'Yuni' is Kamila Andini's ('Before, Now & Then', 'The Seen and Unseen') third film, with a story revolving around the Indonesian 16-year-old titular character as she navigates life in a culture gripped by tradition, superstition and religion. The film never shies away from challenging topics including female independence, sexuality and religion, delicately touching on each one with an earnest and honest voice devoid of performative nature. The wonderfully-crafted script by Andini and Prima Rusdi combined with Andini's softly invigorating direction allows for its characters to be so three-dimensional that, at moments, they present akin to documentary subjects more than characters of fiction.
Yuni (Arawinda Kirana, ‘Before, Now & Then’) has her eyes set on gaining a prestigious college scholarship that could change her life, as well as obtaining every purple object in her vicinity by any means possible. Her obsession with the colour purple builds as the movie progresses, to the bemusement and bafflement of those around her as she swipes a purple scrunchie from her older friend Suci’s (Asmara Abigail) salon and dyes sections of her own hair purple. This provides for a great setup for the film’s third act and final scene. Yuni’s goal of a college scholarship is all too close yet so far, as she excels at every subject except for one - Indonesian literature - and has to meet the scholarship qualification requirement of being unmarried. This proves to be a difficult obstacle as Yuni receives marriage proposals from men in the community while also being gripped by the superstition that one must not reject more than two proposals.
Throughout the entire film, Arawinda Kirana’s performance as the vulnerable yet strong Yuni is incredible, who more than anything seeks the freedom to figure life out in her own time.
This is where Kamila Andini’s creative decisions shine, as she delicately balances the dark ironic nature of monumental life milestones such as marriage being thrust upon young women barely of age like Yuni. Yuni and her friends share innocent childish giggly conversations about crushes and problems with schoolwork, while in their own lives balance dowry and the prospect of marriage. In a particularly poignant scene, Yuni comforts her friend Sarah (Neneng Wulandari) while they lie on a teenager’s bed surrounded by soft toys and bright lights; Sarah must marry her boyfriend to save their family’s reputation. At her wedding, Sarah chokes down tears seeing her friends perform silat for her as they once practised together in school.
Such great care and development is also given to other side characters, from Yuni’s literature teacher Mr Damar (Dimas Aditya) who she has a schoolgirl crush on, and fellow schoolmate Yoga (Kevin Ardilova) who in turn has a crush on Yuni. Yuni’s multiple suitors are given perspective instead of being one-note foes in Yuni’s development, with Kamila Andini showcasing a community wrought deep with tradition. From the great dynamic between characters and the well-written dialogue they share, 'Yuni' stands out as a real and unfiltered look at characters led by circumstances and tradition beyond their control. Each character is given context for their actions, culminating in their impact on Yuni’s life.
Yuni and her friends share innocent childish giggly conversations about crushes and problems with schoolwork, while in their own lives balance dowry and the prospect of marriage.
Coming-of-age films are an age-old genre, and it is difficult at times to balance the melodrama of youth with honesty and realism. 'Yuni' walks this line beautifully, while capturing and commentating on many themes without being performative. As I watched the film, I was also reminded of another recent Southeast Asian film, 'Children of the Mist' (2021) by Ha Le Diem, which is a documentary about a young Hmong girl residing in the mountains of North Vietnam and her struggle between cultural tradition of marriage and her own dreams. It is always great hearing the voices of Southeast Asian female filmmakers, as they shine spotlights on cultural tradition and the impact on young women in a delicately sympathetic yet firmly astute manner.