Featured Image courtesy of Fourcolour Films
TW Warnings: Violence, Sexual Abuse, Body Traumas
Text by Philbert Lui
Lengger is a traditional form of Indonesian dance originating from the island of Java, where the dancers are allowed to perform and play freely with fluid gender identity. Memories of My Body uses this particular form of dance as a medium within a medium to viscerally display one’s body as a vessel of trauma both brought about by personal and political struggle. The body is not only a channel for a singular trauma but a collective archived trauma of many who are linked through similar suffering.
Memories is inspired by the life of Rianto, a renowned Javanese-born, Japan-based dancer and choreographer. Rianto appears in the film as an interloping version of himself as he narrates and opens each act of this coming-of-age tale. The way the story is told is unique in the biographical sense but also in the way the narrative is structured into fragments, where Rianto acts as a theatrical guide introducing each arc with performances of loud and nuanced poetic intent.
Divided into four chapters, this story chronicles the young life of Juno, the film’s protagonist and Rianto’s cinematic avatar, as he journeys from adolescence to young adulthood. The film opens in the 1980s with a 10-year-old Juno exploring the jungle that surrounds his remote village on the island of Java. The young Juno encounters a local Lengger troupe for the first time and is wholly captivated by the way the male dancers move in women’s clothing and heavy makeup. He witnesses this gender- and life-transcending moment and mimics the performers accordingly.
This defining experience is quickly followed by the breaking of Juno’s innocence as the troupe’s leader explain the vivid sexual origins of the Lengger dance. The troupe leader then demands Juno to take a peek at his wife’s genitals, forcibly awakening Juno’s sexuality and libido. Soon after, Juno is shown for the first time the consequence of acting on sexual desires as he witnesses the leader dealing out punishment upon an unfaithful troupe member.
In the second chapter, Juno is shown again the brutal aftermath of succumbing to one’s desires not as a bystander, but as a participant. Juno’s dance teacher, who has become a motherly figure after his family abandoned him, directly invites him to touch her in a sexual manner and he reluctantly complies. In a short scene immediately after this encounter, we learn that Juno reports the situation and witnesses his teacher be violently dragged away by the mob-like townspeople. Juno’s innocence is forever altered by someone he considers a parental figure of authority, abusing a trusted power by forcing an unwanted act of sexual intimacy and masquerading it as parental nurturing. As a result of this indiscretion, Juno’s sense of agency as it relates to his own sexuality and relationships with figures of authority is forever changed.
With the last of his innocence and any resemblance of family gone, the third chapter introduces Juno as a young adult. He befriends and consequently falls for a boxer whose muscular masculinity is equally infatuating and frightening to him. With harsh lessons from the past still haunting Juno, he resists on acting on any impulses, yet his new ally pays a brutal bodily price for carelessly and blindly pursuing a love of his own. While Juno may not be getting exactly what he wants, there is a mutual and beneficial trust within this budding unideal relationship.
On one hand, Juno keeps his feelings at bay in order to continue to spend time with the boxer, while the boxer confides in Juno about his own struggles of male identity. The boxer has accumulated debt from local criminals in order to pay for his sister’s education and to prepare a future for him and the woman he loves. The boxer responds to the pressure of embodying a muscular provider by sacrificing his body as a vessel to meet societal expectations of masculinity. The moment the boxer decides to leave town and pursue his own love, his body is sacrificed again as the criminals forcibly and surgically remove an organ to pay for his debts. His body is literally taken from him for abandoning a role that he never wanted in the first place.
Juno’s battle within his body comes to a chaotic conclusion in the final chapter of the film. He eventually achieves his childhood dream and joins a Lengger troupe as a full-fledged performer. The bliss ends abruptly as Juno is quickly brought face-to-face with the wider dark political world of late 1990s Indonesia, with the fall of Indonesia’s dictatorial “New Order” regime as the backdrop. Juno gains the unwelcome attention of a corrupt politician while beginning a secret relationship with a much older dancer in the troupe. With his body being pulled into an unbearable binary of power beyond his control, Juno is again shown the price paid by those close to him for his actions. The film ends with Juno embarking on yet another journey, one full of uncertainty. Yet he is certain that it must be taken, for his desires have never been fully oppressed, both in body and in mind.
“The body is so passionate it wants to know everything!”
Without Rianto’s autobiographical inspiration and innate gift as a masterful dancer, the narrative choice of dividing the film with performative monologues might not have been compatible with a traditional cinematic experience. Rather than seeing a forced dance performance introducing an arc of a film, we witness a somewhat provoking and simultaneous stage-film experience. We do not see a fragment of each art form, but rather the sum of both.
