From The Director’s Chair with Lucky Kuswandi

by Pingkan Palilingan
24th February 2017
Ahead of the release of Galih & Ratna, we talk to film director Lucky Kuswandi on using film as a tool for discussion and how he juggles his work at the same time.

One’s home is often an honest reflection of its inhabitant. Overlooking the winding, tea-coloured Cisadane River, Lucky Kuswandi’s abode reveals two very contrasting sides of him. For starters, his vibrant-coloured living room – where a big, smiling Kristen Dunst’s Marie Antoinette picture greets the guests – reflects the affable side of Lucky. Where upstairs, his office space is toned down, neat and tidy without unnecessary trimmings, revealing the straightforward side of him. Yet, if there’s any way to learn more about Lucky, one could easily turn to his films.

A filmmaker, producer, editor, screenwriter, creative director, and teacher, the 36-year-old juggles all manners of responsibilities at once in his career. But filmmaking stands out the most and he’s done so well in it. His latest short film The Fox Exploits The Tiger’s Might won the Best Southeast Asian Short Film and Best Director from Singapore International Film Festival’s 2015 Silver Screen Awards. It is also the second Indonesian film that entered official selection in Semaine de la Critique competition in 2015 Cannes Film Festival. Meanwhile, his second feature film In The Absence Of The Sun (Selamat Pagi, Malam), was reaping success in the homeland with Best Director award from 2014 Indonesian Film Director’s Club Awards and nominations in Indonesia’s prestigious Piala Citra Award.

– The Fox Exploits Tiger’s Might Trailer –

“I cannot create something without having a piece of me in the film.”

Having harvested accolades both from local and overseas, I wonder what sort of formula he adheres to. “I always try to put myself in [my films] and make sure I can relate to them,” says Lucky. “I cannot create something without having a piece of me in the film.”

Despite the positive acknowledgments toward his works, which are proofs that he’s talented, Lucky had a hard time earlier on to convince his parents about his wish to attend a film school. Born and raised in a Chinese Indonesian community, Lucky was very much aware how his decision to enter film school would invite intrusive questions to him and his family. “’What kind of school are you sending him off to? What will become of your son?’ these are the sorts of questions from my dad’s friends,” says Lucky. “Back then, there was no film industry. It was in 1998, before Ada Apa Dengan Cinta. The industry was very bleak.”

Despite that, Lucky pressed on and went to California where he studied Cinematography and Film/Video Production in Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. Apparently, his degree didn’t guarantee a smooth ride for his career. Upon returning to Jakarta, the barrage of questions came back, this time coming from his parents. ‘So, Lucky, what are you going to do next?’ was one of them. “I can do weddings,” he shrugs.

For those meeting Lucky for the first time, his candidness and easy demeanour could easily be mistaken as a form of indifference. However, that’s far from the truth. As we go deep in conversation, Lucky is surprisingly an easy person to talk to and is quick to open up about himself.

“I think in order for us to ‘feel’ again, we’d need extreme stuff to consume.”

Stealing a glimpse at his bookshelf beside his desk, which features a collection of novels and stacks of DVDs, I ask about films he likes the most. “God, there’s so many. But just recently, I rewatched Spirited Away and I came to find how it has so many layers. It speaks about identity, the importance of name and about the natural state of humans, and also how we can get corrupted very easily,” he enthuses, his eyes glow with a childlike fascination. “It’s a beautifully complex film,” he adds.

Although Lucky’s parents weren’t particularly fond of him going to film school, the love of film was rendered in him early on since childhood, thanks to his father. “My father used to take me to the cinemas. We went to see a lot of action films. A lot of Jackie Chan stuff, kungfu and all. And…I usually fell asleep in the theatre,” says Lucky, who lacks interest in action films and turns to them only when he feels like it.

In an age where blockbuster, action-packed romps are granted more screen time in the cinemas, Lucky is very concern on the ways that movies have numbed our feelings, as ironic as it might seem. “These days, I think in order for us to ‘feel’ again, we’d need extreme stuff to consume; you know, zombie [films] and you have to wear [3D] glasses so you get all this visual experience,” he says.

“But then when you watch original films you can get all the emotions…just through gestures and moments. That’s my mission, so people can feel again.” By original, he subtly points towards films that focus on the plot and acting rather than car explosions.

“I don’t force people to agree with my point of view.”

