He was born in 1933, the year when German fascists rose to power and two years after the Japanese invaded China, starting what became part of World War II.
His place of birth is Menado in Sulawesi. Though he became an orphan very early on and is said to have had a difficult and unhappy childhood, his background and native place remained important for him. Wim Umboh spoke both Mandarin and Bahasa Indonesia (the official national language), as well as English and probably French and Russian. A familarity with the native dialects of his mother and father is very likely, too. He was apparently of mixed (ethnic Chinese and indigenous) background but rather than remaining enclosed in the culture of the Chinese minority, took a strong interest in local and regional Indonesian languages and culture, including Javanese folk music. A fact that shows in his filmic work, as well. A film like “Kembang-Kembang Plastik” for instance uses both the national Indonesian language and a regional dialect, spoken in the area of Surabaya. Obviously, it would not have made sense for Umboh to have the underdogs of his movie speak the language of the educated and the bureaucrats.
It is not unlikely that he very early on embraced the tolerant and secular attitude often found among the Chinese with regard to religion. But as a filmmaker who aimed from the start to make movies above all for the common people, the underdogs (the vast majority, that is, of the population), he never displayed aloofness with respect to Islam but respected folk Islam as part of the culture of the subaltern classes. Its traces cannot be missed in his cinematographic work.
In 1953, Umboh came to Jakarta and began to work for a Chinese-owned film production company, Golden Arrows Films, where he learned everything, from being a camera-man to film-cutting, on the job. Several minor, commercial films originated at the time.*
His mastership and reflection of film-making was in part a result of wide-open, curious exposure to and observation of the Indonesian reality and of his talent to learn by doing. But this was not all.
Wim Umboh told me during an interview in 1978 that he studied filmmaking at the Moscow Film Institute** and in Eastern France (if I remember correctly now, in Metz, or was it Nancy?). This must have been in the early 1960s.*** It was subsequent to his stays abroad that he did "Matjan Kemajaran" (1965) - considered by a number of critics as his first really important film .
His films leave the viewer confronted with a cinema that neither copies MOSFILM productions nor the French nouvelle vague. The extent to which his filmic work is rooted in Indonesian culture and reflects the Indonesian situation, Indonesian contradictions, Indonesian needs of the many, is unmistakable. But so is his capacity to integrate formal cinematic means developed outside Indonesia.
Wim Umboh clearly attempted to respond to a need of the “masses,” in a country like Indonesia, to have their own “organic intellectuals” (to borrow a term suggested by Gramsci). He closely observed the common people. But he also said, in an interview, that we “must not idolize” the masses. To make his point, he mentioned how in his film “Kembang-Kembang Plastik” the life of a pickpocket is taken by an angry mob because this petty-crook had just stolen a wallet. This shows the negative side of the "people," in an extreme situation. On the whole, however, Umboh was far from being too much of a skeptic (let alone, misanthropic). He strove to be a critical realist who isn't afraid of giving his audience a chance to laugh, or to respect their fondness of melodramatic elements.
In his movies, he gently and with a lot of tender humor laid bare their weaknesses, their deformations, their alienation. Not in any way denouncing them. But filled by a knowledge or a belief (and this strengthened their and our trust) that the better part of them, their integrity, their “good heart,” their natural (but as yet, often stifled) intelligence would in the end justify a certain measure of hope.
It was probably not infrequent that he had to take account of, or struggle, in intelligent and satirical ways, against the bias and ill-will of censors. The presence of censorship was a cumbersome fact for filmmakers like Wim Umboh, especially in the Suharto era.
He was not kept by the censors from making films. They posed a challenge to his intelligence, his wit, his capacity to produce satire masking revealing observations and sharp criticism as ‘light.’
But when his film “Kembang-Kembang Plastik” was to be shown by him during the Taipei International Film Festival in 1978, the Kuomintang’s G.I.O. (or Government Information Office, an agency officially entrusted with censureship in Taiwan, and inofficially having hundreds if not thousands of informers on its paylist) decided that the film should not be screened. It was in fact a scandal to ban the Indonesian entry during the festival. Taiwanese cinéastes, among them Lee Daw-Ming, succeeded however to arrange for a private screening in a preview house, attended by interested journalists.When Wim Umboh made “Kembang-Kembang Plastik” in 1977, he had already made or worked on nearly 30 films, among them “Istana Yang Hilang” (“The Lost Palace”, 1960), "Matjan Kemajaran" (1965) “Pengantin Remaja” (“Young Bride and Bridegroom”, 1971) and “Senyun Dipagi Bulan Desember” (“Smile on A December Morning”, 1974). A year after “Kembang-Kembang Plastik”, he made “Pengemis Dan Tukang Becak” (“The Beggar and the Rickshaw Man”, 1978), a movie that was also shown on German television and during the Festival des 3 Continents d'Afrique, d'Amérique latine et d'Asie in Nantes (France)..
Since 1980 he made almost another 20 films or so, till 1991 – when he did his last film, a work that was again, like the one done in 1971, called “Pengantin Remaja” (“Young Bride and Bridegroom”). The remake corresponded to his desire to take the fact that Indonesia was rapidly changing into account.
Wim Umboh who had lived part of his life in Jogjakarta, died in 1996 in Jakarta. He will be affectionately remembered by those who knew him and those who loved his films. (Andreas Weiland)
* It is not clear whether he really was the director of the early films given in his filmography ("Dibalik Dinding" (1955); "Kasih Ibu" (1955); "Terang Bulan Terang Dikali" (1956); "Kunang-Kunang" (1957); "Arriany" [Arianie] (1958); "Djuara Sepatu Roda" (1958); and "Tiga Mawar" (1959)) - or was simply involved in their production as camera-man, cutter, and/or assistant director. Some say that "lstana Yang Hilang" ("The Lost Palace", 1960 or 1961) is the first film he did as "main director."
** It is a well-known fact that the Moscow Film Institute or VGIK has played an important role in the formation of several so-called Third World filmmakers since the 1930s, among them (more recently) Viet Linh, Otar Iosselani, and Siddiq Barmak. Probably contacts between cultural circles in Indonesia and the VGIK date back to the Sukarno (or Soekarno) era. The Russian director Sergei Gerasimov who tauught there since 1944 was still a professor at this film school in the 1960s and '70s and thus at the time when Wim Umboh studied there. Founded already in 1919, the VGIK is not only the oldest film school worldwide; it also counted among its professors Sergei Eisenstein, Vsevolod Pudovkin, and Aleksey Batalov.
*** According to one source, the French film school Umboh attended for eight month was the IDHEC, or Institut des hautes études cinématographiques, in Paris. This was in 1962 when he had just finished work on two films, among them "lstana Yang Hilang" ("The Lost Palace"), in 1960. .