is still work at all)? – Booze, whores, cards: substitutes for creativity. Substitutes for what is beautiful: for satisfying work, for love. – He talks about the kid, he even brought their kid along, wanting her to come back which she doesn’t want. “I’ll prove I’m better than you,” he says, finally. Closing his eyes to her wish to escape from a dreary life somehow.
An older guy is singing. Two are in bed in the room next door. Outside, there is the madam and the old guy (the chief of the pckpockets) who is singing. – Circumstances put their stamp on people, maybe. What sort of relationship can you have here – : those of the traditional family where the woman is the exclusive property of one man (the pater familias who owsns wife, concubines, kids, servants, cattle)? Don’t kid yourself. That type of family relationship belongs to an entire different class of people.
MONEY. Others have shown how it affects people; establishing, being at the bottom of, commodity relationships. Becoming a fetish.
The girl is counting the money. The guy with the mock beard looks like Santa Claus; he is telling her, “I’m a figure in the nearby village.” What a figure. All the big shots, the representatives of law and order and morality lie on these girls. They can have them, often, of course, for they have the money. They can spend a little bit more; 1,000 rupees, that’s ten times parking, or two days’ very good eating for the common people, the filmmaker said. And 3,000 is the price of a girl. A cheap buy for the big shots.
“New mattress – but no luck,” a whore says, walking in the street with another, prettier one. A bad investment. The question of money again. The younger one teases the unlucky girl; she calls her “Fatty.” The other one is angry and goes away.
A girl says, “Don’t try to play with others” or something
THE GROUP. In front of the shack that serves as hide-out and meeting place for the pickpockets, the men have assembled. A guy says, “Are you sure he is dead?” Another: “As the crowd caught him, they killed him.” A guy walks away.
The old robber talks to his men, “I’m your leader. You must believe in me, obey me.” “I know when it’s a lucky day.” He sits down, coughing. “I’m not ill, I’m supernatural.”
They stick it out together. Caught in the same poverty but capable of discipline, of concern.
In the whorehouse, another girl and a girl. “Pay first,” she says. “New mattress, at least you succeed,” she says to herself. Meanwhile, another girl motions to him, “Come to my room.” The first (or a third?) girl turns to the luring one: “Harlot – you are!”
In the shack, the ‘bandits’ are talking. “The jewelry storekeeper is out of town tonight.” Only his wife and his 14 kids are at home. “The nightwatch is an old and epileptic man.” (Inserted, a quick shot of the nightwatch, trembling.) The robbers cough. So they are both victims, of cold, of sickness, of poverty. “Come out of the shack,” one of the robbers says.
A Mercedes arrives in the red light district. The turnpike
goes up. Guys surround the car.
In the parlor, the Mercedes guy smells the arm pits of
all the girls. Picking, finally, one. Telling her, “You’re fragrant.” “You
are cuter than the word cute.” She replies, “I’m even better in the bedroom
when the pay is better.” The guy gives money to all the girls.
We are back to the money theme. We have seen the contrast of the Mercedes guy getting his girl easily, and the next sequence, Lily and her friend. And we have seen how their human relationship disintegrates, too, because it is just as much subject to the domination of money. Lily has to sell herself because that is how she earns her living. Like a shopkeeper excuses himself to a friend he is talking to, in order to serve a customer, she is serving the customer first. The ‘job’ has priority over being human, having feelings, having friends. Money has priority over human qualities. But at least the outrageousness of this is felt. “What a way for lovers,” says the elderly woman. Basically, people know this is not a way to live. Basically they are sound. But as matter of fact they have to submit to what is inhumane.
A girl is crying. “Such freaks are suckers,” one is saying.
The crying prostitute moans about “sin.” “That tall, skinny boy is my own
Lily’s lover is over at the robbers’ shack. “If we hit him tonight and bury him deep…” He talks about the Mercedes guy. The old robber shouts, “Don’t excrement in your own nest.” It would ‘burn’ them all to get the police here, investigating this kind of case. A robber has to think about that. He has to think.
