Yuni (2021) by Kamila Andini

Indonesia’s 2021 Oscar pick “Yuni” played the centerpiece of the 45th Asian American Film Festival this year. Kamila Andini’s latest addition has also reaped his own share of awards during his competitive circuit. With 5 wins and 20 nominations, Andini – and newcomer actress Arawinda Kirana – have garnered acclaim from Toronto to their home countries. It’s no wonder: the film paints a captivating portrait of a high school student who has been harshly welcomed by the world of adulthood.

Here, Andini weaves together a coming-of-age story of a brilliant high school student, Yuni (played by Kirana). Like most girls her age, Yuni is relatively unaware of the realities of womanhood. She knows two things though: she wants to pursue a college scholarship and she likes the color purple. In order to perform the former, however, she must remain celibate – and quickly brush up on her grade in Indonesian literature. Both of these requirements become complicated, however, when Yuni’s marriage proposals slowly begin to arrive. As she refuses each, she and her friends exchange whispered conversations about sex and marriage. Can women really masturbate? Is this girl pregnant from rape? Are you still a virgin? The unyielding expectations of the village haunt rather than bring joy to Yuni, as man after man opposes her dreams.

Although this feature film marks Kirana’s debut, she storms onto the stage. She completely possesses Yuni’s goofy elegance, portraying a character who is both hesitant and sure of what she desires for her future. Her spellbinding performance gives Yuni a charisma worthy of a protagonist. She particularly stands out when she and her Indonesian literature assistant, the shy and restless Yoga (played by Kevin Ardillova) interact onscreen. While Ardillova portrays a singularly swaggering and buzzing character, Kirana’s Yuni sheds light on the different shades of a goal-oriented student confused about love.

Kirana’s execution only gets stronger with Andini’s carefully decorated sets, which are generously painted in various hues of lavender, lilac and periwinkle. As if to emphasize Yuni’s femininity, Andini slowly increases the purple presence over time – eventually ending in a burst of purple. In fact, “Yuni” resonates with Wanuri Kiahu’s bubblegum pop sensation (and Kenya’s own Oscar nomination at the time) “Rafiki” (2018). Here, two girls fall in love with each other against class and gender odds – despite being forced to separate due to circumstances. The exploration of singular color in both films gives way to dreamlike lighting and makeup. In “Rafiki,” pink and cyan hair beads echo a pastel love nest, while in “Yuni,” purplish morning mists seep into tulle fabrics. The emphasis on color in both films contrasts the strong personalities of the protagonists with the oppressive everyday life. Self-celebration sings about the hazy ambiguity of the future.

In that vein, similar to “Rafiki,” Kirana’s “Yuni” reads like a slice of life against social expectations. The future of young women, they both seem to protest, should not be in the mouths of elders – but rather in the hands of the current generation. Unlike “Rafiki”, however, “Yuni” resorts to mysticism. At the end of the day – despite all the gossip and chirping among the girls – the elephant in the room remains. What, or who, are we really meant to love?

About Herbert L. Leonard

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