Jakarta. How do children cope with loss? Kamila Andini’s award-winning "The Seen and Unseen" delves into this theme through the dualistic Hindu-Balinese concepts of "sekala" (seen) and "niskala” (unseen) worlds, seen through a child’s perspective, and ends up with a poignant – even if a little symbol-heavy – take on child grief.
For a work ultimately drenched in symbolism, the movie starts in a relatively straightforward fashion. A ten-year-old boy named Tantra (Ida Bagus Putu Radhitya Mahijasena) is brought to the hospital, where he is diagnosed with a brain tumor that will cause him to gradually lose all his senses and kill him.
His twin sister Tantri (Ni Kadek Thaly Titi Kasih) has a hard time accepting that her brother and best friend will be gone soon.
The movie then follows Tantri's journey of trying to find ways to deal with Tantra’s impending death.
The film's meditative pace gives you plenty of time to really feel Tantri’s inner struggle. Kamila said at the movie's premiere in Jakarta on Monday (26/02) that the slow tempo didn't come from her direction but from Thaly, the young actress who plays Tantri.
Thaly’s gentle, contemplative approach to playing her character was said not only to influence how Tantri is portrayed but also how the film moves at its unhurried pace.
During the day, Tantri is subdued, keeping her feelings to herself. At night, she bursts with life, reaching out to her brother, getting him up to do the things they love most — singing and dancing.
She refuses to go into her brother’s hospital room during the day even when her parents force her to, but at night, she is there without hesitation.
In this movie, the line between reality and fantasy is blurred, as if the seen and unseen are not two separate realms.
Instead of questioning which is which, the movie suggests we should accept both as realities we have to navigate through life.
Anggi Frisca’s camera work is a gem. The hypnotic shots and graceful transitions are a feast for the eyes, but more importantly, she was able to capture the core emotions of every moment.
The actors also do not rely on dramatic facial expressions, but instead pay more attention to little gestures.
Elements of Hindu-Bali culture are to be found everywhere in the film, and Kamila deserves praise for her sensitivity in handling them.
The songs, dances and rituals aren’t exaggerated. They don't feel like touristy adverts to promote Bali, but a normal part of the characters’ life.
The dance moves by the twins – wonderfully choreographed by Ida Ayu Wayan Arya Satyani – are not just decorative.
The twins' energetic dancing is high irony, a celebration of life that underscores the tragic story.
Symbolic to a Fault?
The Seen and Unseen is unapologetically an art movie, so Fast And Furious fans, consider yourself warned.
Its slow rhythm and scarcity of dialogues may make you feel the movie outstays its welcome.
But the main barrier to enjoying the movie could be its intricate symbolism.
Some of the symbols are quite obvious. The frequent egg-eating, and the scene where Tantri jabs a stick into her finger until it bleeds, clearly show her separation anxiety.
This is also why she continues to search for signs of life in everything.
But, unless you're well-versed in Hindu-Bali culture, you could be forgiven for missing some of the more obscure symbolism.
For example, in some of the dream-like scenes, kids clad in white undershirt and shorts are seen around Tantra and Tantri. They sit, roll over and flap their arms like chicken.
These kids are actually imitating "kanda pat," supernatural figures that accompany a person from birth till death.
Luckily, the quality acting will allow you to get absorbed in the movie, even when you don't understand everything that's going on.
The child actors are especially impressive. Ayu Laksmi ("Pengabdi Setan," "Under the Tree"), who plays the twins’ mother, brings gravity to her character, who always has to keep her emotions in check.
The movie also gives I Ketut Rina ("Under the Tree," "The Fall") a rare turn as a nurturing father figure, but sadly he doesn’t get much screen time.
The Seen and Unseen is a sad tale, but never sentimental. It works on a simple premise, but that simplicity gives rise to a spellbinding, symbol-heavy celebration of life in times of crisis.