Cover Story / March 2019

Cultural Diplomat

The fact that there are very few Indonesians working in Hollywood does not in any way impede 29-year-old Livi, who became involved in the film industry when she was still a teenager. Thanks to her love for sports, especially martial arts such as wushu and karate, she was introduced to filmmaking as a stuntwoman.

Originally from Blitar in East Java, her family moved to Jakarta when she was still small. She completed junior high school in Jakarta before moving with her parents to Beijing, where she continued her senior high school education and studied martial arts at the Beijing ShiChaHai Sports School. Incidentally, this is also where Hollywood start Jet Li learnt his trade.

Despite living far from her homeland, Livi’s love for Indonesia remains as strong as ever. “If we are in Indonesia, it’s easy if we want to eat nasi pecel [rice with vegetable salad and peanut sauce] or nasi rawon [meat soup from East Java, served with rice]. In Beijing, it is something very rare. And from there, I learnt how to appreciate Indonesia more and more,” she said.

After finishing high school, Livi moved to Washington, D.C., to continue her education. She won several martial arts awards while studying towards a bachelor’s degree in economics from the University of Washington.



As a stuntwoman, she realized that only a writer, director and producer can change the plot in a movie, so she decided to write her own script.

With little in-depth knowledge on film production, Livi received help from her brother Ken Zheng, who is now a Hollywood actor. Her first movie script, which she offered to many production houses, was rejected by at least 32 before her debut film, “Brush With Danger,” was finally made in 2014. It was released in the United States in September the following year.

“Don’t be afraid of rejection. Being rejected is part of life; it’s part of filmmaking. As a filmmaker, you will face more rejection than approval. So just get used to it,” she said.

Her recipe for when a plan does not come together is to allow herself about three hours’ mourning and then to put that failure behind her and keep trying to improve the initial plan. She normally uses those three hours to search for Indonesian food, which almost always helps her forget her woes.

“If you want to do something, keep focusing on it. Be persistent,” she said.

And she is living proof that this principle works. “Many people will reject you; say your ideas are bad. If I listened to all those things, it [success] would never have come.”

“Brush With Danger” went on to be nominated for an Oscar in the best picture category, among more than 300 other films.

To improve her knowledge of filmmaking, Livi pursued a master’s degree at the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts. But she still chases another dream – to work an equal amount of time in Asia and the United States. “I love living in Asia; I love living in Indonesia, but right now, most of my work, like 90 percent, is in the US,” she said.


Promoting Indonesia

Although Livi works in Hollywood, she has never forgotten her roots as an Indonesian. “When you do something, don’t forget your roots, because your roots are your inspiration,” she told GlobeAsia during an interview in Jakarta in February.

Livi tries in all her films to promote Indonesia. In “Brush With Danger” for example, she used 50 paintings and other items from the archipelago.

She realizes that most people from the rest of the world know very little about her homeland, even though this archipelago of more than 17,000 islands is the world’s fourth-most populated country. Her dream to shoot in Indonesia has come true in her new film, “Bali: Beats of Paradise,” which she uses to promote gamelan, the traditional ensemble music of Java and Bali, which predominantly consists of percussive instruments. The documentary was released in the United States in November last year and it is scheduled for release in South Korea in April and Indonesia in July.

Her initiative to promote gamelan through a documentary came when she realized that the sounds of these traditional musical instruments were used in several Hollywood films, including “Avatar” and the television series “Star Trek,” but that few people recognized it. Livi hopes to introduce these instruments to the international community with “Bali: Beats of Paradise.”

Right now, Livi is working to complete another film titled “Insight,” which she said would be released soon. Although the entire film was shot in the United States, it contains scenes based on pencak silat, a form of martial arts originating from Indonesia.

For her continuing efforts to promote Indonesia and its culture globally, Livi received the Culture Ambassador Award in December last year at the Unforgettable Gala, which celebrates the achievements of Asian Americans.

At home, Livi was appointed as Indonesia’s youth ambassador for international affairs in March and she received the Tourism Marketer of the Year 2019 award in the same month.

Livi wants to develop the Indonesian film industry, but said there is still a lot she must learn, because the local industry operates very different than in the United States. She added that a lack of cinema screens was another obstacle holding back the local film industry.