Director Edwin in vanguard of Indonesia’s new wave of filmmakers

HONG KONG — It’s a warm, humid day halfway into the city’s International Film Festival, and Edwin — a rising Indonesian indie filmmaker with his single name born of tradition rather than manufactured Hollywood artifice — is trying to explain how he shapes the aesthetic of his films. It all begins with a single image.

For “Postcards From the Zoo,” an ethereal fairy-tale-like story of a child abandoned at Jakarta’s Ragunan Zoo that is in competition, it was raindrops on an elephant’s hide. The rain comes only rarely in the film, a gentle, cleansing caress of an image that you see early on; but its sense of cooling grace and intricate patterns carries through the film.

The story begins with a little girl lost, a 5-year-old wandering the zoo and calling for her father, but soon shifts to a teenage Lana (Ladya Cheryl), the child now grown, raised by the zookeepers and the vagrants who live on the grounds. Lana, filled with the wonder of the zoo, may be lost but she is not sad or lonely.

Though it is a feelings-driven film, it is also one of metaphors, with the line between what is animal and what is human, at least when it comes to behavior, a thin one. Statements on title cards — “Conservation: removing a species from its habitat” — are dropped in along the way as commentary. At other times the filmmaker turns to something more evocative — a scene showing Lana reaching for the soft underbelly of a giraffe that is out of reach.

“I want the audience to feel that longing for touch, for being touched,” says Edwin, 33, by turns introspective, funny, insightful and candid.

As distinctive as Edwin is, he is just one of a new wave of Indonesian filmmakers testing boundaries as the country figures out just how liberated it wants to be since a dictatorship dissolved in 1998. Popular, Jakarta-based indie director Teddy Soeriaatmadja has a film in competition here as well. His “Lovely Man” is a father-daughter story with cross-currents of religion and cultural taboos, since the father is a transvestite, a modern-day outcast, and the daughter is a devout young Muslim, in a country overwhelmingly Muslim, who at 19 has gotten herself in a bit of a mess.

Indeed, it seems that the Indonesian avant garde is having a moment. “The Raid: Redemption,” an action thriller that just had a surprisingly strong opening in Los Angeles, is from Welsh-born director Gareth Evans, whose love of martial arts films, and some hard economic times back home, led him to relocate to Jakarta. The country’s state of transition and internal turmoil seem to be helping ferment a richer stream of creative risk takers, even as it tries to control it. Regardless, the country’s emerging filmmakers are producing some of the most original and exciting cinema we’ve seen from that region in years, though Edwin has decamped to Amsterdam for the near term to pursue his master’s degree.

As gentle as Edwin’s new film is, it is talking about types of captivity. Like the animals, Lana lives within the safety and the confines of the zoo; and like the animals, she watches and is watched by those who visit. Still, this captive world is an idyllic and exquisite one, the shots lingering on the animals, particularly the lone giraffe.

Edwin was just named the Asian Film Awards’ Edward Yang New Talent winner, in part because, as festival executive director Roger Garcia puts it, Edwin is “a game changer.” “Postcards” was in the running for the Golden Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival in February. His next stop will be the Tribeca Film Festival in New York later this month.

Part of Edwin’s originality rests in his visual style, which always has a surreal element. In “Postcards” it comes in the form of a handsome magician in a cowboy hat (Nicholas Saputra), his glowing light tricks and dark intrigues luring Lana over the wall and into the real world.

For Edwin, the film is a mix of childhood memories and his lyrical musings on life and relationships.

“I remember zoos as a child as very comfortable places, quiet against the noise of the city. If I go to explore in new places now, what kind of people live there, to get a sense of it, I spend time at the zoo,” he says.

Indeed, the time he spent shooting at the Jakarta zoo softened his opposition to the notion of confinement. He found an ecosystem that allowed for some independence, with one hippopotamus notorious for climbing out of his enclosure at night to amble over to the elephants, always making his way back before morning.

“Postcards” is Edwin’s second full-length feature and anything but a follow-up to his first, “Blind Pig Who Wants to Fly,” which began garnering attention on the festival circuit in 2008. Where “Postcards” is almost a Zen meditation on the push and pull between safety and risk, “Blind Pig” was a sharp attack on racial attitudes and social politics in his homeland, ones that he knew too well. The film examines what it is like to be in the minority, ethnic Chinese, which Edwin is, in the mostly Muslim country. “I don’t know whether we were more angry or sad, the feelings are complicated,” he says, referring to his close circle of friends and creative collaborators.

It was a dark film, made somewhat lighter by Stevie Wonder’s “I Just Called to Say I Love You,” which kept surfacing, but even that he turned into an irritant, reflecting his memories of its playing so much he couldn’t escape it. The narrative is a chaotic look at identity played out in story fragments of multiple lives, news footage of platitudes and urban riots cutting in here and there, and an image of an eye that has echoes of Buñuel. Though the film finally played the Jakarta Film Festival in 2009, it never made it past the censors — they demanded he drop the word “pig” from the title, among other things — and into commercial theaters in Indonesia. Even though “Postcards” is not a political film, Edwin doesn’t expect it to play in Indonesia either, as he has been vocal in his opposition to censorship and unwilling to make concessions.

We met in the hipster V Bar at the Regal Kowloon Hotel, where the chairs are purple suede and the pillows are, oddly enough, faux leopard. He’s been making films for about 10 years, concentrating first on shorts, his 2005 “Kara, Daughter of a Tree” a breakthrough, screening at Cannes Director’s Fortnight. He’s been working with basically the same crew, creating something of his own personal film family, most of whose members he met when he started taking film classes.

When asked about the origin of his name, he pulls out credit cards, a driver’s license and other ID to explain that he’s been Edwin since his birth in Surabaya in East Java. No statement is intended (though he concedes his 2-year-old son has more than one name.

He was studying graphic design in Surabaya when he happened to catch a TV interview with a filmmaker who mentioned going to film school. “I didn’t know there was such a thing,” he says. The next day he was on a plane to Jakarta to try to enroll in one. His first produced short came in 2003. Called “A Very Slow Breakfast,” it took a cut at a dysfunctional family and involved coffee, dandruff and a lot of father-son dissonance.

The features take him about a year to map out in his mind. The script, once he gets down to it, goes much faster, then things slow down again for shooting. As to what Edwin intends next, he says, “I’ve got an idea. I haven’t yet figured out what I want to do with it.” Given the trajectory of his first two film, No. 3 will no doubt be yet another surprise.