From the Shaw Brothers films of the 1970s, to the Jackie Chan-led Hong Kong action cinema of the 1980s and 1990s, to the recent Thai efforts of Tony Jaa and Panna Rittikrai, fans of martial arts cinema are always on the lookout for the next big thing – that new, must-see action film that you’ll end up recommending to all your friends. Some might consider Merantau as the latest in a long-line of “You gotta see this!” action flicks coming out of Asia.
This 2009 Indonesian film marks the cinematic debut of Iko Uwais, a skilled practitioner in the local martial art of Pencak Silat. While Merantau may not be in the same league as The Five Deadly Venoms, Police Story or Ong-Bak, the film hints at a bright future for its director, star, and possibly Indonesian film, a national cinema that has had little global exposure in comparison with its more well-known hemispheric neighbors.
In the opening sequence of this martial arts-infused coming-of-age story, we are introduced to Yuda (Iko Uwais), a young man who has lived his entire life in a tiny village in West Sumatra. In accordance with customs of his people, Yuda embarks on his “merantau,” an age-old tradition which requires him to leave the safety of his rural home and travel to the dangerous big city – in this case, Jakarta. Proficient in the martial art of Silat Haruimau, Yuda hopes to find gainful employment teaching his skills to others, but soon finds his dreams crushed in the bustling Jakarta metropolis.
Without a place to sleep, Yuda lives on the street, eventually getting his wallet swiped by a pint-sized pickpocket named Adit (Yusuf Aulia). After chasing down the little moppet, Yuda witnesses a pimp-turned-club owner (Alex Abbad) rough up one of his exotic dancers (Sisca Jessica), a woman who also happens to be Adit’s sister, Astri. The boy attempts to intervene, but fails miserably against a grown man, so it’s up to Yuda to even the odds. Unfortunately, Yuda’s Good Samaritan act has unintended consequences for not just himself, but Astri and Adit as well.
Eventually, the trio find themselves caught up in a sex trafficking ring masterminded by an ambiguously European sociopath known as Ratger (a gleefully overacting Mads Koudal), who has come to Indonesia for the sole purpose of raping local girls and selling them into a life of prostitution. After Ratger’s face gets disfigured in a fight with Yuda, he sends every available henchman after the boy in an attempt to exact bloody revenge. Will the martial arts skills of one country bumpkin be enough to take down an entire criminal syndicate? Logic would suggest the answer is no, but we’ve all seen enough martial arts cinema to know that anything is possible in the movies.
Written, directed and edited by Welshman Gareth Evans, Merantau feels strongly reminiscent of both Ong Bak and Tom Yum Goong due to its well-worn “fish out of water” tale. In this iteration, the good-natured country boy makes a trip to the big city, only to discover a cutthroat urban nightmare that stands in stark contrast with the idyllic beauty and strong sense of community more easily found in the countryside. There’s nothing wrong with the “fish out of water” tale per se, but it’s a storyline we’ve seen over and over again, especially in Asian martial arts films.
If there’s any innovation here, then it’s the fact that Merantau emerges as the rare coming-of-age story in which the individual isn’t changed or corrupted by the outside world, but instead makes great strides to change it for the better. However unrealistic the film may seem in its old school video game plotting, it’s also careful to emphasize that standing up for what’s right often comes with a heavy price.
Iko Uwais makes a fine debut, effectively portraying the film’s naïve, but incorruptible lead. If anything, Yuda comes off as a bit too much of a goody-two-shoes to register as a fully-rounded character, but Uwais makes the most of this mostly one-dimensional role. Danish actor Mads Koudal makes an impact with a deliriously over-the-top performance as the film’s antagonist. Koudal’s accent is so all over the place that I didn’t know whether Ratger was supposed to be a creepy Eurotrash villain or a racist good ol’ boy from the American South. Still, Ratger does get a couple amusing moments expressing his irritation at the minutiae of villainhood - a kind of Curb Your Enthusiasm for bad guys - as the man has to deal with everything from henchman issues to the problems of carrying a hostage while the hero follows in hot pursuit.
Genre fans may crave a good story and well-drawn characters, but it’s the action that really brings in the crowds, and in that respect, Merantau largely delivers. Evans positions the camera to sit back and take notice of the actors, allowing them to demonstrate their skills in occasionally uninterrupted takes. The fact that you can comprehend the geography of the fight scenes also ranks as a minor miracle in itself, as filming action nowadays has become something of a lost art in the post-Bourne Supremacy shaky-cam era.
It also doesn’t hurt that the fights look physically demanding and even painful. Standout scenes include a wonderful demonstration of close quarters combat in an elevator as well as the film’s money shot – an impressive moment when Iko Uwais hurls a laundry pole like a javelin at an assailant jumping from one building to the next. Merantau isn’t a dramatic leap forward for action cinema, but it’s a satisfying entry in the genre nonetheless. (Calvin McMillin, 2011)