This brings us to Lucky’s films, which counts drama – and sometimes, a dash of comedy – as his expertise. Anchored mostly around identity issues, the stories often focus around the minorities who are repressed by social stigmas when it comes to self-expression. His protagonists are often gays, lesbians and transsexual; he even looked to himself as the inspiration for Aseng – an ethnic Chinese Indonesian descent – the protagonist in The Fox Exploits The Tiger’s Might. So what propels him to highlight the minority groups?

“It’s important to put [the issue] out there so people can start to discuss the matter, and I think discussion is the beginning of real democracy,” says Lucky. Film is definitely his vehicle to bring the discussion to the table. “I don’t force people to agree with my point of view, but I just want them to empathise with the minorities and all kinds of people.”

For filmmakers like Lucky, whose works appeal more to a niche market, compromise is part of a routine they have to endure in a bid to gather more awareness from the mass. Yet, 2017 marks a new turn for him: he’s directing a teen flick, titled Galih & Ratna, a remake of a classic 1979 romance Gita Cinta Dari SMA. The latter is a film adaptation of Eddy D. Iskandar’s novel of the same title. The story follows the eponymous protagonists, Galih and Ratna, who fall in love with each other through music.

– Galih & Ratna Trailer –

Galih & Ratna is definitely the “safest” feature film in Lucky’s portfolio compared to his past, more “controversial” film projects. And with a teen flick label attached to it already, it’s predictably would fare better in the mass market; namely, teenagers.

I ask, whether the film is an attempt to diverse his portfolio. “Well, it’s an attempt to reach a wider audience for sure,” he answers. “Filmmakers have double responsibility to speak to audience. I decided to take up the challenge so that I can communicate with a bigger crowd, hopefully.”

“Well you can’t help it, you know. That’s why it’s a plague.”

And what exactly does a man of accolades like Lucky Kuswandi wish to communicate to Indonesian teenagers and youths?

“I was really struck by the simplicity of the story [Gita Cinta Dari SMA], about real connection between humans,” he says, emphasising the word ‘real’. With the advance of technology and widespread use of social media, people, especially teenagers, these days have become overwhelmed with artificial connections, according to Lucky. “I spoke to teenagers as a part of research for the film, and heard their ways to pursue someone they like: social media stalking, a series of following and likes, whereas in real life, he’s just right there. You have to go through all of these virtual things in your phone in order to establish a connection, which I feel is really ironic,” says Lucky, looking bewildered. “I want to make this film for them so they can feel what a real connection is really all about.”

As a public figure himself, he admits that he, too, can’t escape the clutch of social media in his life. Curious, I ask whether he’s obsessed with followers and likes as well, just like the teenagers he spoke to. “Well you can’t help it, you know. That’s why it’s a plague,” he answers bitterly.

With Galih & Ratna arriving in theatres in March, Lucky’s schedule is tight: promos, tours, concerts, and a gala premiere coming right up soon next week. Aside from that, he also manages his own production company Soda Machine Films, which produces ads and commercials, as well as responsible as the Creative Director for Slate, an online cinema platform.

As if these are not enough, for the past five years he’s been putting his film knowledge to another good use by teaching film courses in Universitas Multimedia Nusantara (UMN), not far from where he currently lives. “I love teaching! It’s rewarding when you start seeing their work, they have the courage to bare their souls,” he pauses. “I feel like a proud parent.”

“One night, I came home and I cook, and I felt normal.”

With all these relentless activities as a film person, is there any time at all to relax and steer far away from the crowd, I ask of him. He confides, “Once I got really stressed in the midst of doing promos for Galih & Ratna, which also required me to go back and forth Serpong-Jakarta a lot. So one night, I came home and I cooked, and I felt normal.”

He regularly rides bicycle around the neighbourhood as well, sometimes just to fetch a cup of joe from a coffee shop nearby. He also devours books; from the likes of Indonesian literatures to international bestsellers that range from Haruki Murakami titles to Harry Potter. He’s rereading the latter, he confesses to me, something only a Potterhead (fans of Harry Potter) would do. “It’s always good to have a routine. It makes you sane.”

Surely, I say to him, there must have been a time when everything culminates into a mountain of stress; have you ever gotten fed up with all of these? “Of course, I’m really tired now,” he says. I hope this interview doesn’t wear you out, I interject and apologise to him. “No, of course not,” he laughs. He attributes his lethargy to all the preparation for his current project, and then continues, “I get frustrated a lot..but, yeah, you have to remind yourself that you do what you love.”

Later on he admits, that what really sustains him amongst multitudes of projects, is actually those who stay beside him through thick and thin, individuals whom he feels so thankful to have. “I have a great support system. I think that’s what keeps us going – when people around you believe, have faith in you and want to support you.”