“My body is like a battlefield where the opponents fight one another,” proclaims acclaimed dancer and choreographer Rianto midway through Garin Nugroho’s newest film. He’s not only the narrator, but the story is also based in his own life. Indeed, the constant struggle that Juno, Rianto’s fictional representation, experiences with gender is the driving force for the aptly titled Memories of My Body.
The film is told in sections, marked by Juno’s age. In its early sections, it becomes evident that Juno is at odds with the world around him. Nugroho cleverly juxtaposes shots of kids playing and having fun with one another as Juno tends to be shown by himself, purposely avoiding people when possible. The children bully him and his teacher doesn’t hesitate to abuse him at the slightest mistake, even going as far as forcing him to write on the blackboard with chalk in his mouth. Juno is only happy when he is alone and spying on dancers as they put on makeup and practice their routines. As he watches them dance throughout the early stages of his life, his features fill with longing for what he can’t be.
We then encounter Juno as a young man, now working for his uncle as a tailor. He comes across Petinju, a thick-headed boxer recently engaged, as he hires Juno’s uncle to tailor his and his fianceé’s wedding attire. Juno catches the attention of the man instantaneously, and an affair between the two begins in a flash. While sweet, it is here that Juno is exposed to the reality of masculinity and its cruelty. Startled by these revelations, he finds himself rapidly running away from it.
Fortunately—or not— he runs into a dancing group that offers him a place in their cluster, provided that he pays his way. Juno’s identity continues to cause trouble as it is now believed that his sexual ambiguity can grant magical powers to the men that possess him. This sparks a violent altercation between a politician seeking to exploit him and a senior dancer that has come to love Juno. It’s during this final segment that Nugroho’s interest in the human body shifts to the brutality of people, which is to the movie’s detriment. The central theme has already been laid out in a subtle manner, so having it being explicitly displayed for the audience feels redundant, if not pointless. It doesn’t help that this section takes up the entire third act.
Despite these issues, at its best, Memories of My Body understands gender dysphoria in a way few works have before, no doubt thanks to how close Rianto was involved in the development. Nugroho captures the modest intricacies in Juno’s relationship with his own anatomy. In the hands of a lesser filmmaker this could’ve been purely voyeuristic, but the camera exudes nothing but empathy for its subject, looking to showcase his full depth as a human being.