Sunday, May 19, 2024

‘Stealing Raden Saleh’ is a Slick, Fun Time

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I am by no means an expert on Indonesian cinema, but as a film, Angga Dwimas Sasongko’s Stealing Raden Saleh is a slick art-heist film with a keen eye for the little things. It’s hard to watch the movie and not be charmed by Sasongko’s evident love for the genre. He peppers references to other heist movies but does so either visually or in a naturalistic way, with characters not dropping titles but referencing actors. 

Meaning there’s a scene where one character references Ocean’s 8 by calling it “That Sandra Bullock movie.” Sasongko co-wrote the script with Husein M. Atmodjo, and the duo does a beautiful job of keeping the characters and the way they speak grounded. Of course, a lesser movie would have the characters state the movie outright, but anyone who talks to the average person, as well as we critics, frequently have trouble reaching for the title and resort to, “You know that movie with so and so.”

stealing raden saleh
The gang from Left to right: Gofar (Umay Shahab), Fella (Rachel Amanda), Ucup (Angga Yunanda), Piko (Iqbaal Ramadhan), Sarah (Aghniny Haque) and Tuktuk (Ari Irham)

Like any heist movie, Stealing Raden Saleh is about a group of people thrown together by circumstance and delightful scheming to try and pull off the impossible and overcome whatever acts of screenwriting inconvenience the writers toss their way. It’s a time-honored cinema tradition, and if poorly done, it can come off like death warmed over. Luckily the movie has a few tricks up its sleeves.

The biggest one is that Piko (Iqbaal Ramadhan) and his hacker buddy Ucup (Angga Yunanda), the two main leads, aren’t criminals so much as working-class scoundrels. Though Ucup seems to be the one actual criminal, we’re never quite sure what the cops want him for, and what we see him do, seems to be more of a young man attempting to see what he can get away with. The warehouse in which they work, owned by Piko, is leased to a mechanic and his two sons Gofar (Umay Shahab) and Tuktuk (Ari Irham). The two brothers sneak cars out late at night while their old man sleeps for a little late-night drag racing.

Piko spends his time going to school and forging the works of the masters to make a little money on the side. Mainly so he can raise the funds to hire an attorney to get his father played by the wonderfully charismatic Dwi Sasono, out of jail. Piko thinks he is wrongly imprisoned, but we suspect otherwise as Stealing Raden Saleh begins to uncoil.

Ucup acts as Piko’s manager, but both agree it’s time for one last job. Anyone who has ever seen a movie before knows how that goes. The duo contacts Dini (Atiqah Hasiholan), and it just so happens she has a job for them. She wants a forgery of the infamous “The Arrest of Prince Diponegro” by the Indonesian master Raden Saleh. Piko explains the importance of the painting politically and culturally for the benefit of a non-Indonesian audience.

Stealing Raden Saleh is less “let’s get the band back together” and more “let’s form a band,” leading to growing pains and figuring each character out. In part, that’s kind of what I like about the movie. The way that things seem convenient only to discover that the so-called “fool-proof” plans are anything but.

Ramadhan and Yunanda are crucial to making Stealing Raden Saleh work. The two are the main characters and have more screen time than anyone else. Both have charisma but of varying degrees. This befits their roles as Pika is the tortured emo “good one” and Ucup is the cynical “bad boy .” But there’s a genuine vulnerability in Ramadhan and Yunanda’s scenes, in how these lifelong friends interact and care for each other.

It’s a type of masculinity Hollywood movies tend to be scared of showing. Yes, they have egos, but they also have little qualms about showing affection for each other and their loved ones. Despite the movie being about a bunch of young twenty-somethings, they are surprisingly emotionally aware of themselves and others.

stealing raden saleh
Sarah (Haque) gets ready to kick butt

Of course, there are complications, as they always are. Especially when the buyer turns out to be disgraced ex-president Permadi, played to slimy perfection by Tio Pakusadew. Permadi blackmails the boys into stealing the actual painting and replacing it with the forgery so that he can hang the real one in his mansion. His payback to the people for ousting him for corruption is to steal a prized cultural artifact for his private residence.

