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Abracadabra (2019)
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by Jay Seaver

"A little bit magical."
3 stars

SCREENED VIA THE 2020 NEW YORK ASIAN FILM FESTIVAL: Faozan Rizal's "Abracadabra" sometimes feels like it's somewhere between Wes Anderson quirk and Alejandro Jodorowsky-style wandering in the surreal wilderness, far closer to the first than the second, and it often makes for the sort of movie where one might wish Rizal would get into things a little more rather than just relying on the idea of mystery and magic. He does that well, though, creating just the sort of fantasy that's absorbing even if the filmmaker does spend a lot of time noodling.

Grandmaster Lukman (Reza Rahadian) has grown tired of magic, and intends to use an upcoming show at the Instituti di Magica to put an end to his career, far more publicly than did his father Lukito, who disappeared from public life. What he doesn't realize is that a seemingly-ordinary box that he inherited from his father is actually made with wood from the world-tree Yggdrasil, which means that his plan to have an illusion end in failure backfires when the boy who volunteers to be a part of the trick disappears (and his mother, chasing after him). Lukito's old rival Barnas (Egy Fedly) has been conspiring with the chief of police (Butet Kertaradjasa) to steal it, but now Lukman realizes that figuring out this box is the only way to solve several mysteries, from the immediate to what happened to his father.

Between an uncannily symmetrical flash-forward and environments that have the sort of set design and costuming to feel just this side of unreal, Rizal builds himself a world that's eccentric enough that one can believe in there being actual magic in it, especially since it seldom if ever requires any sort of complicated visual effects. It's a smart choice that often seems to be a matter of practicality - the film seems to have the sort of tight budget where resources are scarce, as demonstrated by how the producers are able to find some great locations but things look more rickety when they have to build sets - but it works in terms of centering the focus on Lukman trying to make sense of a world that doesn't always have any sort of logic.

It would help a bit if there were more to Lukman. Reza Rahadian is an able-enough actor, quite capable of getting across how Lukman is depressed and listless, and displaying a bit of a spark when he recognizes that maybe there is something to believe in, so it's not a bad performance at the center. It's just that Rizal seems to give him less; there's nothing to Lukman that's as intriguing as the Chief's gleeful corruption, Barnas's obsession, or the confusion Salvita Decorte's Sofnila shows as she climbs out of the box and finds herself out of time. Lukman's discontent is palpable, but everybody else is more active and sometimes more well-defined; even the audience members for the magic show seem like they're going to be a bigger deal.

It's still fun, though - the border between the material and the magical becomes porous and the lore on both sides of that line is always interesting. The minor characters are interesting enough that there's always something at least going on in the background even when the plot is a bit stalled. And it's often a lot of fun to look at, from the beautiful scenery to some wonderfully intricate locations, filled with everything from a tiger to well-worn automobiles. And while the underlying material is a bit heavy, what's on top is often fairly funny, whether cynically or just throwaway chuckles.

(I'm mildly curious what kind of joke it is that one character repeatedly using something translated as "cow" like it's a cuss word is, though - is it supposed to be weird, or is this common and the gag is that he's losing his patience?)

The noodling would be more frustrating if this were a longer movie; at 86 minutes of moderate ambition it's able to get into a good groove and not let the audience down. It's a bit magical, if not extraordinarily so, and at this movie's scale, that's good enough.

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originally posted: 09/27/20 12:03:45
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2020 New York Asian Film Festival For more in the 2020 New York Asian Film Festival series, click here.

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Directed by
  Faozan Rizal

Written by
  Faozan Rizal

  Reza Rahadian
  Butet Kertaradjasa
  Salvita Decorte

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