In the whorehouse, the girl says to the Mercedes guy, “I’m willing to go with you.” He throws her down, asks her to call him ‘darling.’ She has to prostitute herself mentally, hasn’t she? But is she really different from so many other men and woman trying to get married, to find ‘a good match’?
In the hut, there is still the old robber and the young
In the moonlight, Lily’s lover is out in the corridor,
all by himself.
The Mercedes guy is talking with his girl. “I’d like to
fly to America, spend money there,” he tells her. But she just wants to
go to Bali. She has never been there. It’s part of her own country and
expensive to go there. And therefore as far as the moon.
The deformation of somebody whom circumstances have deformed. You sell yourself for 3,000 rupees and you become interested in money, not the man you are going to live with. But rich people most of the time are like this; they marry ‘rich.’ Lily is not like this, or much less so. She may leave her pickpocket to get laid by some customer. But there is no doubt whom she loves.
The Mercedes guy talks of their home, meanwhile. “And
the furniture will be imported,” he boasts. “I’m import quality, too.”
Fanon, talking about the African middle class, called them white negroes, being startled because of the masks they wear. The ‘ladinos’ of Guatemala talk English rather than Spanish because Spanish would be too vulgar.
FRIENDLINESS. (Being in a whore’s room, number XXX).
The Mercedes guy wears a hat and is kissed by his ‘new’ girl. How sensuous!
Lily and her lover man are in bed. She: “I can work as a dressmaker.” He protests, “I’ll be the provider.” She just has to stay home. She: “It’s a nice dream.” – So everybody has his or her dream: the old woman who wants to live on her piece of land again; Lily who wants to be a dressmaker; Lily’s friend; the girl who thinks she’s found a rich guy with a posh car; the make-believe ‘rich’ guy himself. Which dream is real? Which one is more justified, less deformed than the others? Going to Bali, living together with a loved person, tilling the land, being a dressmaker – are these really weird, impossible, or egotistic dreams? Are they good and natural dreams – and still ‘impossible,’ unlikely to become true, in this society? – What must happen so they will no longer be ‘impossible’ dreams?
Lily and her lover are talking about what they like to
eat. It’s that normal: Life. What people need, to be happy. “We like the
same things.” There is laughter. Momentary relief.
The Mercedes guy, with his hat on, and the girl are going to the madam of the house. She: “I want to say goodbye, Madam.” “Are you serious?” “Yes.” – It’s her only way of escape from this situation, after all. She says good-bye to the madam. The others sing, “We’ll meet again… Auf Wiedersehn, sweetheart.” In English!
The guy and the girl drive away. She sits in the car like
a lady. (How easily such ‘roles’ are assumed!)
It brings it all back. Why she is going with the other guy. What money can do. The emotions – the past – the guy who has been left behind.
In the moonlight, there is the couple – Lily and her lover – so peaceful in bed.
The road. Small trucks. Private sedans.
Lily and her friend, her lover, in the moonlight in bed.
The Mercedes guy who has stopped at a gas station to have
his car filled up.
The old robber and another meet a third guy.
In Lily’s room, her lover gets up and puts on his pants.
Her face: smiling, sensuous. “Don’t be long.”
In the shack, the guys.
Is the old man there? Yes. He’s got diarrhoe. He talks.
“Be highly disciplined robbers!”, he says. It shows, will show, in the
act of robbing. What shows? Their human potential. The wretched of the
earth. Do we see how society forces them to apply their courage, their
honesty, their creativity, their kindheartedness?
He is talking about the revolution and it’s like a reminder of the incompleteness of the revolution and the remaining necessity to complete it.
He shakes hands with everyone. They depart, noisily, in
their motor-driven rickshaws, playing the River Kwai March. A joyful procession
late at night.
The old robber is in his hut.
The wife of the jewelry storekeeper says, “My husband
is not at home. – You will not beat us, will you?” (She is more concerned
about it than about the stuff – naturally so. And perhaps she feels guilty,
being comparatively rich.)
Lily’s friend takes two rings; he puts them on his finger. His thoughts are with her, we know. He is ordinary, serious, in love.
