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Mouly Surya Reframes Indonesian History in ‘This City Is a Battlefield’ and Comes Up With a ‘Casablanca’-Like American Classic (EXCLUSIVE)

After putting female-led Asian genre cinema on the global map with ‘Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts,” Indonesian auteur Mouly Surya has stepped into the big time. On the studio level, she is putting the final touches to her Jessica Alba-starring film “Trigger Warning” for Netflix, while nearer home she is in post-production on “This City Is a Battlefield,” her biggest Asian production to date.

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“Battlefield” (aka “Perang Kota”) represents several firsts for the Indonesia-based, Australian educated Surya. As well as being her most ambitious film in her home country, it is her first book-to-film adaptation, her first history-based picture and the first with a male protagonist.

The narrative is set in the years shortly after WWII, at a time when The Netherlands was waging a new war and trying to recapture Indonesia, its former colony previously known as the Dutch East Indies. The male hero, portrayed by Chicco Jericho, accepts a mission to kill an important Dutch official. By his side is a wealthy, younger man (portrayed by Jerome Kurnia) eager to take on the underground mission, but one who is also trying to win the older man’s wife (Ariel Tatum).

“The novelist Mochtar Lubis is incredibly well-known and I had his book ‘A Road With No End’ for a long time before reading it. But reading the first few pages I was struck how visual it was. I could see those first scenes in my head and before even finishing the book I told my producer and husband [Rama Adi] that this would make a great movie,” Surya told Variety.

The pair planned to shoot it in 2020. But first the pandemic intervened. Then Surya accepted the offer to make “Trigger Warning.” She used the delays to refine the script and went through nine further drafts.

Telling a story set in a time before she was born and in an era that has been quietly written out of Indonesian history books proved a challenge.

“Initially, I was shocked to read about the Gurkhas [Nepalese soldiers allied with the U.K.] fighting with the British in support of the Dutch trying to recolonize us [after the expulsion of the Japanese army]. I was not taught that at school,” says Surya.

Surya’s adaptation opens in Yogyakarta (then Jogjakarta) in 1947, two years before independence and at a moment when the future president Sukarno had departed for Jakarta, the capital. With the city in a feverish state, Surya’s characters are involved in political resistance and a tug of love.

“It has a historical setting, but it is not a history film. I’m trying to have my own perspective,” Surya says. “I approached it more as a neoclassical war drama. Like an American classic. Like ‘Casablanca.’ There’s an urban war going on and each character has a mission.”

Getting the tone right also required effort. “It was a time when Indonesians were much more like Europeans than they are now. My uncle and my father spoke Dutch fluently. Now, few people do. And, so, I had to remember the styles of my parents’ generation. My uncle used to wear a tuxedo to go to parties, for example. I had to remember their mannerisms, the kind that are not used any more,” says Surya.

“All my four previous films, including the American one, have female protagonists. That’s what I’m known for. So, one of the things that attracted me to ‘Battlefield’ was that it is not something I usually do,” says Surya. “But, I would argue, it still has a strong female perspective.”

The production of “Battlefield” could scarcely be more different from the single financier Netflix studio picture. Surya describes the budget only as “ambitious, by Indonesian standards.”

“After I shot [“Trigger Warning”] in America and came back to the script again, it totally changed my perspective. I wondered if I’d been self-censoring. Had I been limiting myself because of the limitations in my industry? So, I tried to say, ‘let’s go a little crazy’ and not be afraid to do things,” she says.

“Battlefield” has three accredited Indonesian production companies and international co-producers from an additional six countries – Singapore, France, The Netherlands, Norway, The Philippines and Cambodia – as well as soft money from eight European and Asian institutions and funds.

Surya says she valued the co-production partners not just for their financial contributions, but also their creative input. “I enjoyed the way that with Isabelle [Glachant] and Anthony [Chen] we would go back and forth about the film The film is mine. I knew that I had the final cut, but they were challenging me. I actually found that actually very easy. When they challenged the ideas and shook me up, maybe it’s not that good of an idea in the first place,” says Surya.

The co-production also gave the film an experienced international crew, including French sound designer (Vincent Villa) and American and Singaporean editors Rob Grigsby Wilson and Natalie Soh.

With “Trigger Warning” completed and set for a summer release, Surya is now throwing herself into the post-production of “Battlefield,” which will be completed only later this year.

She’s also enjoying the duality of being attached to various Hollywood projects while also writing the script for her next Indonesian production. “I’m developing stuff [in the U.S.] and have things I’m attached to, but it is a different process,” says Surya. “I’m writing my next script for another Indonesian movie. And hope there won’t be another six or seven-year gap.”

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