That’s not how you preserve traditions (and treat your own family)

As an Indonesian, I rarely watch Indonesian films voluntarily. So, the fact that I decided to watch this newly-released feature is a rarity.

Ngeri-Ngeri Sedap (I still don’t know how to translate the title) tells the story of a fractured Batak family; the parents struggle to persuade their university-educated adult sons return home after years. They cannot stand their cold, headstrong father who disapprove of their life decisions.

One of them wants to marry a woman from another ethnic group, one becomes a TV comedian instead of a law practitioner and the youngest child isn’t interested returning home for good, even though tradition calls for it.

Desperate, the parents pretend they are going to divorce, which would compel the sons to return home and talk their mom and dad out of it. The plan works. But, the moment they saw their father, the atmosphere immediately thickens and it will get even worse from here.

The film is not that great, execution wise. The dialogues are full of info dumps, the cinematography fails to capture the beauty of rural North Sumatra (I have visited Lake Toba and I know how ethereally beautiful it is), the crying scene is unintentionally funny, the emotions could have been more intense and the conflict resolves a bit too quickly.

But, the film does have some gems in it.

While I cannot verify the authenticity of the Batak life depiction as I am not a Batak, I adore how it does not use a regional and/or ethnic identity as a punchline or a token, as the common practice in a country where media productions mostly centered in one snobby, cosmopolitan city.

I also love that it is written and directed by an actual Batak filmmaker and most of the main cast members are of Batak lineage; the ones who aren’t grew up surrounded by Batak people. It is refreshing how a film about a certain culture is made by people who have experiences with it.

But, that’s not even the best part: it is also a giant middle finger to “traditional” parenting and toxic loyalty to family.

The father loves accusing his sons of selfishness, even though he is the one who makes everything about himself. The sons always look uneasy and awkward in his presence. The comedian son loves making spiteful comments, even saying that his family is a joke, something to be laugh at. Even though the mother is just as traditional, she openly disapproves how her husband behaves.

It becomes so toxic, not only his sons depart angrily, his wife ends up wanting to divorce for real and the daughter – I forgot to mention the family has a daughter – leaves with her as well.

It also has unexpected commentaries about gender.

When the daughter asked why her brothers seem awkward with each other, the eldest son said their father was always aloof towards his sons, hence their inability to be warm towards other men.

She is also a testament that girls and women often have to sacrifice the most in a patriarchal society. She had to break a romantic relationship because the man was a non-Batak and she gave up her dream as a chef – her cooking talent has been shown from the very beginning – because the father thinks it is not a real job.

She could have easily rebelled. But, if she does, she would severe ties with her elderly parents and no one would take care of them.

The grandma – the father’s mother – is unbelievably wise. She gently points out that different children require different parenting style. You shouldn’t raise university-educated children like you raise ones who didn’t finish middle school, she says.

Okay, maybe not that wise. Surely, you deserve your parents’ warmth regardless of your educational level; I don’t see how dropping out of school makes you less of a human being with feelings.

But, as problematic as her advice is, her point about there is no one correct way to raise children still stands.

The daughter and grandma also represent the gender situation in Indonesia. While the film barely focuses on either character, they add depth to the story. Men are at the forefront with women supporting them behind the scenes.

What I love about the ending is the father finally and sincerely realises his mistakes and tries to amend his mistakes.

He makes a surprise appearance at his comedian son’s TV show which is shot in Jakarta, asserting he is not proud of his son’s success. Why? Because it is his son’s, not his. He has no right to take credit for it.

He visits his other son’s non-Batak lover in West Java and, much to his surprise, she is interested in learning Batak traditions. As a rural dweller, he seems unaware that many urban Indonesians have experiences traversing different cultures; dealing with other regional Indonesian cultures is a mundane task for them.

His visits his youngest son’s boss in Jogjakarta and he learns that his son helps the local farmers – a vulnerable group of people – increasing their agricultural yield, practically making their lives better.

After he gains his sons’ sincere forgiveness (which is what their mother desires), the family reunites.

I love how the film asserts that a family’s unity cannot be achieved unless every member – including the parents – makes their best efforts. In this case, the family reunites after the father finally leaves his bubble, both in literal and figurative sense.

Literally as in he leaves his rural homeland and travels to three different provinces, none of which are in Sumatra. Figuratively as in he leaves the world where views like his are king and enter one with greater diversity of thoughts.

I also love how the film is not anti-tradition. The traditional festival is depicted respectfully (or so it seems), the sons still love Batak food and the soundtracks feature Batak-language songs.

It is not about whether we should preserve traditions or not, it is more about HOW we do it. It is a cautionary tale of how tactlessness will tear your family apart and putting your beloved heritage in even greater risk of extinction.

And, in a rare moment, I feel proud of my fellow countrymen. I don’t know what the haters have to say about the film. But, I have seen so many positive comments online; many feel their negative experiences with traditional parents and/or husbands are validated.

I am glad such Indonesian film exists.

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A tangent about religion:

Indonesia is a place where religiosity is held with high regards, regardless of one’s ethnic and religious backgrounds. The film not-so-subtly hints at that fact.

The family’s house has a quite a few Christian-themed ornaments (if I can call them that), like the cross and pictures of Jesus Christ. There is a moment of brief close-up on a knitted(?) The Last Supper picture and the parents’ bed are often filmed using wide shot, ensuring the overhead cross is seen as well.

They also respect the local pastor. The father wants to impress him by putting a pristine mask on his marriage. The sons also ask him to discourage their parents from divorcing, even though his advice is the same as theirs.

Oh, and in the beginning of the film, one of the sons explicitly say, “we are Christians”.

While religion is not focused on, the film makes sure we don’t forget about its existence.

I wonder how much of the conservative attitude is attributed to their religious beliefs.

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Author: The Stammering Dunce

I write blogs. I love to act smarter than I really am and I pretend that my opinions are of any significance. Support me on Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/user?u=9674796

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