Postcards from the Zoo could be seen as Exhibit A in the dangers of letting a terminally whimsical sensibility run rampant on a screen. This latest film from Indonesian filmmaker Edwin, whose most well-known previous credit is his 2008 mosaic Blind Pig Who Wants to Fly, tells the fantastical tale of Lana (Ladya Cheryl), who’s spent most of her life in Indonesia’s Ragunan Zoo after being left there by her father as a young girl (and for reasons that are never stated; the moment he abandons her is barely even defined on screen), and then finds herself confronted with the cold, hard realities of the real world when she finally steps outside of the zoo.
The earliest moments of the film—the ones least tied down to plot—are its most effective. An evocative blue haze falls upon the zoo at night, captured in gorgeous 35mm by cinematographer Sidi Saleh; the sense of an exotic playground runs thick through these opening scenes. (It has the feel of an Apichatpong Weerasethakul environment without Apichatpong’s mysticism.) These magical evening scenes alternate with more prosaic daytime shots of the various animals—hippos, elephants, and especially a giraffe that captures Lana’s fancy—and human crowds at the zoo. Edwin leaves these shot-on-location daytime shots unadorned with extraneous style, content to simply shoot these animal and human figures in an observational manner; these could be the motion-picture “postcards” of the title. In this way, Postcards from the Zoo initially toes the line between documentary and fiction in ways that mildly recall Jia Zhang-ke’s formal cinematic provocations; furthermore, the zoo-as-whole-world conceit of Edwin’s film could be considered a more fanciful variation on Jia’s world-as-theme-park metaphor in his 2004 film The World. Edwin strengthens the semi-documentary angle with occasional intertitles offering definitions of various zoo-related terms—“ex-situ conservation,” “endemic,” “translocation”—that gradually reveal themselves to be offering relevant commentary to the events of the film.
Midway through, Edwin, who co-wrote the screenplay with Daud Sumolang and Titien Wattimena, begins to focus more on plot with the introduction of a magician (Nicholas Saputra) who catches Lana’s eye. Lana becomes so beguiled by this man—who dresses like a cowboy and who can make fire with his fingers, among his other talents—that she agrees to become his assistant, thus following him outside of the zoo as he inadvertently ends up showing her the seedier side of Jakarta. One of their clients is a gangster who, in due time, employs Lana as a masseuse who may or may not be required to do much more to her male clients than just giving them massages.
Needless to say, Lana finds this to be a lonely, empty existence and yearns for the familiarity and safety of the zoo—and if the director had been able to convey any sense of tragic pathos the further she waded into the ugliness of the outside world, that emptiness might have actually meant something to the viewer. Alas, Edwin, it seems, is so taken with his supposedly “enchanting” visual conceits and ostensibly “mind-blowing” themes that he loses track of the human characters at the heart of his story. Even the moment where a major character dies in a fiery accident is depicted in a strangely affectless manner—as if, to Edwin, the whimsical invention of the moment was all that mattered, not the humanity.
This is not to deny the moments of artistry behind Postcards from the Zoo: Clearly, Edwin has a personal vision he wants to express and has the ability to put it across on screen. (His use of wide landscape shots of different parts of the Ragunan Zoo—with Lana often situated far in the distance, producing an odd Where’s Waldo? effect—toward the end of the film is especially intriguing in its implications.) But with a film so concerned with synthetic “wonder” and so uncommitted to human emotion, Postcards from the Zoo becomes an increasingly enervating experience the longer it drags on. There is no reason a magical-realist fantasy like this should be so damn tedious.