A still from Edwin's 'Aruna dan Lidahnya,' a foodie film adapted from Laksmi Pamuntjak's book of the same name. (Photo courtesy of Palari Films)

'Aruna dan Lidahnya': Good Movies Don’t Have to Be Hard Pill to Swallow


SEPTEMBER 27, 2018

Jakarta. "Aruna dan Lidahnya," or "Aruna and Her Palate," is a new Indonesian romantic comedy directed by Edwin, who before his teen romance "Posesif" last year was better known for a series of auteur films like "Blind Pig Who Wants to Fly" and "Postcards From the Zoo," and a regular at high-brow film festivals around the world.

It may feel a little strange to see Edwin now creating what is essentially a story of four privileged, urbanized Indonesians in their 30s playing foodie tourists in their own country.

But, although Aruna dan Lidahnya may not be as grounded in socio-political issues as Edwin's earlier, more serious films, it does show that the auteur is equally adept at telling an everyday story we can’t help but love.

Adapted from Laksmi Pamuntjak's novel of the same name, the film follows Aruna (Dian Sastrowardoyo), an epidemiologist working for an NGO called One World, as she travels around Indonesia investigating a series of strange Avian Flu cases.

Aruna's assignment coincides with her long-overdue plan to embark on a culinary journey with her best friend, Bono (Nicholas Saputra), a chef.

Aruna and Bono are both obsessed with food, so they take this opportunity to find and taste the best local foods in each of the four cities that they visit.

Nadezhda "Nad" Azhari (Hannah Al Rashid), a cosmopolitan food critic and Aruna’s other best friend, joins them on the trip. Soon, Bono develops a crush for the beautiful Hannah.

In the first city they go to, Surabaya in East Java, the three of them meet Farish (Oka Antara), Aruna’s uptight former co-worker and the only non-foodie among them, who now works at a government agency.

As their adventure continues, things get a little complicated. Bono has to deal with his new feelings for Nad, and Aruna with her old fling Farish.

What’s Food Got to Do With It?

Books and their film adaptations should be judged separately, but still, we can't help but make comparisons between the two.

If you have doubts on whether Aruna the movie can cram the rich details in Laksmi's novel into one and a half hour, or if you fear the film is going to be a cheesy, simplified version of a complex book, fear not.

What Edwin has delivered is a compact, entertaining and more efficient story than what is told in the original novel.

The Avian Flu subplot could be a red herring. What begins as a hard-boiled big pharma detective story turns into a simpler, touching story about friendship and love.

Edwin also knows how to play with just the right symbols and visual cues that lend depth to the story but never weigh it down, such as the mysterious people covered in head-to-toe white protective suits that Aruna keeps bumping into.

Also, the suggestion that the "infected" patients might have developed their illness from missing their loved ones instead of coming into contact with a diseased fowl does not just point to a big pharma conspiracy, but a clever way to show Aruna's epiphany: that her craving for food maybe her subconscious telling her that she's also longing for a more meaningful relationship.

The mouthwatering dishes in the film – from everyone's favorite nasi goreng (fried rice) to the rare lorjuk (razor clams) – seem to be more than just eye candy as well.

Aruna’s obsession to find the recipe for her old maid’s nasi goreng, for instance, implies the sad fact that one of the more meaningful relationships she's had in her life was with this maid, and not with her own mother.

Nasi goreng was also the food that reunites the gang at the end of their conflict-prone adventures.

Aruna is a woman of a few words and most times can't even be honest with herself, so her palate acts as a mirror for her real feelings.

In real life, a dish that's supposed to be delicious can feel off to her. In her dreams, her tongue keeps getting different tastes mixed up. Her palate hints at how she really feels inside.

Engaging Ensemble Cast

One of the film's greatest strengths is also the way it makes the characters seem much more multidimensional that their book versions, though it succeeds in doing that more to the male than the female characters.

Aruna is still a plain, timid woman in her 30s who is reluctant to express herself and whose only committed relationship is with food. Dian's on-point comic timing, though, makes her experiences more relatable.

Nad is a flirty, free-spirited and perceptive young woman, just like she is portrayed in the book.

It's the male characters that the movie has taken to the next level. Bono the chef is much less snobbish in the movie. Aside from Aruna’s humorous facial expressions, Bono’s candid remarks and cluelessness will also tickle your funny bone.

Farish is a little bit more high-strung and by-the-book than he is in the novel, something that the movie often employs as a comic device. His being trapped in an affair with Aruna also gives his character more depth. He's no longer just Aruna's annoying old crush.

One interesting thing to note from the star-studded ensemble cast is that before this movie, each of them is better known for starring in "serious roles." Dian and Nicholas have mostly starred in weighty dramas, and Oka in action and thriller movies.

Hannah has played in comedies before, such as the two "Warkop DKI Reborn: Jangkrik Boss!" movies, but the former pencak silat athlete is better known for her action roles. After playing a scene-stealing villain in the nasi goreng western "Buffalo Boys," now she’s in a movie with real nasi goreng.

The effortless lines and jokes make the actors seem like old friends who just happen to have their interactions recorded on camera.

Dian and Hannah said in last week’s press screening that what drew them to the script was the fact there’s nothing melodramatic or over-the-top. Every emotion is delivered in the way that normal people would express it in real life. In contrast to most rom-coms, Aruna dan Lidahnya comes with no grand gestures but still feels climactic.

Edwin’s subtle play with symbols and his deft handling of the charming characters turn Aruna dan Lidahnya into proof that good movies don't always have to be mind-bending or delivered without humor.

Aruna dan Lidahnya is a movie about food, and also a wholesome artistic treat.

Out now in cinemas.