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Saturday, June 25, 2022

“Yuni”: Indonesia’s patriarchal tale on the road to the Oscars

Yuni embeds itself in Indonesian culture, closely observing the rich tradition of child marriage while perpetuating the eminently patriarchal entrenchment that has buried women’s voices.

What Yuni divulges comes across persuasive. But how it unfolds its story is never exaggerated and embellished. The drama feels rich and real, and the progressive plot incorporates hardly any gimmick, rendering a documentary-like viewing experience. The culture setting into which the film ventures is presented with a clear context.

The central story stems from a network of relations that impact Yuni’s life. While there is interpersonal conflict in the titular character, tensions between characters and antagonism seem oddly removed. Therefore, no one is pinned the blame for the lead character’s misfortunes. Yuni simply narrates the tale of reasonable people of conflicting goals and a string of compelling obstacles that the lead character must negotiate.

Male Privilege in Patriarchal Society

Yuni reflects on the ways men in a tradition-bound Indonesian culture tout the merits of a way of life that subjugates women. In the coming-of-age film, there are at least three types of males who exert patriarchal authorities, both directly and indirectly; older men who propose marriage, the literature teacher and male schoolmate.

Though Yuni (Arawinda Kirana), a 16 year-old schoolgirl, is stumped on what to do in her future, she has a firm conviction of not becoming a teenage bride. In school, Yuni is a conscientious pupil, but she struggles with literature. Her affectionate female teacher Miss Lies (Marissa Anita) encourages her to consider her long-term future by going for scholarship applications. However, her literature teacher Mr. Damar (Dimas Aditya), albeit unintentionally, gets in the way. She simply cannot graduate with a low grade on the subject.

This turn of event is where Yoga (Kevin Ardilova) comes. Unlike the traditionally-aggressive-and-dominant male stereotypes, Yoga embraces the tongue-tied, dazed shyness in the presence of Yuni. Fully mindful of Yoga’s poetic ability, Yuni leverages on her womanhood to get her needs met, though in a less manipulative manner.

Yuni is quite articulate in conveying male social privilege and patriarchal hierarchy of control and power within the context of early marriage and vaguely through the character of Mr. Damar. It is interesting to note that though Yoga is less sensitive to cues of dominance, he is an inherent part of male’s natural superiority in Yuni’s small world.

Child Marriage and Its Surrounding Social Norms

Mang Dodi (Toto St. Radik), a married man at least three times Yuni’s age, is willing to reward $3500 dowry to Yuni’s family in exchange for marriage. Plus another half of it providing that Yuni is a virgin. In forced or early marriage, women are dehumanized into a commodity, a property or an item to be bought, owned or sold without regard for their full consent, rights or autonomy.

Forced or early marriage becomes the bulk of the film’s conversation. Indonesia is home to a large number of early marriages as they are part of folk customs and norms passed down across generations. It is deeply rooted in socio-cultural practices and reinforces inequitable gender values. The proliferation of patriarchal society allows this to flourish.

The tale of traditional custom of early marriage is in full contact with a local superstition. As Yuni’s grandmother points out, “Marriage is a blessing and we shouldn’t refuse a blessing.” Yuni is subsequently subject to the myth that turning down more than two marriage proposals will practically put her in an old-maid situation.

Sexualized Female Objectification

As it opens, Yuni makes a vital point of female objectification. The film opens with a scene in which the titular character steps out of bathroom to wipe off and get dressed. Viewers get a glimpse of her body, remarking partial exposure to her buttock and breast from a side. Although nudity generally discerns a form of titillation and voyeuristic appeal, Yuni’s nudity is part of the story; the commodification of female body.

Female sexploitation is the staple in Indonesian cinema throughout the 80s and 90s most notably in low-budget, sensational horror. The genre thrives on the abject sexualization of female bodies and potentially-perverse male gaze. That said, a scene that actually revels in explicit close-up shots of female body is a rarity before Yuni in the history of Indonesian cinema. Most usually run in extreme or medium long shots and sometimes end up in out-of-focus shots.

Coexistence of Tradition and Modernity 

Meanwhile, Yuni can serve a critical instrument for scrutinizing the sometimes-uneasy coexistence of tradition and modernity. Modernity fits into Yuni’s attitude toward her transition into womanhood. The film reveals its underlying modernity structure within Yuni’s friendship with Suci (Asmara Abigail). A young beauty stylist, Suci becomes widowed from a child marriage, thus sharing direct affinity with Yuni. With Suci’s unrestrained zest for life, Yuni is approaching a modern look with heavy makeup and party-girl lifestyles that have more to do with smoking and drinking beers straight from the bottle in a nightclub.

The core strength of Yuni is its plain and natural storytelling. The film takes serious notes while maintaining its lightness to deliver its firm messages. Suffocating themes of early marriage and daunting questions of sexuality such as female masturbation are brought in a light-toned  yet candid discussion as Yuni and her girlfriends are lolling on the grass, engage in idle talk and share giggles. This immediately points to childhood naivety and innocence; their lack of worldliness.

A Glimpse of LGBTQ+ Representation

Yuni also addresses LGBTQ+ representation in the progressive plot, homing in on cross-dressing behavior in a very brief yet vivid manner from a supporting character (no spoiler). Given the cultural and religious setting, LGBTQ+ stereotypes become too rigid, and there’s no room for growth. Most of the people are Muslims, and fitting in is the perpetual goal. As the LGBTQ+ character strives to fit in a socially religious setting, Yuni strenuously does it particularly in a patriarchal community. Due to societal pressures, closeted LGBTQ individuals engage in formality marriage. They marry heterosexual partners and do not disclose their sexual orientation to avoid societal prejudice.

Yuni evokes understanding that marriage is no longer a powerful, sacred commitment between two individuals. Instead it is a traditional symbol of fragility and submission under the pressure of societal expectation.

Yuni is officialy submitted for Oscar’s Best International Feature entry. It first screened at Toronto International Film Festival in September 2021, where it received the Platform Prize. It will hit the theaters in Indonesia on December 9th 2021.

Adrian Radjabhttps://diksi.carrd.co/
Adrian Radjab loves writing and does it the right way. When he is not writing, he teaches and translates some stuff. On his day off, he smokes and watches Golden Girls reruns.

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