“Memories of My Body” (Kucumbu Tubuh Indahku, Garin Nugroho)
Looking at the Body
“Memories of My Body” examines “the physicality of history as bodies become maps of trauma and dislocation while its itinerant hero is pushed from pillar to post through a series of abandonments and upheavals that leave him at the mercy of a society permanently on the brink of eruption.” I will unpack that sentence during this review.
The older Juno narrates his story to us as if it were a piece of ritual theatre. We meet Juno (Raditya Evandra) as a child – or more precisely, the child of the older Juno’s memory. He was abandoned by his father and began hanging around a troupe of Lengger dancers for whom sensuality is all. Though Juno was originally attracted to the show to peep at the ladies through a “tiny hole” in the wall, he eventually became disillusioned with the dancers when he sees the group’s leader viciously beat an underling for having sex with his assistant when she made all of the overtures. Sex, violence, and dancing continue to be part of young Juno’s life even after he is taken in by an aunt when it becomes clear his father will never return.
Following a brief obsession with chickens, Juno is then sent on to live with an uncle who trains him as a tailor where he develops a friendship with a very macho, soon-to-be-married boxer (Randy Pangalila) who also wants to be free of his bodily constraints but has become indebted to gangsters. Before long he finds himself in motion again before coming full circle as a costuming assistant with a troupe of travelling dancers. He becomes a favorite of the “Warok” (Whani Darmawan) but also the object of unattainable affection for the local military representative (Teuku Rifnu Wikana) of a corrupt regime whose jealousy seems set to burn the world around him.
Juno’s uncle later tells him, bodies can go anywhere but they take their traumas with them. Even so, you have to love your body or all is lost. His uncle tells him that this family is particularly burdened, explaining the reason for his brother’s coldness to his son which turns out to be because of a rational distrust of family and seeing his own massacred in a river, something he is unable to forget and eventually decided to erase by leaving his home and family behind. Juno’s own traumas, as he seems to remember them, are firmly imprinted on his physicality and give weight to his dance as he tells his own story, filled rejections, transformations and rebirths in the repressive atmosphere of a nation trapped in revolution.
Juno’s own, slow path towards delight in his own body takes place against a series of external reformations that are referred to in a red terror threat to have the dancers denounced as communists, while primacy of religion remains paramount. The local military officer is running for office and his wife is upset by a photo in which he unwisely took Juno’s hand in public. Merely grasping a hand becomes suspect in an atmosphere of intense suspicion. Any hint of impropriety is potentially enough to destabilize an already volatile situation. We see that illicit romantic jealously brings on a greater tragedy, and Juno is soon on the road again. As Juno says, you see life only through a tiny. “Memories of My Body” is an exploration of “muscle memory” as lived history and the tangible effects of a life lived in turbulent times.
Juno was a small man when he was left by his father who was lost somewhere. He then joined a Lengger dance studio where he slowly formed his feminist side both in appearance and behavior along with his growing age. But the other side of him must face the bitter reality when it has to clash with political and social values that have taken root in Indonesia, making him have to be willing to live to move from village to village for personal safety. Despite getting the support and attention of some people such as his aunt, his uncle, dance teacher, a young boxer and a warok, Juno’s life is still full of difficulties.
This is a very brave film, both in terms of storytelling and in terms of visual appearance. Director Garin Nugroho did not show any hesitation at all in conveying opinions that were quite constructive and organized about matters which could be considered a taboo in Indonesia.