|Directed by||Nelson Wong|
|Based on||Tjerita Si Tjonat|
by F.D.J. Pangemanann
Batavia Motion Picture
|Country||Dutch East Indies|
Si Tjonat (Perfected Spelling: Si Conat) is a likely-lost 1929 bandit film from the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia) directed by Nelson Wong and produced by Wong and Jo Eng Sek. Based on the novel by F.D.J. Pangemanann, it followed an indigenous man who, having killed his fellow villager, flees to Batavia (now Jakarta) and becomes a bandit. After kidnapping an ethnic Chinese woman, he is defeated and brought to justice.
A commercially oriented work aimed at ethnic Chinese audiences, Si Tjonat received mixed reviews; box office proceeds are unclear. Although intended as a serial, no sequel was ever made; the production house, Batavia Motion Picture, closed soon afterwards. However, several works in the same genre as this silent film were released soon afterwards, including Si Pitoeng, which used the same director and star.
Tjonat, the spoilt son of a village chief, is chased out of his hometown after he is caught stealing. To ensure easier travel, Tjonat kills an eight-year-old boy to steal his buffalo, intending to sell it. With the help another man, Gondit, Tjonat sells the buffalo at a distant market. However, Gondit is unwilling to give Tjonat his share of the money until they reach Batavia (now Jakarta). Suspicious, Tjonat prepares a sharpened bamboo tip. When Gondit tries to kill him, Tjonat stabs him in the stomach and steals all of his money. He then goes to Batavia on his own.
Ten years have passed, and Tjonat has worked a variety of jobs under various names, but he was often fired for stealing. Now he serves as a manservant for a rich Dutchman named Opmeijer. Using his charms, Tjonat woos Opmeijer's njai (concubine), Saipa, and convinces her to elope with him and take their master's possessions. The two make their way to Saipa's hometown and marry. However, theirs is an unhappy relationship and, after several years, Tjonat stops supporting his wife. He likewise never returns home, instead choosing to spend his time as a robber. After asking for a divorce, Saipa prepares to marry a fellow villager. However, in a fit of rage Tjonat returns to their home and kills Saipa.
Tjonat, by now the leader of a gang of bandits, turns his attention to Lie Gouw Nio, the daughter of a peranakan Chinese farmer. However, Gouw Nio is already betrothed to Tio Sing Sang. After an attempt to furtively kidnap her fails, Tjonat and his gang launch an assault on the Lies' farmstead. The family is able to escape, and Lie Gouw Nio is sent to Batavia to stay with her future in-laws. In an attempt to eliminate the competition, several weeks later Tjonat and his gang invade Tio Sing Sang's home, killing his grandfather Keng Bo and injuring the youth.
After recovering, Sing Sang begins training in the use of weapons and prepares to fight Tjonat. Meanwhile, Tjonat has become aware of Gouw Nio's presence in Batavia. When Gouw Nio and Sing Sang's parents leave the city to attend Keng Bo's funeral, Tjonat ensures that his men are hired as bodyguards. Outside of Tangerang Tjonat makes his move, kidnapping Gouw Nio and allowing the Tios to escape.
Upon hearing of his fiancée's peril, Sing Sang follows Tjonat and finds him in a cave. Although capable of ambushing the bandit, he refuses to kill in cold blood. Instead, Sing Sang attacks an armed Tjonat with his bare hands and wins, using Tjonat's own knife to cut the bandit's ears off and mark his forehead with a "T" before ordering him to return Gouw Nio. Tjonat, however, does not obey, instead stabbing Gouw Nio in the chest and throwing her in a nearby river. At that moment Tjonat is arrested by arriving police and villagers, while Sing Sang rescues Gouw Nio from the current. After a long recovery, Gouw Nio and Sing Sang are married. Tjonat and his men are executed.[a]
Si Tjonat was directed by Nelson Wong, who produced the film in conjunction with his business partner Jo Eng Sek. The two had established Batavia Motion Picture in 1929. Wong had previously directed a single fiction film, the commercial flop Lily van Java (1928), with funding from a high-ranking General Motors employee in Batavia named David Wong.[b] Jo Eng Sek, a shop owner, had never produced a film.
The story for Si Tjonat was based on the novel Tjerita Si Tjonat, written by reporter F.D.J. Pangemanann and first published in 1900. The story had proven popular with ethnic Chinese readers. It was often adapted to the stage by Betawi stage troupes as a lenong stage performance.[c] The story was selected by Jo Eng Sek.
The silent film was shot in black-and-white and starred Ku Fung May and Herman Sim. Sim, of peranakan Chinese descent, had previous experience acting in the Shanghai-based film industry in China, while Ku Fung May had no film experience. The martial arts sequences used in the film were inspired by Hollywood Westerns, then popular in the Indies.
Si Tjonat was released in 1929. Although a work of fiction, it was advertised as based on a true story. The film was one in a line of domestic production targeted primarily at ethnic Chinese audiences, following Lily van Java and Setangan Berloemoer Darah (both 1928); film historian Misbach Yusa Biran writes that this was evident from the predominantly Chinese production team and cast.[d] Native audiences also enjoyed the film, particularly its action sequences. Indonesian film critic Salim Said writes that it was of distinctly commercial orientation, meant only to turn a profit.
Sales figures are unclear. Said writes that it was a commercial success, while Biran – noting that Batavia Motion Picture was dissolved not long after Si Tjonat's release – suggests that returns were poor. Reviews were mixed. In general the press criticised the emphasis on murder and crime, while in Panorama magazine, Kwee Tek Hoay wrote that the film had been "fairly well produced",[e] emphasising Sim's acting – particularly his martial arts skills.
Although Si Tjonat was initially intended to be a serial, production of the second instalment halted after the closure of Batavia Motion Picture. Jo Eng Sek left the industry completely, only returning in 1935 to produce Poei Sie Giok Pa Loei Tay. Wong, meanwhile, remained active in the industry together with his brothers Joshua and Othniel. Using the banner Halimoen Film they later reused Sim in their 1931 film Si Pitoeng. Ku Fung May did not act in another film. Several films centred around bandits, including Lie Tek Swie's Si Ronda (1929) and the Wongs' Si Pitoeng and Rampok Preanger (1929) followed soon after Si Tjonat.
Si Tjonat is likely lost. The American visual anthropologist Karl G. Heider writes that all Indonesian films from before 1950 are lost. However, JB Kristanto's Katalog Film Indonesia (Indonesian Film Catalogue) records several as having survived at Sinematek Indonesia's archives, and Biran writes that several Japanese propaganda films have survived at the Netherlands Government Information Service.