This post may contain spoilers. Read at your own discretion.
Ifa Isfansyah’s film adaptation of Ahmad Tohari’s trilogy, Ronggeng Dukuh Paruk (Translation: A Dancing Girl of Paruk Village), explores Indonesia’s darker days in a manner considered flagrant, had this been just over a decade ago. “Sang Penari” (Translation: “The Dancer”) takes the viewer to the poor village of Dukuh Paruk, a place still strongly connected to folk customs. The uninterfered manner in which the residents live grants them minimum distractions from the spirits they revere.
One of the manifestations of their devotion is the ronggeng, a dancer who also conducts sexual services. Frequently compared to Japan’s geisha, the ronggeng is a calling presented to women born — not made — to fulfill the role. Life as a ronggeng is unique and requires much focus, for she is to distance herself from what is considered more human pursuits, like marriage and motherhood. Surrendering to these paths would cost a ronggeng her title. As a result, she is both owned by and a highly regarded figure in her village.
Exploring ownership, “Sang Penari” takes a glimpse into rural Central Java during the 1960’s. It is beautifully shot and poetic in execution, all the while challenging the oft-believed concept of belonging during the country’s unstable political years.
After unsettling glimpses of people crouching in darkness and the sound of withered murmurs, “Sang Penari” opens quietly. Rasus (played by Nyoman Oka Antara), in his military fatigues, explores the remains of a village in the scorching heat. He wanders about tentatively before finally entering a house. Inside, Rasus finds a blind man (played by Hendro Djarot) cowering behind a table, visibly frightened by the sudden influx of noise. Gently approaching him, Rasus identifies himself. The reaction of recognition from the man, Sakum, reveals that the two have history. Sakum begs Rasus to look for someone named Srintil.
The scene shifts to night celebration taking place in the same hamlet, the grounds bustling with activity. A ronggeng dances for a horde of enthusiastic men. Some children wiggle through the crowd, their slight stature and youth allowing them to get a good view of the performance. Among them, a young Srintil is particularly enchanted.
Shortly after, chaos breaks out after the ronggeng dies from consuming a tainted batch of a tofu-soy dish named bongkrek, which Srintil’s parents make. Horrified by the allegations of the villagers, Srintil’s parents attempt to save face by sampling the Javanese dish, only to succumb to the lethal effects of its improper fermentation. After witnessing this and enduring the judgement from the other villagers, Srintil becomes determined to restore her family name by becoming the next ronggeng. This sentiment remains strong even within the teenaged Srintil (played by Prisia Nasution), but is met with as much opposition by, Rasus, her boyfriend. For Srintil to become a ronggeng, the love-struck adolescents cannot have a sexually monogamous relationship. According to tradition, a ronggeng belongs to the village, and Srintil would have to dedicate her life servicing the men of Dukuh Paruk. However, to become a ronggeng is a calling and not choice. A sign from the spirits would have to materialise for any woman aspiring to the role. When the village is convinced that Srintil’s desire is divinely intervened, she begins preparing for her new life direction.
A heartbroken Rasus witnesses this from a distance, silently observing Srintil’s changes. In fact, he processes his anger by acting out, a gesture that captures the attention of some men in uniform. However, in spite of his pain, he steps in to assist her during her moments of weakness, including consummating their relationship for the first time moments before she is required to properly commence her duties as a ronggeng. Realising by then that Srintil’s calling takes precedence, Rasus joins the army, in hopes of leaving behind an underpaid life and a broken dream. He meets Binsar (played by Tio Pakusadewo), a sergeant integral to Rasus’ own transformation. Rasus becomes a man more connected to a larger world, but has not forgotten Srintil.
Meanwhile, Dukuh Paruk is becoming a target for a political ideology that, unbeknownst to the villagers, is dangerous. Bakar (played by Lukman Sardi), a PKI (Translation: Communist Party of Indonesia) representative, gains the trust of the village by appealing to their dire circumstances. Motivated by their desire to overcome poverty, the residents of Dukuh Paruk align with PKI, without really understanding the true nature of Bakar’s intentions. By the time it is revealed, the anti-communist purge finds its way to the village doorstep.
Periods of political turmoil and a country in divide lead to the question of allegiance. Many news articles of war-torn nations cover stories of refugees or those in political asylum. Victims of these times often experience their attachments being ripped from under their feet, making the notion belonging a critical theme of “Sang Penari”. The relationship between a woman dedicated to restoring her family’s name and a man who bases his life choice largely on hers is an example of this. Though Rasus delivers in times she is in need of familiarity, she never once turns to him for escape. But Srintil’s own decisions do not come without a visible struggle. Her calling as a ronggeng distances her from a conventional relationship with Rasus. With constant relationships established as the norm and purpose of creation, coupled with the social value of virginity, it is easy for her to become attached to the idea. Understandably, numbers are powerful. She is, after all, the one ronggeng in the village. Srintil almost loses her title when breaking down whilst holding another woman’s baby and refusing to dance for a period of time. But she rises above her struggles, strengthening her conviction in her role.
Due to Dukuh Paruk’s devotion to the spirit world and its practises — including that of a woman appealing to a ronggeng to sleep with her husband so she can become pregnant — “Sang Penari” appropriately doesn’t shy away from sex. The film’s treatment of its more intimate scenes manages to find the balance, without being too conservative nor gratuitous. On a similar vein, a ronggeng is bound to her village. When Dukuh Paruk is decimated, so is her marriage to it. Her steely adherence to the traditional practise of ronggeng convinces the anti-communist army she is not part of the opposition, thus, saving her from the fatal end that befalls her fellow villagers. As Srintil and Rasus reunite years later, she is given a chance to belong to him. Perhaps, that is even Rasus’ hope. However, having long embraced her calling, she takes their meeting as an opportunity to make peace with her past. Their relationship is a possible argument supporting the existence of feminist values within “Sang Penari”.
For those curious about the Indonesian film industry, “Sang Penari” is one to add. Though heavily promoted as a love story, the film is, in fact, a rich cultural presentation of Indonesia. “Sang Penari” provides a window into the event surrounding the early years of the country’s New Order era, making the cinematic experience of “Sang Penari”, years after the political movement, a testament to democracy.