Ansel Adams once said, "A photograph is usually looked at—seldom looked into." Judge Bryan Byun has no clue what Adams was talking about.
"Photos can reveal many lies and truths. It depends on which ones you want to hang as your truth. And the ones you keep hidden."
What can a photograph really capture about a person? Does it convey truth, or only what the photographer, or the subject, wish it to convey? What do the photographs we carry with us through our lives say about what versions of reality we want to keep?
For Sita, a young Indonesian karaoke singer and sometime prostitute, her collection of snapshots of her absent family is a kind of surrogate for the daughter and grandmother she yearns to be reunited with. The happy faces in the photos she lovingly tends are in stark contrast to the reality, where her child is without a mother and her grandmother is seriously ill, and where Sita is perpetually short of money and being threatened by her thuggish pimp.
For Mr. Johan, the elderly Chinese-born portrait photographer who is ill and near death, his photographs of his own family are symbolic of his lifelong guilt and self-torment. His wife and child having been killed when he was a young man, Mr. Johan lives alone in his studio, slowly dying amidst his dreadful memories and the secret burden of his family obligations.
In The Photograph, a film by Indonesian director Nan Achnas, photographs are stories the characters tell themselves. Sita's photos represent her dream of a happier future; Mr. Johan's are a constant reminder of past pain.
The story begins predictably: we expect the young woman to somehow become mixed up with the elderly man, and so they do. Sita, nearly penniless from sending most of her money to her ailing grandmother, convinces Mr. Johan to rent her a room above his studio. In return, Sita becomes Mr. Johan's housekeeper and assistant, as he searches for an apprentice who will take over the studio after Johan's death.
Fortunately, Achnas is truer to her characters than to the obligations of commercial storytelling, so The Photograph avoids most of the expected sentimental plot points—this isn't the kind of movie where the vivacious youngster revives the cranky old timer's joie de vivre, or helps him come to terms with his family's death. The old man doesn't have some kind of secret fortune hidden in coffee cans that pays for Sita's grandmother's operation. It's not that kind of movie.
Instead, The Photograph is a simple, no-frills story of two troubled, lonely characters who form a natural, if unlikely, friendship, and take solace in each other's humanity and kindness. Sita's refusal to dwell on the past helps ease Mr. Johan's torment—if only a little—as he exits his life; Mr. Johan's quiet determination, wisdom, and strength help Sita realize that she need not be defined by the circumstances of her present.
The film makes the most of its photographic subject; it's slowly paced, with spare dialogue—all the better to savor the poetic images—and the shots are beautifully composed. We learn very little about these characters' pasts; like a portrait, The Photograph conveys more about these people's characters and souls than their backstories. Even after the dark secret of Mr. Johan's past is revealed, the film retains its quiet mysteries.
The Photograph has been given a so-so DVD presentation by the Global Film Initiative, a non-profit film organization with the stated goal of promoting cross-cultural understanding through cinema. As such, I'm persuaded to give the DVD a pass for such flaws as a substandard transfer of a damaged, dirty print, and hardcoded subtitles (offering a translation full of grammatical and spelling errors) positioned in such a way that it's impossible to view the film so that it fills the screen.
The special features on the disc are similarly slipshod, consisting of a brief overview of Global Film Initiative DVD offerings, and what I thought was a selection of film trailers that turned out, disappointingly, to be merely a list of film titles. The only real feature is a "discussion guide," which turns out to be a PDF document on the disc that can only be read on a computer. Unfortunately, the document itself—actually a useful sheet including a plot synopsis, director bio, and info about the film and Indonesia—includes a bunch of annotations and editing notes that GFI apparently forgot to clean up before putting the file on the disc.
Despite a rather underwhelming presentation, however, I'm glad films like The Photograph—that aren't exactly likely to become international crossover hits, much less the next Cinema Paradiso—are being made available in the States. While The Photograph is no masterpiece—it really does move far too slowly, and is a little too emotionally reserved to involve me very deeply in its characters—it's a worthwhile film, and one that hails from a country whose cinema I am completely unacquainted with. Having never seen a film from Indonesia, I'm looking forward to seeing more glimpses of this nation's culture and cinema.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Global Film Initiative
• Discussion Guide
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