Saturday, 1 March 2014

Merantau Warrior

Director: GH Evans
Writer: GH Evans
Producer: Ario Sagantoro
Cast: Iko Uwais, Mads Koudal, Christine Hakim
Country: Indonesia
Year of release: 2009
Reviewed from: UK disc

The British martial arts film is not, in all honesty, a healthy cinematic genre. A few films get made each year, at the lower end of the indie scale, often combined with a gangster storyline. A few just about overcome their limitations and can be viewed, by sympathetic audiences, as fun little movies. But no-one would ever claim that this is a genre where we excel. Even the very best British martial arts picture doesn’t approach the level of a distinctly average Hong Kong flick.

The night before I watched Merantau Warrior, I tried to sit through a typically ultra-low budget British action film and only made it halfway (I won’t mention the title or film-maker, and no, I won’t be reviewing it). It had everything that is wrong with the genre in this country, principally an almost total absence of story and character. It was just a succession of lacklustre fights with atrocious camera-work and sound, plus a level of acting for which there are simply no words.

So it was a huge joy to be able to watch Merantau Warrior, the second feature by GH (Gareth) Evans, a good Cardiff boy who previously helmed the magnificent Footsteps. I would love to be able to proclaim this as far and away the finest example of a martial arts action picture ever made in Britain. Except I can’t. Because it was made in Indonesia.

It’s not even a British film shot in Indonesia. This is a Indonesian as Pangkal Pinang Bus Station. But it was directed by a Welshman and features, as its chief villains, a Frenchman from China and a Dane. Truly, it’s a modern world.

Despite its unlikely lineage, Merantau (the original title, used onscreen) is an absolutely terrific film. This is real, top-notch martial arts cinema, combining dazzling displays of controlled combat with a powerful story, superb camera-work and remarkable achievements in all technical and artistic aspects. If you enjoy martial arts cinema, by which I mean real martial arts cinema that combines the artistry of combat with the artistry of film to create something greater than the sum of its parts, then you do not want to miss this film.

The story is simple and tells of Yuda (Iko Uwais), a young man who lives with his mother and elder brother on a tomato farm in Sumatra. Theirs is a peaceful, rural existence. But there is a tradition in that region that for a youth to truly become a man, he must leave his family and, well, it’s not entirely clear but I think the European equivalent would be ‘setting off to seek his fortune’. So, just like Dick Whittington journeying to London (but without the cat) Yuda takes the bus to Jakarta where he hopes to earn a living teaching silat.

Silat (or pencak silat) is an Indonesian martial art. And I don’t know enough about the technicalities of these things to be able to say precisely how this differs from karate or kung fu or muay thai or other forms of martial art. But it’s a stylish, fast-moving form of combat which seems to mainly consist of blocking, grabbing and twisting, pulling or otherwise disabling an opponent. Rather than, say, repeatedly kicking him.

Inbetween Footsteps and Merantau, Gareth shot a documentary on silat for a production company owned by highly respected actress Christine Hakim, who plays the mother in this film. Although various versions or approximations of silat have appeared in films over the years, mostly during the exploitation boom of the 1970s and 1980, this is the first movie to actually concentrate on the subject and, allegedly, the first martial arts actioner shot in Indonesia for about 15 years. I guess there just weren’t enough Welshmen in the country.

In the city, Yuda finds that the address he has been given doesn’t exist and so takes up temporary residence in some concrete pipes on a construction site while he tries to figure out what to do. When his wallet is stolen by a young urchin named Adit, Yuda gives chase and catches the boy in an alley just in time to see his sister, Astri, being abused by her boss, Johni.

Johni runs a gentleman’s establishment called the Gogo Club where Astri works as a pole dancer, but she doesn’t want to give him the tips she has earned. Yuda, being a well-brought-up lad, steps in to defend the young lady but receives no gratitude; Astri is furious that his roughing up of Johni has cost her her job.

Johni, it turns out, has a sideline providing girls to a European people-trafficker named Ratzger, faultlessly played by Mads Koudal. I’ve never seen Mads be anything less than great (he was an equally nasty slimeball in Footsteps) but here he’s absolutely terrific, a superb study in efficient psychosis. “I’m a man who does business but not a businessman,” he points out in one of his early scenes, intimidating Johni. “If I was a businessman, I would just sue you...”