By centering archived trauma of the body as the heart of this story, Nugroho creates a space that freely allows dance, stage, and cinema to intermingle as harmoniously as possible. It was necessary to create and experiment with this hybrid narrative vehicle to effectively portray Rianto’s life story, and the stories of many like him.
In every chapter of the film, we see instances of the body being seen and used as currency for monetary, personal, and physical gain often by those who abuse their power over the powerless. We see bodies used to make a living; we see bodies used for violence, and we see bodies violated by abusers. These abusers indirectly and directly contribute to a society that continues to oppress publicly and physically.
“My body is a battlefield…My body is like nature. I can’t control it, and that causes disasters”
With its study of the human body as currency, Memories of My Body illustrates the war of a collective archived trauma within one’s body. It questions the ownership of bodily trauma and generational trauma. Who does the body and trauma truly belong to at any given time? Rianto and Juno’s adolescence were rife with abusers colonizing and asserting control over their bodies. By devoting himself to dance, performance, and this film, Rianto continues to reclaim his trauma and wield it as a beacon of light and hope to those who have suffered like him.
Text by Allyson Aritcheta
Orphaned during a time of political and social chaos in Central Java, Juno tries to find where he belongs. After joining a Lengger dance company, Juno slowly comes to know his sexuality and develops a fascination with the traditional Javanese dance that practices fluid gender identity.
A constant in Juno’s life, Lengger acts as a buffer for his difficult reality. Witnessing a murder, being sexually abused, loving in a doomed romance. All of these pains are processed through the body and wash away when Juno performs. The dancer uses movement as an anchor and a mouthpiece while growing up. Always quiet, Juno turns to Lengger to express his grief and turmoil. Even when older Juno is narrating his coming-of-age story, he dances.
This physical way of dealing with trauma is paralleled with the utility of the body. The body as a means to an end is depicted in several scenes: the dance teacher showing Juno his wife’s vagina, the prizefighter’s kidney being stolen, Juno discovering his talent for checking if hens are ready to lay eggs. The most notable scene is the training session between the prizefighter and Juno. The prizefighter tries to land a hit on Juno while being blindfolded, not holding back the power of his punches, poised to fight. Juno responds by practicing Lengger, both performing for his crush and testing his dance skills in new ways. While the prizefighter is using his muscles to win money so that he can send his siblings to school and marry his fiancé, Juno is dancing to escape pain; specifically in this scene: the pain of loving an almost married man. This back and forth between the two emotional landscapes of Juno demonstrates this contrast between process and utility through the gaze of unrequited love.
As the movie progresses, we see Juno struggle with his body in another way: sexually. In the first chapter, we are introduced to the theme of holes and sticks by Juno’s dance teacher. The young dancer learns the violence that can come from sexuality when his dance teacher murders the man who slept with his wife. In the second, Juno’s fingers are pricked by a needle—forming a hole in his skin—as punishment for refusing to stop checking for chicken eggs with his fingers. At first, he is praised for his talent; when his talent gets in the way of his schooling he is ordered to stop or face the painful consequences given by his aunt. In the third chapter, he is accidentally pricked with a pin from the prizefighter, who asks Juno to show him how to put on bridal garb. The theme of holes and sticks takes on a sexual meaning, free from violence and punishment in this moment of Juno’s life. In the final part of the film, Juno does the pricking, choosing to have a relationship with a dance teacher from the Lengger group he joins as well as pricking himself with a sewing machine needle. Towards the end of the film, Juno smiles while riding the back of a pickup truck. The lost and unsure expression that he carries for most of the movie is erased. Leading up to this moment is the escape and dispersal of the Lengger troupe from a village ruled by a jealous, closeted politician who has a crush on Juno. This peaceful ending as he’s riding off into the next adventure depicts a man who is sure of himself and is in control.
Ultimately, Garin Nugroho’s harrowing film is about mastering the body. Understanding the body’s limits and traumas can lead to a more secure self, even when it’s hard to control external circumstances. In Memories of My Body (2018), the body is a place for acceptance and love. It is where you can be safe, despite the mayhem outside.
Memories of My Body / Kucumbu Tubuh Indahku
Director: Garin Nugroho
Indonesia, 2018 / Rated 14A / 105:00 / Indonesian with English subtitles
Inside Out Toronto LGBT Film Festival