Indonesian director Edwin's 2008 feature Blind Pig Who Wants to Fly, which screened as part of MoMA's Contemporasian series, was an episodic collection of hypervivid, sometimes surreal scenes touching on Chinese-Indonesian identity. Edwin's dreamlike new feature, Postcards from the Zoo, follows a young woman who lives and works in Jakarta's Ragunan Zoo, as she befriends a mysterious cowboy-magician and ventures forth into the world. FILM COMMENT spoke with the director while he was in New York for the film's North American premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival.
What led you to zoos, as a place or as an idea?
Jakarta is a big, crowded city, not too many public spaces that give you some peaceful time. The zoo is one of those places. It's also a place to learn about the society. Ragunan is located in Jakarta, so most visitors are tourists coming to the zoo from outside the city. You'll see a lot of cultural differences there. Lots of stories I got only from sitting in the zoo. I just wanted to explore what it feels like to be at the zoo, live at the zoo, finding a home-like place there. The zoo is full of passionate people who work there. They're underpaid but they love the animals. This kind of energy interested me.
What did the zoo think of your shooting?
It took quite a while. We let them know that we all love the zoo, and we gave something nice to them: we shot a lot of photographs of animals so they can make a calendar. We also shot small videos of each animal, 20-something animals. And they also asked us to make a jingle for the film. If you go there, you'll probably hear that.
Zoos carry with them a certain feeling of longing. There is a real human need just to be around animals.
Definitely. What I feel about the zoo is it's a place of longing. The people who work there, the visitors, and the animals. And these animals don't belong there. All are misplaced. Maybe their natural instinct is questioning whether it is the right place to be. But they cannot get an answer. They have been there since they were born, but instinctively something is wrong.
That's a little like Lana [the main character who grew up in the zoo]. The sense of longing develops with the second half of the film, when she starts working at a massage parlor.
This kind of place is quite common in Indonesia. I have a friend who worked there. For most of the clients, something is missing from their life. They need to be spending time with strangers who can also take care of them. In the digital era, people miss touch. And it's not only paying for sex. Not every man going there is going to have sex with these women. They spent a lot of time watching movies, spending time with these girls, talking about their lives. It's like a modern confession booth.
The twilight night scenes are key to the tone of the film. How did you get that look?
We shot on 35mm, entirely in daytime. We used an old technique that used to be in old cowboy movies, when they couldn't afford lighting for night scenes. It's an interesting effect, it creates a dreamy look. It's also not good for the animals to shoot with big lights at night...
Before feature filmmaking, you made shorts and music videos. Could you talk about how that influenced your features?
With music videos, you have to think short. The most important thing in music videos is the image you give to the audience. I love in music videos that you can have one really powerful image. That brings something to my films. My films are like postcards.
What filmmakers do you like to follow?
I like Kim Ki-duk. Korean films are just amazing. Hong Sang-soo: simple but also complex.