Ratzger is assisted by Luc (who may be his brother?) played by Laurent Buson who was born in Paris but raised in China and is one of the few Europeans to have been allowed to train in the Shaolin Temple. They have a shipment of girls waiting to leave the country but need one more: Johni promised them five but, with Astri gone, he can only offer them four. So Johni tracks down Astri and takes her to Ratzger but Yuda, quite by chance, sees them and knows he has to rescue her again.

Initially beaten up by Johni’s goons, Yuda picks himself up and enters the club, dishing out silat action left, right and centre in an amazing long, single shot which was, according to the Making Of, the very first shot of production and took more than 50 takes! As Yuda rescues Astri from Ratzger, the white guy gets a face full of broken glass, one piece of which he actually removes and uses to threaten an underling. From then on, Ratzger carries a series of parallel scars on his face that just make him look like the meanest motherfucker you ever saw, excuse my language. I mean, honestly. You would not want to mess with this guy. At all.

Now all of Johni’s goons are on the lookout for Yuda, Astri and Adit, knowing that Ratzger will severely punish them if they don’t come up with the goods. The pace of the film becomes non-stop as fight follows chase follows fight. Astri hides her brother but is recaptured and the final showdown comes at a depot amid a city of shipping containers, one of which houses a dozen petrified young women. It’s time for full-on, no-holds-barred silat kick-assery culminating in a truly shocking encounter between Yuda, who is still essentially a good farm boy, and the sociopathic, batshit insane Ratzger.

This is the real stuff, no doubt about it. Merantau is everything that a really good martial arts film should be. It has characters we care about, fighting for moral reasons against bad guys that we hate - rather than the standard British model of one bunch of shaven-headed thuggish crooks fighting another bunch of shaven-headed, thuggish crooks for no reason that we know or care about.

There’s a story to Merantau and, if the above makes it sounds simplistic - well, I suppose it is, but not overly simplistic. It’s not a dodgy 1930s serial cliffhanger plot of guy rescues girl, girl gets captured again, guy rescues girl again etc. It’s coherent and well-structured. Granted there are a couple of slightly weak moments, not least that the whole thing hinges on the coincidence of Yuda phoning his mum across the street from, and at the same time as, Johni unloading a semi-conscious Astri from the boot of his car. There is also a later scene where Astri and Adit are pursued by thugs who are mere yards behind them, then they turn a corner and there’s time for brother and sister to have quite a long, emotionally wrought conversation before the villains eventually reappear. But these are moments - few and far between and entirely failing to spoil in any way the films’ achievement or the viewer’s enjoyment.

There is also a nice subplot about a guy named Eric who initially gets chatting to Yuda on the bus and later turns out to be one of Johni’s men, leading to a terrific fight inside a lift which culminates in one of the most emotionally powerful scenes you’ll ever see in a martial arts flick.

Technically the film is flawless. Gareth brought over his Footsteps cinematographer Matt Flannery who does a magnificent job, both on location and in the studio. The make-up effects are impressive without ever being over-the-top and sometimes shocking in their realism: check out the glass-of-scotch-to-the-head scene. Gareth did his own editing. The very effective score was composed by Fajar Yuskemal (who scored the award-winning horror short Dara) and Aria Prayogi.

Producer Ario Sagantoro’s experience has mostly been in TV commercials while line producer Daiwanne Ralie (who also translated Gareth’s script) has worked extensively in Indonesian television after studying in the US at Northeastern University. Executive producer Rangga Maya Barack-Evans has worked with Gareth since his short film Samurai Monogatari.

While the executive producer may have a brilliantly long and complex name, it pales beside that of fight choreographer Edwel Datuk Rajo Gampo Alam who was assisted by three of his students under the name of Team Silat Harimau.

But for all the many contributions in front of and behind the camera, this film stands or falls on the central performance by Iko Uwais, a young man with no previous acting experience but a phenomenal skill at silat. It was very important to the director that he cast people who were good martial artists. It is evidently easier to teach an expert fighter to act than to teach an actor to fight like an expert. Fortunately, Uwais exhibits just the right amount of screen presence: a simple, humble, honest morality that makes us sympathise with him and gives him a (literally) fighting chance of facing down the unpleasantness upon which he accidentally stumbles.

Sisca Jessica who plays Astrid and (not unexpectedly) young Yusuk Aulia as Adit are also first-timers - although the former has some TV experience - and really it was a tremendous risk to have three feature film debutantes but they all acquit themselves well. What is more they are balanced by some real experience.

