The Fulbright advisor at Agnes Scott College suggested to us Fulbright applicants that we try to immerse ourselves in the arts and culture of our intended countries by reading its literature, listening to its music, and watching its films. Indonesian movies, unfortunately, are in short supply in my part of the USA, so I, naturally, turned to my trusty Netflix Instant Play. I was lucky enough to find Merantau among its offerings.
Merantau, directed by British-born Gareth Huw Evans and released in 2009, was credited with reviving interest in Indonesian martial arts (pencak silat) in film. Merantau precedes 2011’s Serbuan Maut (The Raid: Redemption), a film whose premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival brought critical raves for its fantastic fight choreography and a distribution deal with Sony Pictures Classic. In essence, Evans is part of a new period of cinematic energy in a country whose domestic industry hasn’t always been supported by both the government and audiences (The 90’s were a particularly bad time.When foreign films were finally allowed into the country again after a period of censorship under both Pres. Sukarno and Pres. Suharto, the number and quality of local films dropped; Indonesian cinema fans call it Krisis Film Nasional).
So, keeping all this in mind, what is Merantau like?
Merantau tells the story of Yuda, a member of the Minangkabau in Sumatra who participates in the tradition of merantau, going abroad to seek experience and opportunity (The Minangkabau have a matrilineal societal structure in which daughters inherit property, so young men are the ones who usually merantau).
Yuda, a master in silat (silat is the fighting part; pencak is the performance aspect), intends to teach the martial art in Jakarta, but when he arrives in the big city, he discovers the house he was to stay in has been torn down. From there, he encounters a young thief Adit, and his older sister Astri, who gets caught in a human trafficking ring run by two vicious European brothers. Yuda must engage in increasingly violent battles to rescue her.
It’s a fairly standard story with fairly standard character archetypes. Yuda, played by former silat national chamption Iko Uwais, is the naive country boy caught off guard by an unforgiving city. Astri (Sisca Jessica) is the feisty street-smart dancer unfortunate enough to get trapped in the Jakarta underworld. Adit (Yusuf Aulia) is the quick-witted street kid who is still protective of his older sister. Ratger and Luc (Mads Koudal and Laurent Buson), the villains, are well, borderline sociopathic human traffickers.
Despite the formulaic nature of the movie, though, it’s elevated by its efficient pacing, effective editing and fiery, explosive action sequences. After Yuda arrives in Jakarta, the movie more or less consists of a number of fight scenes in which he rescues Adit and/or Astri, interspersed with the occasional quieter moment.
What makes this not completely tiring is the shortness of the film. Compared to current American action behemoths like The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises which tend to run over two hours, Merantau clocks in a brisk one hour and 52 minutes and makes the most of its time with brutal, inventive fight choreography.
I am not an action film expert, but compared to what I’ve seen before, particularly in Asian martial arts cinema, Merantau distinguishes itself with merciless realism (or at least as much realism as you can get with one man fighting a constant wave of martial arts experts). It doesn’t have the acrobatics and theatrics of the Chinese martial arts films I’ve seen, like Stephen Chow’s Kung Fu Hustle or Jackie Chan’s The Legend of Drunken Master or Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or hell, Dreamworks’ Kung Fu Panda (most of which are or are influenced by wuxia films).
Its no-frills approach is closer to the Chinese film, Ip Man, or the Thai movie, Chocolate, the fight choreography of both of which is marked by efficiency. Sure, the fight segments look really cool, particularly a scene on a series of rooftops which showcases a masterful use of the surroundings. Yet, you don’t get the somersault + backflip + wall-climbing + flying kick kind of combo frequently featured in cinema. It’s pure, bloody ass-kicking, complete with liberal dosages of broken glass, steel pipes, wooden poles, and other otherwise everyday implements.
The cinematography, in particular, lends itself well to the fight scenes. While techniques like shaky cam or slow-motion currently popular in action movies such as Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy can be extremely effective, they can also make it difficult to watch the fighting. Evans, who stated that he wanted to keep the fight scenes from being over-stylized, kept the camerawork, simple, natural, and steady, which allows the choreography of Edwel Datuk Rajo Gampo Alam, the master who taught Evans silat, to shine.
As for the rest of the movie that aren’t action scenes? I’ve said earlier that it’s not a particularly inventive movie in terms of storyline or characters. Yet, I did feel something in the end for the characters and the situation they’re in. The crisp scripting conveys the exact amount of emotional weight the film needs in the proper places, and the editing amplifies these moments without dipping into melodrama. It also helps that human trafficking is a painfully real problem in Indonesia, which raises the stakes considerably; when a traumatized Astri is flung into a storage unit full of terrified young women, the fact that this scene is real for several women across Southeast Asia is disquieting.
While none of the actors slayed me with brilliance, they all did their jobs. In particular, Iko Uwais, a first-time actor, has a presence that makes him credible as both a masterful badass and a naive country-boy; Sisca Jessica is convincing both when she’s back-talking her pimp or radiating fear and desperation with only her eyes; Mads Koudel gives chills as a brutal trafficker; and Christine Hakim as Yuda’s mother bears much of the emotional weight of the movie. Her final scene is quietly devastating.
All in all, Merantau, while not a brilliant film, is a decent one, especially for the action genre. Its formulaic script and characters is elevated by the sheer competence of everything else. With its excellent choreography and camerawork, it’s a tremendous vehicle for pencak silat. Based on those sterling qualities alone, I’m definitely interested in more from Evans and his team.
Example of pencak silat: