Battle of Surabaya: So Good Yet So Bland

Okay. I’ve waited for more than four months. Battle of Surabaya DID NOT make it to Bali’s cinemas. Luckily, fate works in mysterious ways. Just today, on my flight from Jakarta – Bali, it turned out that Garuda Indonesia had Battle of Surabaya in the in-flight entertainment system. The bad news is, a pilot is gonna fucking die because I did not get to see the last 10 minutes of the movie.

SPOILERS AHEAD.

Summary

Battle of Surabaya (BOS) tells the story of Musa, a 13-year old shoe shiner-cum-messenger, and his role in one of the most epic historical battles in Indonesian post-independence history, the Battle of Surabaya. In the actual battle, the people of Surabaya, under the leadership of Bung Tomo, fought against British and Dutch troops who were occupying the city. In the movie, we are presented with the life of Musa as a messenger for the Indonesian forces. Young Musa’s dad was killed in the war and he now lives with his sickly mother. He shines shoes for a living, while also delivering secret letters for the Indonesian resistance. Along for the ride is my favorite character of all, Yumna. She lost her parents both to the war and she’s also a ninja. There are ninjas in the movie. Anyway, the third character is Danu, a young Indonesian soldier. He took care of Yumna when she was a loli. Together, they face the combined forces of the British, Dutch, and a secret Japanese organization known as the Kipas Hitam (secret clan of ninjas trained by the Japanese during their occupation in the battle for Surabaya.

Oh, there’s also a forced love triangle.

Now, on to the review!

Review

Let me first discuss the bad aspects of the movie before moving on to the good news. It’s always better to get the bad out first, no? Okay.

The first thing that I noticed was that the characters were really bland. To put it bluntly, the three main protagonists are basically cookie-cutter characters you could make using a character generator. Musa is the typical righteous protagonist who can’t engage in combat simply because he’s either too young or incapable. Yumna is your average heroine with a secret past that has a crush on the main protagonist. And Danu is the typical big brother type who makes bad decisions. So, basically, they’re predictable as fuck. And it’s not just the protags. The other secondary characters are also predictable. The generic evil-turned-good British soldier is one example, and also Cak Soleh, the supposedly funny bro to Danu.

To make it even worse, the character interactions were bland as oatmeal. For example, in the early parts of the movie, where Yumna and Musa meet and have lunch together, they suddenly start crying and go directly into flashback mode. I was like, what the fuck? There’s no reason for them to suddenly start introducing their pasts. It was like the movie deliberately stopped everything just to let us know about the pasts of these two characters. It ruined the flow for me, and it took me half an hour to get back in it again. I also feel that the love story between Yumna and Musa seems a bit forced. Seriously, I see no reason these two should be together other than the fact that they play and goof around sometimes.

But perhaps the blandest parts of all was when Yumna finally decided to disclose to Musa that she was a Kipas Hitam ninja. At first, Musa rescued Yumna while she was dressed in black garb from a flaming building. Yumna regained consciousness while still wearing the garb and in the presence of Musa. Yet she did not display any kind of reaction. Not even a surprised shriek, nothing. She was completely chill with the fact that Musa knew she was a Japanese assassin. Then, the next day, she tells Musa about her history of being a ninja. Musa reacts with a simple “oh”, as if it was normal. Goddammit, AT LEAST be surprised or be shocked or whatever!

Now, another aspect of the movie that I’d like to criticize is the unnecessary amount of filler. Of course, filler is sometimes required in a movie to build a strong sense of immersion. This is especially true with movies such as Ghost in the Shell, in which during the middle of the movie, it displays 3 minutes of silent footage of the futuristic city of Japan. That kind of filler is needed to immerse the viewer into the atmosphere of the city. However, in BOS, the filler is simply… filler. Like the meat filling in a Big Mac patty. It’s just there to add to the runtime, or to provide unwitty comic relief. Say, for example, when Cak Soleh was training a bunch of FNGs at the shooting range. Suddenly, out of the blue, a sexy female coffee seller comes along and the guys were like “Daaaaaamn gurl” and fluttering and having hearts for eyes. Of course it was for comic relief, but it did not match well with the pace of the story, making it feel forced.’

Those are my major critiques for the movie. Now, on to the positives.

The animation quality was, overall, superb. I really saw the real power of Indonesian animators. Though at some times the animation was choppy, or maybe it was me watching on an airplane TV, the overall animation was gorgeous. A big hand for the animators over at AMIKOM Yogyakarta and MSV Pictures. I loved how they managed to bring out the essence of war (though the amount of blood was surprisingly minimal in this movie; fuck you, censor police) and the struggle of Indonesians against imperialists.

Voice acting, however, is perhaps the best aspect of the movie. Most Indonesian movies are inundated in gross slang and awkward proper Indonesian, which makes me want to shove a dictionary up their throats. But the voice acting of BOS exceeded my expectations. They really did their best in searching for the best of the best talents. The voices of the British troops were genuinely British, the Dutch as well, and the Japanese too. I also loved the addition of the Surabaya dialect, which reinforces the sense that we’re really in the small town of Surabaya during the war. But, there are also times where the voice acting did not synchronize well with the situation, making it feel a bit awkward. But, that’s just a small flaw.

And being historical fiction, historical accuracy is a must. And BOS did a good job with that. The historical figures, especially Bung Tomo and A.W.S. Mallaby, were accurately represented. As for the events, they’re also correct to a degree as well. However, there’s also the disputed fact of the existence of the secret Japanese ninja order in Indonesia after Japan got nuked. Either they really existed, or were just a figment of imagination from the creators, we may never know, because this is the first time I’ve heard of a secret ninja order in Indonesian history.

Conclusion

BOS really does deserve to be the best animated feature in 2015. The animation quality is simply superb, and the voice acting too. However, it does need a bit of work with the characters, especially when it comes to interactions, and also the pace of the story. Anyway, I’m really proud of these animators and their contribution to the Indonesian creative life. And I also feel honored to have helped (a wee bit) by purchasing an official Yumna T-shirt in 2014.

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2 thoughts on “Battle of Surabaya: So Good Yet So Bland

  1. Looks like Indonesia still need to improve their human behavior and reaction in every bit of movie that was existed in the country.
    FYI, I enjoy your explanation alongside your cursing every time you’re angry. Pardon my grammar :v

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  2. Now now, there’s no need to cursing. Well I never watch the movie, but I get your point. Majority of Indonesian’s comic is also bland, predictable and, much to my surprise, they copied another manga.
    Well not entirely copied, but I notice the similarities between the story I have ever read.
    And something you have missed in the whole point of this animation is, the name of the character especially on Yumma, is a modern Japanese Name. They should give her ancient Japanese names which match to the period of her time, such as Ouka (Another form of Sakura/Cherry Blossom, it’s old and rare Japanese name for girl), Hisa (Endure) or Sawa (I forget this one) which is more representable, and her clothing? Come on, we know in that time, Japanese Ninja usually works secretly as servant or something, they couldn’t have wearing those dress. At least wear Kimono and all.
    Second, well there might be actually a real ninja, but I doubt it still exist in World War II era, especially in Indonesia. It’s true that Ninja may exist, but why would they bother to help their enemy side? Unless there is something happened that may will deal with their moral and principle, which make them to start to questioned it. Yumna and Musa shouldn’t be friend at all. It was okay if Yumna remember Musa as being her childhood friend, but, friend can be enemy. As you’ve grow up with such an environment, it would be interesting if at beginning she isn’t on the same side as Musa. But then something happen, which forced her to think all over about something she believed in.
    Sorry for my bad grammar….

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