Yuni (Sydney Film Festival) – Film Review

The third film from Indonesian writer-director Kamila Andini, and winner of Platform Prize at the Toronto International Film Festival, Yuni is a character study about the struggle to find autonomy and independence in a community full of religious and cultural tradition and expectation.

In the small, semi-rural community of Serang, 16-year-old Yuni (Arawinda Kirana) is trying to figure it all out. With her parents located far away in central Jakarta, Yuni lives with her grandmother whose traditionalist nature quietly clashes with Yuni’s desire for self-actualisation. Yuni is smart, top of most of her classes and with the exception of a small kleptomania problem, she’s on track to earn a university scholarship. But none of that matters to those around her; Yuni is close to graduating and soon to turn 17, making her the perfect age for an arranged marriage. Her once limitless future starts to look bleaker by the second as Yuni realises that her trajectory in life is going to be dictated by the adults around her.

Despite external pressures, Yuni is determined to defy the grown-ups, turning down not one, but two proposals from interested suitors in favour of staying free just a while longer. It seems incredibly unbelievable that someone so young would be married off without concern, and yet this is the reality of the girls in Yuni’s town. Where many see married life as a blessing, Yuni sees it as a trap that she’s determined to avoid for as long as possible.

Coming of age stories are generally universally relatable, but Yuni is unique in that it explores very specific cultural barriers and expectations. Andini and fellow screenwriter Prima Rusdi make a point to spend much of the film reminding audiences that despite the persistent proposals from men in the village, Yuni is just a girl.

Andini and Rusdi deftly and sensitively juxtapose the harsh reality of a stifling, narrow society with scenes of Yuni simply existing in her youth – gossiping with friends about crushes, orgasms, and masturbation, putting on makeup, underage drinking and dancing in nightclubs. Despite attending a rigid school where the Islamic club has banned secular music and attempted to enforce virginity tests on all the female students, Yuni’s private life is full of bold self-discovery and what the film lacks overall in a story, it makes up for in these scenes of unbridled teenage emotion and exploration.

Visually, the film is bare and uncomplicated. The run-down looking village with tiny bodega shops and markets in place of chain stores allows Yuni’s personality and look to contrast beautifully. Yuni’s obsession with the colour purple is evident throughout the film, from her coloured hair extensions and her casual clothes, to her bedroom and her motorbike. Purple often signifies spirituality and bravery, two things that Yuni wrestles with throughout the film.

Arawinda Kirana’s embodiment of Yuni is very well done, able to delicately and expertly balance the emotional highs and lows of a young girl trying to make something of her life while staring down the barrel of a suffocating life under patriarchy. Kirana’s co-star Kevin Ardilova who plays Yoga, a young classmate of Yuni’s who harbours an obvious crush on her, is unfortunately unable to match her energy and most scenes with the two of them together are bogged down by Yoga’s inability to even talk to her. While their relationship and chemistry does improve toward the final third, it’s not quite enough to give a satisfying payoff.

A delicate and humble film, Yuni can be a slog to get through in places but overall will leave you reflecting on your youth, and if you grew up in a more liberal society, counting your blessings.

Yuni is being screened as part of the 2022 Sydney Film Festival.
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