Mads Koudal has more than fifty credits including features, shorts and TV work in a bewildering variety of countries. As well as Footsteps, he was in Andrew JonesThe Feral Generation, Jeff Brookshire’s Awaken the Dead, David Noel Bourke’s No Right Turn, Emil Ishii’s Rovdrift, Swedish horror flick Die Zombiejaeger, the Campagna Brothers’ post-apocalyptic western Six Reasons Why, unreleased vampire feature Pool of Darkness and, most recently, Paul Sampson’s Night of the Templar. Mads is always tremendous value in whatever he does, especially when he’s playing the villain (which seems to be most of the time).

Laurent ‘Lohan’ Buson I wasn’t familiar with before this although I had seen Michelle Yeoh/Luke Goss starrer Silver Hawk in which he plays a hitman. Born in Paris, he travelled to China as a young man and was granted the rare honour of actually training in the Shaolin Temple under Shi Yong Xu. In recent years he has founded the Z-team, the only action/stunt team of westerners working in China, with his younger brother an a couple of friends.

Then there’s Christine Hakim. You might not know the name or the face and you certainly won’t have heard of any of her previous features, but Hakim is a huge star in Indonesia and has won the local equivalent of the Oscar no fewer than six times. She was on the Cannes Festival Jury in 2002 and recently made her first US film, acting opposite Julia Roberts in Eat Pray Love.

The uniformly excellent cast is rounded out by Alex Abbad as Johni, Yayan Ruhian as Eric, Doni Alamsyah as Yuda’s brother Yayan and Ratna Galih as Ayi, a character I don’t even remember. According to the website she’s a dancer who is a friend of Astri’s but it looks like much of her part might have been cut because there’s no significant character like that.

Speaking of cut things, the DVD includes two ‘deleted scenes’, one of which is actually an existing scene of Ratzger and Luc with a few more lines of dialogue. It’s wrily amusing and may have been trimmed because the humour upset the scene. The other, wholly excised scene, is an early sequence centred on Adit which is beautifully shot and quite charming and which actually pays off at the end of the film. But I can also see why this has gone: it would put too much emphasis on Adit early on at the expense of his sister (and Yuda). It is much better to have our introduction to the boy in a scene of petty theft.

However, there is another entire scene missing, footage of which can be seen in the hour of excellent Making Of featurettes included on the disc. It’s a ‘thug recruitment’ sequence of Jakarta lowlifes lining up to try out for Johni’s gang and features what looks like a cracking demonstration of silat combat by the character of Eric. Again, there is undoubtedly a good reason to leave this out of the finished film (which is quite long enough already) but I’m puzzled why that’s not included with the other deleted scenes. Maybe it’s an Easter egg or something.

The Making Ofs are top-notch with just the right amount of behind-the-scenes footage and talking heads. Like the movie itself, the Indonesians are subtitled while the Europeans aren’t (in the film Ratzger and Luc speak English while Johni speaks both languages, depending on who he’s talking to). There is also a self-contained 20-minute Making Of done for TV which, to my surprise, has no significant overlap with the rest of the featurettes. Plus a trailer.

Merantau is a very, very fine piece of work indeed. While I don’t think it’s going to have the international impact that Ong Bak did - and which the marketing explicitly suggests it might - I do think it has already raised the awareness of Indonesian cinema and Indonesian martial arts among the faithful fans of this genre. It’s also an absolutely amazing sophomore feature for Gareth Evans.

I mean, Footsteps was great but only played a few festivals, had no domestic distribution and was released in the States on just a very small DVD label. This has been a smash hit at festivals worldwide and had impressive theatrical distribution not only domestically but in other Pacific Asian territories too.

And in terms of subject matter Gareth’s first feature was very grim, very bleak, very Welsh and very small, displaying more in common with the British horror revival than the flash-bangery geezerness of modern British thrillers or dramas. To go from that to a slick, well-budgeted Indonesian martial arts action feature is surely the biggest leap that any director has ever made with their second film.

I think Merantau is a triumph for Gareth Evans, a triumph for Iko Uwais and a triumph for Indonesian cinema in general. Evans and Uwais are now working on a prison drama called Berandal (there’s a teaser trailer on the web) which could be the film that combines Footsteps’ gritty, bleak attitude with Merantau’s stylish, powerful action. [In fact, Gareth's next feature was the amazing, and amazingly successful, The Raid. His Berandal script was then adapted into The Raid 2. - MJS]

Incidentally, all the combat in Merantau is unarmed, apart from various metal pipes and crowbars which the bad guys swing around. The small knife featured in publicity images is only ever seen in a solo routine that Uwais/Yuda performs under the opening titles.

MJS rating: A-
review originally posted 17th September 2010

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