So, my wife and I watched Java Heat from Netflix. It’s a Hollywood cop action movie, set and shot in Indonesia. The heroes are an Indonesian cop, Hashim (Ario Bayu), and an American “art history professor”, Jake (Kellan Lutz), who investigate the death of a Javanese princess (Atiqah Hasiholan). It’s an okay movie in terms of storyline, but in terms of cultural depiction, I think it got a lot right about Indonesia. It got low rating and negative reviews in the West. I’m not sure why; I quite enjoyed watching it. I’m very pleased by the effort to depict Indonesia (its culture, ambiance) accurately, even though it’s not perfect.
In this post, I’ll try to explain a bit the cultural background in this movie. Hopefully it clears things up for non-Indonesians.
Indonesia is a developing country in Southeast Asia. Despite not being in the news a lot, actually it’s the fourth most populous country in the world. As alluded in the movie, it has a Muslim majority and also sizable religious minorities (including Christian and Buddhists depicted in the movie). There’s also ethnic diversity, but in this movie most Indonesians depicted are Javanese (the largest ethnic group) – which quite makes sense given the premise of the story is in Java. There’s some degree of intolerance and extremism – these too are in the movie – but largely people live in peaceful coexistence, symbolized in the movie as the friendship between Hashim—a devout Muslim cop—and his cop partner who is a devout Christian.
“The Sultanate of Java”
There is literally no “Sultanate of Java”, as the movie puts it, but the Sultanate and the royal family here closely mirror the Sultanate of Yogyakarta. Indonesia is a republic, but due to historical legacy, one of its provinces, Yogyakarta, is governed by a monarchy instead of an elected governor. The current Sultan (and Governor) is Sultan Hamengkubuwono X. So the royal family part is not entirely made up. However, the movie exaggerates the influence of the royal family. The princess would not be the “most revered woman” in Indonesia. The royal influence were strong only in their domain, the Yogyakarta Special Region – which makes up less than 2% of Indonesia by population. Meanwhile, the rest of Indonesians do not have any strong attachment—reverence or otherwise—towards this royal family.
Ambiance and culture
The movie was shot in Indonesia and the ambiance and culture were depicted quite accurately. The cops, the royal family, the royal guardsmen, wear the right uniform or costume. What the American cop disingenuously calls “Hawaiian shirt” is actually batik and it is the formal dress for parties. It’s also true that people especially kids kiss the hands of elders as sign of respect. Many chase scenes take place in alleys surrounded by houses, populated by street peddlers and navigable only by motorcycles: this is really how a lot of suburban Java look like.
Well the movie’s not perfect. One of the most jarring cultural weirdness is when Jake meets Vitria—Hashim’s wife, a Muslim woman who wears hijab—he greets her by kisses on the cheeks. Dude, if this happened in real life it would be a huge faux pas.
There’s also the depiction of royal guards. The Yogyakarta monarchy is not sovereign and it has no real army. Instead, it has royal guards who serve ceremonial purpose. However. as far as I know they do not function as elite commando as depicted in Java Heat. In the movie the troops are young, as well as well-trained in martial arts and modern rifles. One of them even fires an iPad-guided rocket launcher at some point. In reality, they are really ceremonial guards,
often made up of aged traditional courtiers, and bear traditional weapons like keris and very old muskets.
The main characters
I should also mention that I like the way they combine the duo of an Indonesian and an American as the heroes. For sure, the movie is a Hollywood one, and i needs to have a Western character for the audience to relate to, but the Indonesian counterpart isn’t bad. In fact, Hashim is depicted as a wise and highly educated family man, contrasted with the often careless and culturally insensitive Jake. Hashim even corrects Jake on his Shakespeare lines! Though to be honest, Shakespeare isn’t well studied in Indonesia and this part seems unrealistic to me.
In the movie, main characters mainly speak English, including when Hashim talks to his general (both Indonesian). In reality, English fluency is very low in Indonesia, and it’s extremely rare that Indonesians would speak English to each other in a normal situation, like depicted in the movie. With each other, Indonesians would speak Indonesian (aka Bahasa Indonesia), the national language, or sometimes a regional language like Javanese. But I understand why the movie does this, it’s to make the movie easier to follow for non-Indonesian. As a plus, in my opinion the Indonesian actors in this movie speak very good English with just the right amount of Indonesian accent.
Other minor nitpicks:
- In the beginning scene, the Indonesian police watches a surveillance video using a black-and-white TV of the 80’s. Come on, do we really need to exaggerate Indonesia’s backwardness before starting the movie?
- When Anton, (the Christian cop) died, Hashim took care of the funeral with a clearly Muslim ritual (e.g. ritual washing, mosque). This strikes me as weird, realistically it should be the deceased family would take care of the burial in a Christian way. Wouldn’t they be offended for Anton to be buried as Muslim?
- Gunfights in broad daylight in Indonesia. I get that this is an action movie, which must have gunfights, but guns are really rare in Indonesia, and people would be super freaked out if there’s a gunfight in the city.
- In the Borobudur scene—the crowd recognizes that the princess is being kidnapped—but they just let her and the kidnapper pass to the temple? Isn’t it easy to tackle him in that crowd?
- The Sultan’s advisor is called “vizier”, even in Indonesian? It’s an English word borrowed from the Arabic “wazir”, but neither term is used in the context of a Javanese monarchy. Would “patih” be a more accurate term?
- The Sultan’s guardsman has a rocket launcher and fires it in broad daylight in the city, guided by an iPad :O Too badass to be true.