Saturday, April 28, 2012

Tribeca ’12: Postcards from the Zoo

The Ragunan Zoo is a slightly run down Eden.  The city around it is jungle.  One innocent young woman will learn the nature of the world outside in the singularly named Edwin’s Postcards from the Zoo (clip here), which screens today at the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival.

Abandoned in the zoo as a young girl, Lana simply stayed there, falling in with a group of itinerant workers who do odd jobs around the park and sleep on the premises.  Growing up amongst the animals, she seems to have special bond with them, particularly the giraffe.  However, her sheltered existence is turned upside down when word comes of the migrant workers’ imminent eviction from the zoo.

Fascinated by a mysterious street magician dressed as a cowboy, Lana is lured out of the park, becoming his assistant and ambiguous companion.  While she acclimates to their performance routines, it is not long before she is working at a massage parlor in an even more ambiguous capacity.

Like Lana, Postcards should have never left the zoo.  In those early scenes Edwin and cinematographer Sidi Saleh create a breathtakingly delicate fable-like environment.  It is fascinating to watch the quietly subtle ways Lana interacts with the animals.  The Ragunan Zoo is also a truly wonderful setting, looking a bit wild and over-run by forest, in a way that further heightens the fantasy atmosphere.

However, once she leaves the idyllic zoo, Postcards becomes a largely by the numbers end-of-innocence tale.  While there are arresting visuals to be found throughout the film, usually involving return trips to the zoo, we have been down this road hundreds of times before.  Yes, it reflects the reality of Jakarta, which is why it clashes with everything special in the film.  It is also getting emotionally exhausting to see yet another little girl abandoned or abducted in a film from the region.  The filmmakers ought to start picking on someone more their size.

Even if Postcards is undermined by its second half, it is impossible to take your eyes off Ladya Cheryl’s Lana.  Her earnest engagement and exquisite vulnerability gives the film an emotional center of gravity, preventing it from becoming a mere exercise in archetypal tropes.  It is haunting work.

There were obviously some crack animal trainers contributing their talents to Postcards.  Cheryl is also an absolutely luminous presence.  However, viewers are more likely to fall in love with her or the Ragunan Zoo than Edwin’s movie.  Richly crafted but somewhat disappointing, Postcards from the Zoo screens again today (4/28) as this year’s Tribeca Film Festival enters the home stretch.