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Source:  http://www.thejakartapost.com/news/2008/10/05/literary-hit-arrives-silver-screen-much-acclaim.html

Literary hit arrives on silver screen to much acclaim

Iskandar Liem ,  Contributor ,  Jakarta   |  Sun, 10/05/2008 10:40 AM  |  Entertainment

Among five local films released last month that caught spend-happy audiences of the holiday season, only one was preceded by a massive buzz which helped it to skyrocket past its competition to a much deserved position of relative commercial and critical success.

Laskar Pelangi (Rainbow Soldiers) opened ten days ago at approximately 25 screens in cinemas around Jakarta, many of which were full houses. This success prompted cinemas to allocate additional screens the following day, almost doubling the film's initial coverage.

Coupled with the fact that critics from various publications had clamored to lavish praise on it (present company included), the film may well have a good shot at outdoing Ayat Ayat Cinta (Verses of Love)'s box office success earlier this year.

Laskar is a film adaptation of Andrea Hirata's literary phenomenon that first appeared on shelves in 2004 and quickly became the highest selling local novel of all time.

With eager anticipation from the book's gargantuan fan base, as well as a roster of A-listers and veteran actors attached to the project, the film was pretty much a guaranteed hit right from the start.

Set in the Sumatran island of Belitong, the film opens with the adult Ikal (played by Lukman Sardi) returning to his birthplace after a number of years away. From there it flashes back his first day at school, with two teachers -- Bu Muslimah (Cut Mini) and Pak Harfan (Ikranagara) -- who have been eagerly waiting for students to enroll at their decrepit Muhammadiyah primary school.

Since the district school board had already declared that their little school must close because it didn't meet the ten-student minimum, this particular day is obviously a nervous affair for both teachers.

Fortunately, ten students (mostly children of poor laborers) do sign up, forming a little enclave of first-graders christened with a titular moniker by Bu Muslimah.

Five years pass, and the majority of the film takes place in the student's fateful fifth grade, chronicling the ups and downs of the Rainbow Soldiers through the eyes of young Ikal (Zulfani), the bright son of a clerk (Mathias Muchus) in the local lead mine.

Besides Ikal, the eclectic group comprises an assortment of characters -- mainly Lintang (Ferdian), a fisherman's son who turns out to be a mathematical genius and Mahar (Verrys Yamarno), a musically obsessed dreamer who is never without a radio by his side.

Supporting characters include among others Harun who is an intellectually challenged boy; Akiong, a cheerful lad of Chinese descent; Sahara, the token girl; and Kucai, the mischievous and petite-sized class monitor.

The crucial move director Riri Riza and producer Mira Lesmana made right was their decision to cast local Belitong children without prior acting experience in the main roles.

After all, both Riri and Mira are known for discovering new talent who go on to A-list stardom (for example Rachel Maryam in Eliana Eliana, the main role in Ada Apa Dengan Cinta/ What's Up With Love).

While several members of the young cast are noticeably awkward in acting roles (they're wisely kept off center stage), Zulfani and Ferdian gave impressively natural performances as the two leads, possessing a purer brand of innocence that sets them apart from more experienced big-city child actors commonly found in local TV serials.

Zulfani's Ikal has a lovable myriad facial expressions that are mirrored in audiences' reactions to the story.

When he experiences the sheer joy of his first love with a local Chinese girl, viewers smile joyously with him. And in the one moment in the movie that he weeps, his tearful face and the guttural cry that comes with it are so heart-wrenching, there is nary a dry eye in the house.

At the emotional core of the film lies the character of Lintang.

From the first moment he appears on screen as a scrawny boy of barely six years old who rides a bicycle for miles just to attend class, through to the ironic twist of fate life deals him in the third act, he is the poorest of the poor, and the one audiences' hearts go for. In the enrollment scene, for example, even among a roomful of unfortunate people, he is the only one with neither an accompanying parent or shoes. One can almost read the dogged determination to survive that's permanently etched into his face.

Veteran actor Ikranagara, of the 80s classic Kejarlah Daku Kau Kutangkap (Chase Me And I'll Catch You) gave a commendable performance as Pak Harfan, clearly portraying his character's altruism and generosity of spirit.

The only minor flaw in casting lay in picking Cut Mini for the central role of Bu Muslimah. She gave a rather stiff performance that somehow failed to do justice to a wonderfully written character, despite great chemistry with her young co-stars.

Speaking of wonderful writing, the script admittedly takes a few liberties with the novel, adding a couple of teacher characters to the film that don't appear in the novel.

However, this addition rightfully adds further depth to the character of Bu Muslimah, highlighting her inner turmoil in devoting her life to her students. Even author Andrea Hirata has been quoted as saying that his beloved story was made all the better with these changes.

In addition to co-writing the script with Mira and Ayat Ayat Cinta scribe Salman Aristo, director Riri Riza managed to retain the humor and pathos of Hirata's book, painting the film with sweeping, epic camera strokes that perfectly capture the gorgeous Belitong location.

Riza also manages to sneak in a little visual homage to other films, from well-known blockbusters Gladiator and The Shawshank Redemption, to the more obscure Last Life in the Universe.

Kudos is also due for the real-life couple Aksan and Titi Sjuman for dynamically scoring the film with an eclectic mix of instruments that successfully captures the ephemeral spirit of childhood.

Although it drags a little in the second act, Laskar bounces back to deliver the goods in its third.

Following a climactic scene involving an interschool competition, the final fifteen minutes packs an emotional wallop worthy of ten handkerchiefs, and perhaps even more remarkable is that it does so with minimal on-screen tears.

Add Nidji's bittersweet theme song to wrap up the film, and there it is: one of the most affecting and poignant endings ever committed to Indonesian celluloid.

In a country where critical acclaim rarely equals a commercial hit, Laskar offers a glimmer of hope to the quality of the local movie industry.

It's heartening to note that for once, instead of watching one of the excruciatingly bad run-of-the-mill flicks that have littered our screens of late, the masses are actually rushing to watch a truly good local film -- and one that makes audiences' hearts soar on their way out of the theater.

Laskar Pelangi is now showing at Blitz Megaplex and 21 Cinemas. English subtitles are available for screenings at Blitz Grand Indonesia and Plaza Senayan XXI

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