Lily is in her room. (The shot symbolizes her thoughts for him, her anxiety. – And his thoughts for her?)
The police arrives at some place. People come out of a
house. An officer presents a photograph. “Have you seen this man?” (It’s
the Mercedes guy they are looking for.) “Where is he now?” “He was here,”
a guy says. “A lie. I’m chief of this section and I haven’t seen him,”
a third person interrupts.
The Mercedes guy and the girl kiss.
The robbers are leaving the store. They carry the watchman to his former position. Carefully, tenderly almost, taking good care of him. Then they depart. He screams.
The police officers talk. They interview a man. The man says, “He’s going to Surabaya.” It’s the gas station attendant.
In the robbers’ shack they are emptying their sacks. The
booty is spread out on the table. “I’ve taken two pieces of wedding rings,”
Lily’s friend says. The old man nods, “Good. You are honest. You confess.”
The old one distributes the booty. Suddenly one chap asks,
“Where is Calcuk?”
“Gangong, surrender!”, a policeman shouts through his megaphone.
The corridor of the whorehouse. A door opens.
In the shack, the robbers huddle together. An atmosphere of sadness and tenderness.
A white flag. One of them comes out. “Come out one by
one, hands up.”
Another shot cut in: Lily in the corridor; in haste; in
The villagers have come; they surround the cars of the
cops, the officers, the two robbers on the grass.
The face of the child. Its dream has to be realized. The cops run, take away the dead from the mourning. The girl puts a wedding ring on. The crowd stands and stares mutely while the robbers are carted away,
He turns to her, sitting next to her in the back of the police jeep. “Even in jail we can marry.” She: “Really?” They embrace. A cop, looking on, seems to smile sourly. The filmmaker, in a conversation, explained the scene in terms of her (and his) naivity but it’s also the need for a human relationship which may sit ‘deeper’ than the money-fetishization, the alienation…
As the cops drive off, working people appear in the picture, carrying heavy loads of wood. The blue road, the green trees, a woman carrying firewood in the early morning are all ‘frozen’ into a still.
* * *
PLASTIC FLOWERS is a movie that is much less about revolt
than Rocha’s ANTONIO DAS MORTES, to name a work that seems in many ways
comparable. Of course, the bandit sujet, the spirit of liveliness, the
color, the musical rhythm of film montage, constitute similarities.
But PLASTIC FLOWERS is different where it shows work – the work of whores,
of pickpockets, of truckers, etc. – and economic contrasts.
Here, in PLASTIC FLOWERS, it is not the saga of outlaws fighting against the establishment. It is the normalcy of a community (the perverse normalcy of poverty and prostitution, of being an appendix district adjacent to and separated from the city of the better-off!) which is analyzed. The director, Wim Umboh, has strongly objected, during a discussion, to the notion that his movie is about call-girls. It’s about the underdogs of society. The common people. There are girls like Lily and they are whores. But, as Wim Umboh says, a girl like Lily “really has a good heart.”
This seems at variance with his statement that the film
is about plastic people, not real people. But when he says, “the people,
they are all plastic, they are not real” – then he refers to the wrong
desires, the deformations, the illusions. He refers to the Lily who gets
borrowed “for a second,” not to the one who dreams of being a seamstress.
He doesn’t refer by such an epithet to the Javanese folk-songs
in the movie. They are real. They are telling a kind of truth: the truth
of the common people, not the ‘truth’ of the rich people. They are, above
all, still popular in Java; they are being listened to and they tell a
story or teach a lesson or summarize what we have just seen or contradict
what we have just seen in the movie.
The director, Wim Umboh, knows at any rate what he is
An abridged Chinese translation of this (hitherto unpublished) article about Wim Umboh’s film, KEMBANG-KEMBANG PLASTIK appeared in the film magazine YINXIANG ZAZHI (INFLUENCE), Taipei.
INFLUENCE was edited by Ivan Wang who at the time was also news
of CTV and founder of the Taipei Film Library.
"The City Planning of Semarang 1900-1970"
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