Review: In his directorial debut, Ngenest, Ernest Prakasa crafts a vocal identity conflict as a man of a Chinese descent living in a country with histories of discrimination towards his people. As much as it is poignant, it hilariously leads the audiences to laugh with, instead of laugh at, the subject matter. The result is witty, ironic self-esteem which works at multi-levels: comedy, romance, and satire.
In his sophomore project, Cek Toko Sebelah (literally meaning ‘Checking on the store next door’), Ernest takes a completely opposite approach in crafting a comedy that represents his identity. While Ngenest expands the identity issue outwards society, with specific frames to cope up with the quest for acceptance and acknowledgment; Cek Toko Sebelah draws the same issues profoundly inside to the basic, to the core of tradition, to the family.
Interestingly, Chinese families in Indonesia have many stories to share, from their tradition to the food, to the common stereotype that each family owns at least a specific store, which is inherited from generation to generation. This stereotype is the epicenter of a poignant family drama Cek Toko Sebelah offers.
Cek Toko Sebelah revolves around a wealthy grocery store owner and a Chinese-descent widower, Koh Afuk (Chew Kin Wah). The old man raises two sons into the prominent states they’ve been at the moment. Yohan (Dion Wiyoko), the firstborn, struggles with his career as a freelance photographer while dreams to open a patisserie for his wife, Ayu (Adinia Wirasti). Meanwhile, Erwin (Ernest Prakasa), the youngest and the golden boy, is a more successful man in terms of career; he’s a typical metropolis yuppy whose career is skyrocketing and is supported by a career-oriented girlfriend, Natalie (Gisella Anastasia).
A grounded conflict embarks when Koh Afuk, who realizes that he cannot manage the store alone as his health deteriorates, intends to bequeath the grocers to his younger son, Erwin (Ernest Prakasa). Yohan, thinking that he is way worthier to inherit it, is hurt and resentful. At the same time, Erwin is reluctant in accepting the offer for he prioritizes his multi-national career. The family crumbles.
The store as the trigger to the conflict reflects how grounded Cek Toko Sebelah into reality, specifically Indonesian-Chinese descent community. In exploring the conflict, Ernest unravels the nature of a stereotyped society at its nudest truth. He exposes the Chinese-descent identity at a certain depth with a focus on how they think and react to a tradition-versus-personal-goal conflict. Ernest has outdone himself in revealing the life of being double minority he has done in Ngenest with a more candid, unapologetic truth. Say Ngenest is about how he looks, Cek Toko Sebelah is about how he feels, he thinks, and he reacts.
The family, as the core of Cek Toko Sebelah, is written naturally as if it is adapted straight from a true event. How each member relates to each other is intriguing and is written full-circle. There’s a reason why Koh Afuk is eager to trust Erwin to manage the store, but there’s also a reason why Yohan keens to take good care of it. There’s a reason why Erwin is reluctant and there’s a hope that he secretly resonates. The family is tied up by an invisible bond Ernest Prakasa happens to craft wholeheartedly and, even, to joke about with a nod to a classic Indonesian series, Keluarga Cemara.
Proving that Ngenest is not a mere beginner’s luck, Ernest Prakasa crafts Cek Toko Sebelah neatly; he keeps the logic as grounded as possible, and motors the story fluently. The narrative flows naturally and subtly, as it blends hilarious comical moments from the store’s daily running and sentimental treatments without tripping into the melodrama trap.
While Cek Toko Sebelah devices more drama than Ernest’s debut, this doesn’t mean that Ernest has shifted from a comedy genre that has made the big name of him. In keeping the story progressing, Ernest plants his penchant to witty comedy in multiple subplots involving his stand-up comedian comrades as store employees and other hilarious roles. The humor is solid and rapid, juxtaposing with the family drama as the epicenter. Ernest strictly borders the comedy side to intervene in the flow of the drama he has carefully built; and it works perfectly, although this decision makes the story a little cramped.
In the technical department, Ernest also makes a huge leap. Attention to detail becomes a key point in Cek Toko Sebelah. The production design, cinematography, and the mise-en-scene are adroitly and adeptly presented with significant improvement than in Ngenest. He even pays a significant tribute to Quentin Tarantino during a gambling scene fluently.
Greatest kudos are addressed to Chew Kin Wah and Dion Wiyoko respectively. Both actors lend their charms to make Cek Toko Sebelah a profound family drama. The former beautifully emanates the heartfelt persona of a devastated man with aspiration as his legacy. Meanwhile, the latter has possibly delivered his career-defining performance as a ‘prodigal son’, a brother and a husband who can fight everything but himself. It is an exceptional achievement when a comedy could feature such award-worthy performances.
While Cek Toko Sebelah repeatedly emphasizes that family is a most precious treasure no money can buy; it has proven itself as a treasure as well, a rare gem for the Indonesian film industry. In the end, why should we check on the store next door if we have everything already? It is flawed, but, like a family, other aspects cover the flaws and performs better to keep the family intact