Jakarta. "Pai Kau," a suspense drama and the debut feature of Sidi Saleh, is a gripping, visually stunning tale about marriage and affairs caught in the middle of a mafia family, but, sadly, gender representation is problematic.
Set in the present day, the story revolves around the wedding of Lucy (Irina Chiu) and Edy (Anthony Xie) — both Indonesians of Chinese descent. Edy is not aware that his bride is a daughter of a mafia kingpin Liem (Tjie Jan Tan), until he sees the father-in-law telling his right-hand man Jun (Verdi Solaiman) to kill someone.
Edy is quite a womanizer. Despite engagement, he has a fling with Shinta (Natasha Gott). His earlier affairs also emerge from the past, with former love Siska (Ineke Valentina) coming to the wedding.
The problem, however, is not about the number or character of his liaisons, but how the women involved in them are portrayed.
What's the Problem?
From the beginning, "Pai Kau" sexualizes women, making the good girl-bad girl distinction.
It starts with a close-up shot of a woman's bottom in underpants. She enters the bathroom and takes off her t-shirt. In the dining room, her flatmates – Siska one of them – are talking about sex. We know they are "bad girls." We also know that the bum-shot copied from the famous opening sequence of Sofia Coppola's "Lost in Translation" is not enough to save the day.
Shinta, too, is a bad girl, which her "Basic Instinct" leg crossing implies. She is sexualized to justify Edy's philandering and, perhaps, to please male viewers.
In contrast to Edy's past, his future, Lucy, is a "good girl." She wears modest clothes, speaks politely, is smart and well-organized.
Although Sidi told the Jakarta Globe he does not regard Siska and her friends as bad and just needed to create a contrast with Lucy, the camera exaggeratedly exposes the bad girls for the male gaze. Does it imply that if girls are aware of and confident with their sexuality, the camera can exploit it? This is unfortunate because Sidi, an acclaimed cinematographer, probably should have put more thought into the movie's visual language.
Good Girls Win
The movie, Sidi said, is essentially a "catfight story." Many members of the audience may find it wrong on quite a few levels.
A few months earlier, Edy impregnated Siska and forced her to get an abortion. He then left her and started dating Lucy. Siska comes to their wedding to seek revenge.
But vengefulness transforms into an attempt win to back the man who hurt and abandoned her.
After the wedding ceremony, Edy tries to chase Siska away and physically assaults her. Then Lucy demands that he prove his love for her by killing the former girlfriend.
If Siska dies, would it mean that only "good girls" deserve love and a happy ending? Or that women pitted against each other have little regard for unborn babies, betrayals, blood?
Suspense works well in "Pai Kau," and the director has achieved his aim to make it a gangster drama styled on Hong Kong films of the 1990s and early 2000s. Sidi knows how to do it. Also, kudos to Verdi, who is a scene stealer with his character, Jun.
Still, as it is set in the present day, where people push for less gender bias in works of art, the unsubtle sexist message feels like a step backward.