Koji Fukada's 'The Man from the Sea,' starring Indonesian actress Sekar Sari as Ilma and Japanese actor Dean Fujioka as Laut. (Photo courtesy of Kaninga Pictures, Nikkatsu and Comme Des Cinemas)

'The Man From the Sea': Reflective but Unfocused


DECEMBER 21, 2018

Jakarta. If you've seen the trailer and read the plot summary for Koji Fukada’s sixth feature film, "The Man from the Sea," you could be forgiven for thinking the movie must be about a messiah with biblical supernatural powers. An Aceh still recovering from the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami seems to be a fitting setting for such an apocalyptic movie.

As the story unfolds, we see that Laut – the main character who possesses supernatural powers – is not a savior or a demon, but a personification of the sea.

Laut can communicate in different languages, he can teleport, conjure up water out of nothing and inflict awesome damage, including death, on everyone around him.

At first, the film focuses on Laut as people around him try to figure out who he really is – and why he is washed up ashore on a deserted beach in Aceh.

We see Japanese NGO worker Takako (Mayu Tsuruta) asking residents and fishermen about whether they've seen Laut before.

Takako's son Takashi (Taiga) does the same while helping his friends Ilma (Sekar Sari) and Kris (Adipati Dolken) film a documentary of Laut.

Takashi’s cousin Sachiko (Junko Abe), who happens to be visiting Indonesia for the first time, also tails along.

However, as the story progresses, this investigation – and its subject, Laut himself – fade into the background and the focus shifts to the life of the four young people following him.

Perhaps this is intentional because Laut is supposed to be an embodiment of nature. In real life, we rarely interact with the sea unless we need something from it or it does something to us.

During an interview with local media on Monday (17/12), Fukada said that Laut is meant to be an antithesis of the four young people.

The quartet is full of teen spirit that leads them to love and heartbreak. Laut is always cool and distant.

Played wonderfully by Dean Fujioka, Laut is an unassuming force of nature, acting without motivations or emotions. Most of the time he is a silent observer with a knowing smile on his face.

But the scenes depicting the young people’s personal struggles are often too long. Sometimes they feel like they belong to a different movie.

Teenage Crisis

The scenes showing the quartet are often awkward and cringey, but at the same time, realistic.

Their conversations can verge on the banal – "Which places do you want to visit here?" "What’s your major?" – as befits college kids.

All of them suffer from some sort of identity crisis.

Ilma constantly code-switches between Acehnese, Indonesian and English.

Her family history – she has an ex-Aceh separatist father – hints at the political background that underscores the movie but is never pursued further.

Takashi, who has a Japanese mother and an Indonesian father, has to choose between becoming an Indonesian or a Japanese citizen when he turns 18 (he chooses Indonesian).

The romantic subplot between the quartet can feel a bit off and awkward, but also shows how silly and spontaneous young people can be.

They meet, flirt, fall in love with each other within hours, get their hearts broken and still have the ability to laugh it all off at the end.

Keeping Distance From Politics

Fukada seems to tread carefully on politics in the movie, maybe because its release also marked the 60th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Indonesia and Japan.

Japan's occupation of Indonesia during the Second World War is indicated by the presence of a bunker that was said to shelter Japanese soldiers from the returning Dutch army.

Other allusions to the occupation come in the form of songs. An old Indonesian man sings a song in Japanese that is full of patriotic messages about Japan, but it seems that he doesn’t know what the lyrics really mean.

Another old man recites a pantun-like lyrical verse that mentions romusha, the forced laborers during the Japanese occupation.

The separatist Free Aceh Movement (GAM) is also mentioned, but never elaborated.

Ilma’s father is a former member of GAM, and he hates that Ilma is close with her Japanese friends because he said the Japanese had helped the Indonesian government in countering the insurgency.

Ilma’s father barges into a dinner party at Takako’s house to drag Ilma home. The incident is never touched on again.

Overall, The Man From the Sea seems to keep a distance not just from politics, but everything. The film can feel like it is lacking focus, going back and forth aimlessly between discussing Laut’s origins and espousing teen romance, and then making little digs at Aceh’s history, and back again.

Still, it is a reflective piece that leaves us thinking, not about why some people can drop dead in Laut's presence, but about our relationship with nature.

It doesn't trigger us to ponder too deeply, since the movie itself seems to try to not delve too far into anything.

Those who experienced and survived the great Aceh tsunami perhaps will relate more strongly with the film, as its aimlessness may help them make peace with the way nature behaves.