Indonesia boleh! ~ That Movie Blogger Fella

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Indonesia boleh!

Merantau Warrior
My rating:

So I felt obliged to watch and review this, seeing as how I talked it up in my review of My Spy earlier. I wasn't expecting much though. It looked like an Indonesian version of Ong Bak, and I didn't much like Ong Bak. Don't get me wrong, I love a good ta kau flick as much as the next Y chromosome, but frankly I got bored halfway through it. The characters were dull, and the plot was practically nonexistent; there just wasn't anything that engaged me beyond the fight scenes. Maybe it was because I watched it on DVD, maybe I would've liked it better if I saw it on the big screen, I dunno.

But Merantau Warrior? Is better than Ong Bak. Yeah, you heard me.

"Merantau" is a traditional Minangkabau rite of passage in which young men leave hearth and home to seek their fortunes. Yuda (Iko Uwais) leaves his mother (Christine Hakim) and his rural Sumatran village for the big city of Jakarta, with nothing more than his silat harimau skills and a vague notion of making a living teaching them. Chance leads to an encounter with street urchin Adit (Yusuf Aulia) and his sister Astri (Sisca Jessica), a go-go dancer whom he impulsively rescues from her sleazy boss Johni (Alex Abbad). But this makes him some far more dangerous enemies - the leaders of a human trafficking ring, Ratger (Mads Koudal) and Luc (Laurent Buson).

Okay, it's a ta kau flick through and though. The plot couldn't be simpler: Boy meets girl. Boy helps girl and in process kicks some ass. Boy and girl exhibit romantic tension. Girl gets kidnapped. Boy spends rest of movie kicking truckloads of ass to rescue girl. And during the climax, boy confronts two crime bosses, both of which just happen to be expert martial artists themselves. Fresh and innovative this movie is not. But what it is is very well-made, exhibiting a surprising amount of care to the dialogue, characters, and emotional underpinnings. It's there in the opening scenes of Yuda's village, featuring Indonesia's national cinematic treasure Christine Hakim. She was good in Puteri Gunung Ledang, and she's great here; her scenes are poignant, and it sets the tone for the rest of the movie.

And it's there in the aforementioned romantic tension scene, in which Yuda and Astri get to know each other and trade backstories; the dialogue here is well-written and affecting. It's also in the subplot about Eric (Yayan Ruhian), a fellow Minangkabau whom Yuda meets on the bus ride to Jakarta and whom he encounters later under very different circumstances. In fact, there's even thematic depth to this subplot; cities like Jakarta chew up country boys like Yuda and Eric every day, and the only way to keep from getting spit out is to sell their soul to the devil. Hell, it's even in that one scene between Ratgar and Luc, in which the two are revealed to have a brotherly relationship that makes them more than just moustache-twirling baddies. How many action films actually bother to give depth to their villains?

But yes, it's still a ta kau flick. And whoo, it rocks as a ta kau flick. I'll be honest and admit that the fights and stunts aren't as balls-out extreme as Ong Bak's, but they're teeth-jarringly thrilling enough. (When a guy gets a gas tank thrown in his face, you will wince.) Unlike Tony Jaa in his movies, Yuda is no invincible superman. In fact, he loses his first fight against Johni's goons, and takes his fair share of lumps in all his subsequent fights. But it's that first loss that tells us this hero is vulnerable, which makes every other fight scene even more exciting. And I also gotta give it up to writer-director Gareth Evans' sheer economy of storytelling. In most other movies, if the hero loses his first fight, he'd crawl off to lick his wounded pride and take on the bad guys again some other time. Not Yuda. He just gets back up, grits his teeth, and proceeds to open up an entire brewery of whoopass.

Another pleasant surprise is a refreshing lack of misogyny. Astri is an exotic dancer but not a stripper, and she is not ashamed of what she does. (Nor is she a shrinking violet - watching her spit venom in Bahasa Indonesia is lots of fun.) Yuda himself is never judgmental nor anything less than respectful towards her. And the movie sees fit to grant her a happy ending, which is more than can be said for certain Malay movies. That's right, Indonesians appear to be more enlightened in their gender views than we are, or at least than Malay filmmakers are. For shame.

Christine Hakim's isn't the only good performance here. Sisca Jessica is often asked to carry an entire dramatic scene by herself, and she never drops the ball. (It helps that she's super-cute too.) Mads Koudal plays main baddie Ratgar with cold-blooded understatement instead of shouty over-acting, which makes him better by a wide margin than most Caucasian baddies in Asian action movies. But the star, in more ways than one, is Iko Uwais. Another edge he has over Tony Jaa is that he can act. He is as comfortable and charismatic in a dramatic scene as he is in a fight scene; I'd have sworn he's a veteran TV drama teen heartthrob if I hadn't learned that he's a first-time actor. He deserves many more opportunities to show off both his acting and ass-whuppery skills.

And this movie deserves to make as big an international splash as Ong Bak did. That film kicked off an entire new industry of Thai martial arts movies - but if Indonesia continues to make their own that are as good as this, they'll give the Thais a run for their baht easily. You guys, throw more money at Evans, let him make more movies with Iko and his stunt team and any other fresh young talents he can find, and don't feel bad that he's a Brit and not one of your own. (Hell, us Malaysians would love to borrow him.) Be proud that you've got a terrific home-grown movie here, one that beats Ong Bak at its own game and is still uniquely Indonesian. Ong Bakso? Ha ha! Okay, sorry.

Expectations: good cheesy fun, nothing more


Anonymous said...

Yay, I love your review.
I'm a big fan of Iko and read every single review of Merantau. One thing I notice though, most westerners (caucasians) love the movie and many of them think it is better than Ong Bak.
But many Asians are not that impressed with Merantau, mostly because Iko seems not as strong and as raw as Tony Jaa.

BTW, in real life Yayan Ruhian (Eric) is a better Silat Harimau fighter than Iko. Iko only learned Silat Harimau for few months prior to the shooting, along with learning how to act. He's originally from different Silat school, Tiga Berantai Putra Betawi. He might use Tiga Berantai style in his next movie with Evans, 'Berandal' set to be released this year.

TMBF said...

That's normal. Asians always tend to look down on their own. ;)

I'll be looking out for news on Berandal, thanks.

Anonymous said...

aku dah tengok citer nie. best siot!
i'm waiting for 'BERANDAL'

Iko Uwais.. i love u!

from Reena

Anonymous said...

News : "Merantau" won Best Film in the first international action film festival, "Action Fest 2010", in North Carolina, US.
Link :