Ancient Soul review – Javanese mining film is beguiling and beautiful study

A mix of fiction and ethno-doc, this portrait of life on Indonesia doesn’t quite reach the soulfulness of its models Apichatpong Weerasethakul or Lav Diaz

Featuring non-professional actors from the Indonesian island of Java, this beguiling – and occasionally muddled – debut from the Spanish director Álvaro Gurrea treads the line between fiction and ethnographic documentary. Suddenly abandoned by his wife Olive, Yono (Yono Aris Munandar), a sulphur miner at the Kawah Ijen volcano, struggles to win back his beloved. His efforts range from the spiritual to the capitalist: the forlorn husband is willing to dabble in shamanic spells as well as cryptocurrency.

Moments of beauty quietly emanate from the film’s penchant for static compositions. Engulfed in billowy clouds of hazardous sulphur fumes, Kawah Ijen is at once majestic and terrifying. As the camera often keeps its distance from the characters, the islanders are at times rendered simply as impersonal pieces of a tableau vivant. These vignettes of life in Java, though pleasing to look at, are sometimes emotionally alienating: Gurrea’s film is prone to aestheticising its subjects instead of meaningfully inhabiting them.

The final third, however, is wonderfully lifted by more spirited scenes where Yono discusses his dilemma with friends and other miners. Nevertheless, this is also where the film’s difficulty in wrapping itself up becomes apparent. Perhaps such problems stem from a shaky understanding of the island, considering that the narrative restlessly jumps from knotty family dynamics to a simplistic dichotomy between spiritualism and exploitation. When Yono finally grabs the camera and turns the lens on himself, this sense of the subject’s autonomy comes too late. This film aims to feel reminiscent of work by Apichatpong Weerasethakul or Lav Diaz, but – despite the title – it’s lacking a distinct soul.

• Ancient Soul is available on ​​14 October on True Story


Phuong Le

The GuardianTramp

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