Indonesian video-on-demand films take world by storm
A series of Netflix Originals is helping cinema from Southeast Asia’s largest nation win global appreciation.
Jakarta, Indonesia – When Netflix announced the exclusive production of seven Indonesian films and series in September 2022, few expected overnight success. But by the end of the year, the Big Four by Timo Tjahjanto, the first film in the series, had become one of the video-on-demand giant’s most-watched films not in the English language.
Tjahjanto’s first action-comedy amassed more than 16 million viewing hours and tells the story of Dina, a strait-laced detective. Looking for cues on the unsolved murder of her late father, she ends up on a remote tropical island, fighting for her life with the same group of down-on-their-luck secret assassins her father had once trained.
Blood-soaked and boasting the over-the-top action scenes for which Tjahjanto is renowned, The Big Four entered Netflix’s Top 10 in 53 countries, including Argentina, Mexico, Finland and Spain. In the United States, a notoriously hard-to-break market, it ranked fifth after making its debut on December 15.
“It is thrilling to witness how the story can resonate and travel the world,” Tjahjanto told Variety as the film became increasingly popular in December. His previous hardcore action flick, The Night Comes for Us (2018), was the first Netflix Original film ever made in Indonesia.
Since 2016, the company has invested in other Indonesian films such as the coming-of-age drama Ali & Ratu Ratu Queens (2021) by Lucky Kuswandi, which was almost entirely shot in New York, and the crime mystery Photocopier (2021) by Wregas Bhanuteja. Netflix’s global reach has helped raise the profile of Indonesian films and increase their success around the world.
Dag Yngvesson, a lecturer in Film and TV studies at Nottingham University Malaysia, near Kuala Lumpur, and an expert on Indonesian cinema, recalls that since the late 1970s, popular Indonesian films – featuring signature combinations of action, horror, mysticism, comedy and melodrama – were often marketed abroad as “cult” fare.
It was the Raid trilogy by then Jakarta-based Welsh director Gareth Evans that helped bring the Indonesian martial art pencak silat to the attention of cinema throughout the 2010s, building “an international reputation for Indonesian films that closely followed action/martial arts conventions, often taking them to new extremes,” Yngvesson told Al Jazeera.
He believes video-on-demand funding and wider distribution have given local filmmakers like Tjahjanto an avenue to build on the reputation and style that Evans helped popularise. Differently from the New Order era’s film laga (action films), which mixed action with other genres, Evan’s films are more homogenous “action films” and impressed fans around the world with their well-choreographed, visceral and authentic fight scenes.
“The Big Four can be seen as a return to a more typically blended, “Indonesian” approach that foreign audiences are beginning to recognise and respond to,” said Yngvesson.
Indonesian cinema recently earned coveted international respect after Seperti Dendam Rindu Harus Dibayar Tuntas (Vengeance is Mine, All Others Pay Cash) (2021) – the latest film by Citra Award-winning Jakarta-based director Edwin – snared the coveted Golden Leopard at Switzerland’s Locarno Film Festival in August 2021. Adapted from the namesake novel by Eka Kurniawan, Edwin’s film blends kung-fu epics with a road movie and pays homage to the colouring and style of cult movies from the past.
“I believe Indonesia currently has a robust presence in both the local and international film industry. Last year alone, Indonesian films such as Autobiography [2022 by Makbul Mubarak] and Before, Now & Then [2022, by Kamila Andini – an Amazon Prime Original] have travelled to many prestigious festivals worldwide, from Venice to Berlinale… 2022 was also the first year Indonesian cinema attendance to local films surpassed Hollywood’s,” director Kuswandi told Al Jazeera.
One example is Satan’s Slaves 2: Communion (2022), a sequel from genre auteur Joko Anwar, which sold a staggering 6.3 million tickets at local cinemas, becoming Indonesia’s third highest-grossing film.
Joko has also signed up with Netflix. His new sci-fi thriller series, Nightmares and Daydreams, is about people encountering strange phenomena and will stream on the digital platform later this year.
