Movie Review (Glasgow Film Festival): ‘Yuni’ is a Beautiful and Tragic Coming of Age Story
For her third feature – and arguably best yet – Yuni, Indonesian director Kamila Andini utilizes the late Sapardi Djoko Damono’s poem “The Rain in June” as a plot function. In fact, Andini goes as far as to dedicate the movie to Damono and has claimed his work as the inspiration for Yuni. It feels apt, as Damono’s work largely questioned the nature of human existence, the why of what we do and who we are.
This applies fairly neatly to Yuni (Arawinda Kirana), a teenage Indonesian girl who simply wants to live her life without the responsibilities of adulthood, of which she is on the cusp. Content with spending her time engrossed in her phone, swimming with her friends, or crushing on her handsome school teacher, Yuni has little patience for the traditional expectations of the society around her. When a series of marriage proposals come in – the first from a man she has never met, the second from a man over twice her age who knew her when she was a small child, and who already has one wife – Yuni must face up to the realities of the patriarchal society she lives in, one which will pay handsomely for a young virgin girl without giving much agency to the girl herself.
Yet Yuni dreams of a better life. She is clever, and is encouraged by teachers to consider studying at University, which she has the grades for and could realistically achieve, provided she does not get married. In a culture mired in the superstition that to reject more than two marriage proposals is bad luck, however, Yuni must somehow resolve the state of her situation and discover a way forward for herself, a way to live the life she wants, before it’s too late.
As with her previous movie The Seen and Unseen, Andini focuses predominantly on the lives of the young in Indonesia and the turmoil they must deal with in the face of their traditional culture. Yuni, however, is more grounded in reality than The Seen and Unseen. It tackles weighty topics about cultural shifts and conversations which need to happen – in one scene it is announced Yuni’s school are considering “purity examinations” to test whether the female students are still virgins – while still centring around one girl’s specific experience. There is a satisfying balance between Yuni’s inner life and the world around her, more of which in a moment. Kirana excels as the eponymous and wayward Yuni. She floats from scene to scene, engages with the world in the kind of disconnected half-gaze which is typical of teenage girls. Yuni is heartbreakingly naive at times, especially when faced with external pressures she has little understanding of, and Kirana conveys the innocence of her character so effectively that one feels a need to protect her from the vulture-like predations of the men who encircle her.
The contrast between Yuni’s inner life and her external world are balanced wonderfully by the cinematography of Gay Hian Teoh. Obsessed with the color purple, to the point of kleptomania, Yuni’s acts of defiance against the bland, beige world around her take the form of a streak of purple in her hair, the phone case she is so wedded to, and the mischievous rebellions which allow her to fully come into herself. A wonderful moment in which she has her hair and make-up done is tinged in purple throughout, and a later photoshoot is the same. The effect is simple yet powerful: Yuni imbues her drab world with color and uniqueness.
Yuni is filmed with a certain naturalism that recalls an Eastern flavored version of Greta Gerwig’s Ladybird. Some of the movie’s best scenes feature nothing more complicated than Yuni hanging out with her best friends Sarah and Suci, lying on the grass in the stifling heat and laughing about whether girls can have orgasms. To the movie’s credit, these scenes feel like looking through a window into a genuine moment, and all of the actors bring an easy, laid-back charm to their interactions, which feels completely authentic.
It is admirable that Andini never points fingers or creates villains for her protagonists. Too easily could she have made Yuni’s suitors devious men, or cast her grandmother as a heartless woman content to sell Yuni to the highest bidder. Instead, all of these characters, and indeed their actions, speak to the reality of the life and culture of Indonesians. These are not black and white issues, but rather deeply grey and complicated, which Andini teases out expertly over the runtime.
Yuni is a beautiful, spiritual, and genuinely authentic experience of a movie which shines a light on the difficulties of coming of age in a society which tends to snuff out individualism and uniqueness. Andini continues her streak of passionate and depthful movies. One wonders what she’ll do next.