In Before, Now & Then (2022), secrets and troubled memories are sealed away between koi ponds and mist-laden forests at a landed estate in mid-century Bandung.
Director Kamila Andini draws us into a mood where cigarette smoke coils in calm air amid the handsome jazz of a vicious period in Indonesia — wilting romance and intrigue before the impending terror of the Suharto government.
Nana is haunted by the disappearance of her late husband over 15 years ago amid the Indonesian War for Independence. In recurring nightmares, she imagines his torture and death at the hands of faceless death squads; her father suffered such a fate. When she awakens, she remembers she is now a model housewife to Mr. Darga, an aging, but still charming patrician who showers her with opulent gifts and flattering promises of everlasting love — he’s even set aside a plot on his estate where he says they will one day be buried together.
In the daytime, Nana lives a curated, orderly life managing the family business along with the couple’s four children. Servants tend to their every whim and need, and Nana is expected to fulfill her domestic duties while running errands for the estate.
However, her etiquette and tightly kept appearance cannot contain her unhappiness with her remarriage. Nana feels trapped between the luxurious, respectable world of the Darga household and a past that is quickly catching up to her. All the while, Mr. Darga is recently free with his infidelity, to which many in their bourgeois world are quick to blame on her.
Nana, despite escaping her former lover’s presumed fate, saved by Mr. Darga, as she says, is still not living her dreams.
Secrets and rumors begin to spill out of the family’s composed facade, and meetings take place in the shadows. Even the domestic workers and housekeepers gather deep in the night to gossip about who else among them will disappear during the repressive anti-communist inquisition of the late 60s.
Nana finds unexpected comfort and companionship with her husband’s new mistress, Ino, who many suspect is a communist for her independent and strong-willed attitude. Nana and Ino’s shared commiseration binds the two together, and Nana finds an ear to finally express her deepest fears. Ino encourages Nana to seek the freedom and joy she needs. However, Nana’s turmoil comes to full-force when she is faced with the sudden choice of pursuing her very own forbidden love.
The film lightly plays with time and fantasy in some interesting ways. The line between dreams and consciousness, then and now, blend together and cross over as Nana grapples with if what she’s seeing is real or not, is past or present. The audience is left wondering if she’s chasing phantoms of her past or her future.
Andini weaves a visually captivating experience, drawing us into the beautiful and anxious atmosphere of the Darga estate, taking us to wonderfully composed shots of tranquil gardens, splendid rattan furnishings, and ethereal, lush forestscapes.
However, at times the characters’ relationships feel underdeveloped. Compare Ino and Nana. The former embodies archetypes of the carefree and liberated woman who shows the latter how to free herself from bourgeois patriarchy. While Andini’s intention was to show solidarity between two women, their relationship noticeably faded out in the later act.
I also expected the piece to bring politics more to the forefront. We get snippets of it in the introduction and via side stories, but ultimately the turmoil was more to establish the mood and setting. The impending crisis of the overthrow of nationalist President Sukarno at the behest of the United States never takes the center stage, nor raises the stakes between the main characters. It is only indirectly alluded to, taking place mostly in the background. And like many of the film’s subplots, it remains an underdeveloped aspect of the movie.
Despite a tense establishing opening and an interesting use of blending chronology, the rest of the film proceeds along the lines of a slow-burn mild melodrama that undercooks many interesting ingredients, and breaks its tension prematurely. However, the film’s strengths outweigh its weaknesses, and is not all visual flourish and mood.
One of the strongest aspects of the film, I felt, was the strained yet loving relationship between Nana and her middle child, Dais. I truly felt the anguish when Nana comes to terms with an uncertain future with Dais. Andini also drew out fantastic performances from her cast.
If you love dreamy, tender, tragic romance and period pieces à la Wong Kar-wai, do give this piece a watch.
Before, Now & Then is playing at the Northwest Film Forum from September 7-14.