Stealing Raden Saleh has the feel of a sprawling novel with its deep bench of characters and all the ways they intersect. Yet, Sasongko keeps all the plates spinning at just the right speed so that we’re never lost as to where we are or who the characters are. In addition, both Sasongko and Atmodjo find ways to tell the same tired old story in a new way.

Take Piko’s tomboyish girlfriend, Sarah, played by the striking Aghniny Haque. The “brute” of the motley band of well-groomed moppets, she is soon predictably forced to use her body not as a weapon but as a distraction. Of course, having strong, confident women use their body’s desirability as a tool is slightly older than the heist genre. But here, Sasongko and Atmodjo go further and have us see how acutely uncomfortable Sarah is at her traditional” feminine transformation.” In this context meaning, being asked to use her body as a sexual tool.

More than that, her discomfort isn’t played for laughs. We are uneasy for Sarah because she is genuinely uncomfortable, and neither Sasongko nor his camera person Bagoes Tresna Aji attempts to objectify or exploit for anything than what it is, Sarah being uncomfortable. However, they do for the low-hanging fruit of the comedy of an anxious Piko not liking his girlfriend being used as sex bait for the narcissistic so of a disgraced ex-president. But you can hardly blame the lad. 

I found it particularly interesting that even after her so-called transformation, Sarah didn’t embrace it. Not to mention despite her tomboyish demeanor, she is an outwardly sensitive and shy character. Haque displays brilliantly, almost stealing every scene she’s in. She and Fella (Rachel Amanda), the rich one of the group and the one comfortable with her femininity, become fast friends.

stealing raden saleh
Piko (Ramadhan) paints and Ucup (Yunanda) tinkers

However, I can’t decide if we are spared a montage of Fella teaching Sarah how to be more “womanly” or if we are robbed. The point is that I liked seeing the notion of “looking feminine” is not the same as “being feminine” explored, especially when it’s in the vein of looking at the many different ways a woman can be a woman. Truthfully, I may just be impressed because it comes from a film written and directed by men, and we usually fail spectacularly in these matters. 

Then there’s the action. Indonesia is a country that has given us Timo Tjahjanto, a man who crafts some of the most brutally exquisite action scenes of the modern day. While the action isn’t of the same bone-shattering intensity, it is, in its way, just as good. Haque has a fight scene seemingly lifted from Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation. Aji’s camera is limber as it careens around, keeping up with Haque’s kicks and punches.

In addition, Sasongko and his editor Hendra Adhi Susanto focus on little things, raising the artistry of Stealing Raden Saleh. In one moment, after Piko has learned a soul-shattering secret, the camera cuts to a close-up of his fists clenched together. It’s an insert shot, but I adore it because, at that moment, Sasongko chose to focus on Piko’s hands, eschewing the easy wide shot of him kneeling in the rain. More than anything, I loved Stealing Raden Saleh because we could see Sasongko making choices. In an era where so many films feel like they are manufactured, it’s a breath of fresh air to see a genre film where we can plainly see a director and their editor make conscious decisions.

Stealing Raden Saleh comes close to running out of gas a few times, but each time it does, it finds a new form of fuel to drive the story. I admired Sasongko’s confidence in how he boldly had the heist in the film’s first half, merely to set up the actual theft in the back half. Sasongko and Atmodjo play with the well-worn cliches enough that they seem not new but look better in their new clothes.

A perfect example is the lone cop hard on the tails of our intrepid hero, Sita (Andrea Dian). A statuesque detective, she seems to be the only one aware that there’s something bigger going on. A minor character, Dian, nonetheless, captures the camera and our attention whenever she’s onscreen. There’s an intelligence to her character that is built-in, which Dian aptly portrays. Unfortunately, it’s a one-note role, and while Dian doesn’t necessarily give Sita dimension, she does give her shadings of one, which seems more than what the script allows.

Yes, it drags here and there, and some characters are less fleshed out than others. But watching Stealing Raden Saleh, I couldn’t help but be delighted by the craftsmanship of it all. It’s not perfect, but it’s put together with enough love and held together with enough personal touches that what doesn’t work feels like nitpicking.

Images courtesy of Netflix

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