Movie-making in digital times
It was the emergence of private television in the 1990s that first enticed Indonesia’s creatives to move away from film for the cinema and onto the small screen, according to research by film and television studies lecturer Agus Mediarta from Indonesia’s Multimedia Nusantara University in West Java.
Cinema has continued to hold its own despite the COVID-19 pandemic and the rise of streaming – in 2022, the top 15 Indonesian films sold almost 50 million tickets at the box office – but with nearly 203 million Internet users in Indonesia, video on demand is growing rapidly.
Netflix, Disney+ Hotstar, Amazon Prime and local streaming giant Vidio, are all competing for market share.
A 2022 survey by Indonesian research firm Inventure-Alvara also found that 74.2 percent of respondents preferred streaming services to cable TV.
“The films and series we’re developing in Indonesia are first and foremost for Indonesian audiences. We want [them] to see their lives and experiences reflected in the titles they discover on Netflix,” Malobika Banerji, the director of Southeast Asia content at Netflix, based in Singapore, told Al Jazeera.
“Whether they want to be entertained or deeply moved, we’re ensuring there is a variety of must-watch content that matches the diversity of our local audience. However, we know great stories will travel beyond borders on Netflix.”
Besides Tjahjanto’s blockbuster and Joko Anwar’s sci-fi series, among the other Indonesian Netflix Originals to come is a quirky sitcom, Klub Kecanduan Mantan (Ex-Addicts Club) by Salman Aristo, where five individuals set up a support group to get over their heartbreaks.
Hari Ini Akan Kita Ceritakan Nanti (Today We’ll Talk About That Day), the latest instalment in a series that started with Nanti Kita Cerita Tentang Hari Ini (2019 – Later We’ll Talk About Today) by director Angga Dwimas Sasongko, will focus on a love story between two people of different backgrounds.
In Komedi Kacau (Comedy Chaos), a series by writer, director and comic Raditya Dika, the protagonist Panca juggles married life and his recently acquired comedy club.
There is also much anticipation for Gadis Kretek, Netflix’s first Indonesian period drama set against the backdrop of the country’s cigarette industry in the 1960s. Produced by Shanty Harmayn in collaboration with acclaimed directors Kamila Andini and Ifa Isfansyah, the epic romance cuts between time as an estranged son searches for a young woman from his father’s past to fulfil the wish of his dying father, a cigarette mogul.
Continuous global support
Kuswandi’s irreverent romantic drama, Dear David, will be the next Netflix Original film to premiere on the network this week, February 9.
Jakarta-born actress Shenina Cinnamon, who also starred in Photocopier, plays a straight-A high school student whose life turns upside down when her risqué fantasy blog about her crush is leaked to everyone at school.
Kuswandi believes Netflix’s global distribution has been essential to the rise of Indonesian productions around the world. “Netflix Originals are available in over 190 countries in the world,” he told Al Jazeera.
“It’s simply access. More and more people can watch the film anywhere at the same time. The films are also subtitled or dubbed to the local languages.”
Netflix’s deep pockets and production expertise are also helping.
Partnering with the Indonesian Film Board, the streaming channel launched a $500,000 Hardship Fund to support Indonesian film workers most affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.
In April 2022, US-based Netflix also organised a writing masterclass for television series in Jakarta, hosting 40 Indonesian film industry professionals under the mentorship of Joe Peracchio, the American writer and producer of popular shows including Deception, The Flash and Trojan War.
“We’ll continue to invest in the fast-developing Indonesian industry, and create stories that can be loved by Indonesians and audiences worldwide, as we expand our slate both here and across South East Asia,” Banerji told Al Jazeera.
Netflix says the early success of its work with Indonesian directors and producers might also lead to further investments and support for the cash-entertainment industry elsewhere in Southeast Asia.
“We’re already seeing the popularity of local titles like Doll House from the Philippines and The Lost Lotteries from Thailand, and we’re sharing more original stories from the region in the months ahead,” she said.