BIFF 2021 Review: ‘Yuni’4 min readReading Time: 4 minutes
Yuni is an Indonesian teenage girl who realizes that when her dreams get bigger, the world around her gets smaller. She is about to finish high school and have big dreams, she thinks everything is possible. Then one day she got proposed by a man she barely knows.
Director: Kamila Andini
Cast: Arawinda Kirana, Kevin Ardilova, Dimas Aditya, Neneng Risma, Nazla Thoyib, Asmara Abigail
Language: Bahasa Indonesia
Runtime: 96 minutes
Winner of the Platform Award at Toronto International Film Festival 2021, Indonesian director Kamila Andini’s Yuni is absolutely sublime — at once hauntingly beautiful and unrelentingly cruel.
The film centres around high school student Yuni (Arawinda Kirana). Although understandably uncertain about her future plans, Yuni is sure about her dreams to continue her education after graduation. As long as she contains her kleptomania for all things purple, improves her literature grades and remains unmarried, Yuni’s scholarship seems all but secured. However, her life is thrown into disarray when a stranger’s family asks for her hand in marriage.
By far, the coming-of-age tale’s most admirable aspect is its tremendous display of grace under pressure. Frustrating themes of teenage brides and suffocating conservatism, and intimidating questions of sexuality and love, generally discussed only in hush tones, are brought front and centre. Yet, the film never truly relents under the weight to lash out in anger, navigating the tumultuous landscape guided only by its devotion to painting the most complete picture possible.
There are no evil men, no families outright determined to marry off their daughters. Just about everyone in Yuni’s life wants the best for her. Although her friends are her pillars of strength, their experiences are also harrowing reminders of the glass ceiling hanging above the teenager. It seems what she struggles against is far beyond what one or one million teenagers can ever hope to change.
There are plenty of jabs at the absurdity of what Yuni and young Indonesians face. However, they do little in quelling the film’s omnipresent sense of doom, as if the sky is slowly but surely collapsing in. Cruelly enough, this is also what gives the film so much of its fleeting beauty.
Struggling with her literature studies, Yuni begrudgingly befriends Yoga (Kevin Ardilova), a painfully awkward boy with a crush on her. Yuni learning to use her womanhood to get her way is one of the many understated character moments in the film that makes her such a compelling portrait of teenagehood. Similarly, it’s with the pair’s burgeoning, mostly one-sided romance that becomes the film’s poignant last stand against the seemingly inevitable.
The magnificent moments they share largely leave nature’s tranquillity and Yoga’s handwritten poems by Indonesian poet Sapardi Djoko Damono to relay saccharine sentimentalities only possible during one’s teenage years. Outside of these, scenes are more deliberately composed with the overall approach remaining pure and straightforward.
With the world seen through Yuni’s eyes, comfort is found in everything purple. An early mention that music has been banned in Yuni’s school also draws attention to the film’s soundscape and how it mirrors the mood of its lead. Scenes stretch out to welcome the audience into Yuni’s world, before slamming the door on everyone else with abrupt cuts.
Kirana’s performance as Yuni is compelling, bold, and courageous. She presents a delicate balance and is never overpowering with her delivery. Her unbridled frustration and angst are masked by a thinly-veiled facade of optimism and playfulness that slowly and achingly chips away. How she refuses to be boxed in yet ultimately struggles for a future that she cannot even picture is soul-crushing.
A special mention also has to go to Dimas Aditya’s performance as Mr Damar, Yuni’s literature teacher who she harbours a secret crush on. Mr Damar’s switch from distant invulnerability to uncomfortable vulnerability is superbly portrayed by Aditya, giving audiences already purple with gut punches perhaps one of the film’s most impactful blows.
The film’s greatest strength is with how it is able to so effectively and poignantly put across the transcendence pain felt by countless young women in Yuni’s shoes. It’s a film that opens with a disarmingly uncomfortable scene of Yuni getting dressed and only continues to make bare that what is at stake is hardly only physical.
Yuni premiered in the Platform section at Toronto Film Festival in September and was featured at the Busan International Film Festival 2021. The coming-of-age film is also Indonesia’s representative for the 2022 Oscars.