Sri Asih is the cinematic adaptation of Indonesia's first comic book superhero. It celebrates a female character, the reincarnation of the goddess of justice. But the message of empowerment contrasts with restrictions on the rights of women and the LGBTQ+ community
A volcanic eruption gives birth to Alana, a true force of nature, reincarnation of the warrior goddess who is the main character of the Indonesian movie Sri Asih. Released in cinemas in November, it is directed by Upi Avianto and tells the story of the first superhero in comic book history in Indonesia: a young fighter who grows up without parents, is passionate about kickboxing and soon discovers that she has been chosen to exert the will of Dewi Asih, the goddess of justice, on Earth and restore balance to the world. The timing of this cinematic success, which adapts the famous 1950s comic book, reintroduces a much-loved character from Indonesian pop culture, precisely at one of the most difficult historical junctures for women and the LGBTQ+ community in Indonesia.
The movie is part of the Bumilangit Cinematic Universe superhero blockbuster and it has been included in the lineup of the International Film Festival Rotterdam, that runs from 25 January to 5 February 2023. It is a product that mixes the typical action of the Marvel and DC universes with cultural references from South-East Asia - from martial arts to all the imagery related to local mysticism, with demons and benign spirits clashing in challenges to the death. A superhero-themed action film that has nothing to envy from the most celebrated US sagas.
"I was surprised and amazed to learn that the first ever superhero in a country with such a strongly patriarchal culture at the time was a woman," director and screenwriter Upi Avianto told Nikkei Asia. The story had already been the subject of a film released in 1954, the reels of which have been lost. But Sri Asih's celebration of women's emancipation clashes with the current, progressive exacerbation of religious conservatism in the country.
The tight control of women's role in Indonesian society has resulted in the laws increase for compulsory use of the hijiab in several provinces, and some parts of the revised penal code. The latter law, unanimously approved by parliament, will come into force within three years. The new document 'contains provisions that violate the rights of women and girls to comprehensive and inclusive education and information on sexual and reproductive health,' said Andreas Harsono of Human Rights Watch. By punishing extramarital relationships, the new code risks disproportionately affecting same-sex couples who are barred from marriage.
"More than anything else, this is a clash between tradition and modernism - and about whether one's family accepts one's sexual choices," said one protester interviewed by the Guardian, "there is the clause that [extramarital sex] is only considered a criminal act if reported by a close relative - parents, spouse, children - and not by any random offending party." Indonesia's transgender community could suffer the most from the new law, as LGBTQ+ people 'are more likely to be sued by families for relationships they disapprove of,' Human Rights Watch recently stated.
The new regulations have provoked public demonstrations and protests against the imposition of conservative moral values on sexuality. The fate of gender justice in Indonesia seems very uncertain and the situation is still far from matching the liberating message portrayed in the superhero adaptation Sri Asih.