In anticipation of seeing “The Raid” (opening on Australian screens next week), which has been touted as the action film of the decade, I thought I had better catch up with the initial collaboration between director Gareth Evans and star Iko Uwais, “Merantau”.
“Merantau” is your typical martial arts flick meaning that the emphasis is mainly on the action, so to be going into this film expecting strong dramatic arcs would be doing yourself and the film a disservice. The plot is relatively simple with a young tomato farmer named Yuda heading off to the Indonesian capital of Jakarta where he is to perform his merantau. In Yuda’s culture, every young man must leave his family to learn the skills that will help him for the rest of his life, and such a journey is called “merantau”. On his arrival in Jakarta, his accommodation and contact number he has been given turn out to be useless with the address being for a vacant block of land, and the number for a discontinued line. He is alone in an unfamiliar place, with no place to live, and no one to help him out. It is an early lesson that life can be tough. One night while calling his mother, Yuda is witness to an assault on a young female named Astri. Although he had no intention of being involved, he just cannot sit idly by while a girl is being beaten by a man. He steps in and saves the girl, but during the long drawn out fight, he ends up badly scarring (via broken glass) a major ganglord, who for the rest of the film attempts to find Yuda to enact his revenge. The gangster realizes the only way to Yuda is through Astri, and he sends out his henchmen to find and capture the girl. That way Yuda will come to him. That is basically the plot which like I said is typical of a martial arts flick, but what makes “Merantau” something that is a little different is the fact that the martial art that is demonstrated in the film is the Indonesian art of Silat.
Much has been said about star Iko Uwais’s fighting ability in “Merantau” with most people agreeing that he has the potential to be the next big action star, comparing him to Thailand’s Tony Jaa. The comparison is an obvious one, but only time will tell if it is an accurate one. As we know today, Tony Jaa has disappeared almost as quick as he appeared on our screens, but it is fair to say that Uwais’s debut is almost as impressive as Jaa’s. I must say that I had seen some clips from “Merantau” of the fight scenes on the internet, and I’ll be honest, they didn’t really impress me. However, I still bought the blu-ray and after watching the movie through proper, I must say that my opinion has changed and I am suitably impressed. The initial fight in the alley where he saves Astri, I still thought was a little slow, but seeing as how the fights increase in speed and in intensity as the film goes along, I think this actually may be deliberate. It is actually in this initial fight that Yuda suffers his worst beating in the film, and I think this is due to the fact that he underestimates his opponents or he is just not used to the speed of city life. Whichever it may be, after that initial fight, Yuda moves at a different speed and attacks with much more ferocity than he did previous.
Unfortunately another thing that Iko Uwais shares with Tony Jaa is a lack of screen presence during the dramatic moments of the film. In fact there is not a lot that can be said about the acting (in a positive sense) with no one really giving a great performance. From an acting standpoint, I think Sisca Jessica as Astri is the only person who can probably hold her head up high. She has a number of dramatic moments throughout the film and she handles them all admirably. She is also incredibly cute too. “Merantau” also has another thing that drives me insane in a martial arts flick and that is English speaking characters who speak the language terribly or at least act in it badly. The two main bad guys speak English and are just woeful, but this isn’t only a problem in this film, it happens in a lot of martial arts films. I just do not understand why they cannot hire an actor who can deliver lines in English properly.
Enough about the acting, this is a martial arts film, and that is all we care about, so I am sure you are wondering how the film stacks up in that department. I am very happy to report that it stacks up very well. There are a huge number of intricately choreographed fights throughout the film that is sure to make any martial arts fan happy. However what made me most happy was the fact that Gareth Evans understands how to shoot fight scenes properly so they have the full effect. This seems to be a lost art in today’s cinema where rapid-fire editing and shaky camerawork is often the norm usually used to hide the deficiencies of the actor performing the techniques. Evans uses his camera beautifully and fluidly which help give the fights their power, but from an audience point of view, he makes everything very easy to see so you know exactly what is going on at any given time. The way this was achieved was for two months prior to shooting, all of the fight scenes were choreographed which Evans then crudely filmed on a camcorder. From these recordings he was then able to work out what shots he needed to have the greatest impact, which he then filmed again with the camcorder to see if they worked. By the time shooting came around, everyone knew what they were doing and what angles would be shot. This is brilliant stuff and I wish that it happened more often. It also appears that Evans is a bit of a perfectionist when it comes to the fight scenes and if something wasn’t exactly right, he would reshoot it, including one scene which they shot an incredible 56 times. The amount of time and effort put into these fight scenes are definitely worth it though because it shows up on the screen with each fight getting more and more intense. The majority of the fights are one-on-many, and include very intricate choreography, but I must say that I thoroughly enjoyed the one-on-one fight scene in the elevator, especially because this fight had an actual dramatic edge to it.
Overall, I really enjoyed “Merantau”. Although the first half of the film may be a little slow for some, the second half of the film is almost all pure action, and as I have said, the fights continue to build in intensity and speed until the great finale. After watching this film, I now feel primed and ready for the next Evans / Uwais collaboration, “The Raid”. Bring it on!
* I should mention that the version of the film that I saw was the “international version” which is actually around half an hour shorter than the Indonesian version of “Merantau”. Unfortunately I cannot comment on the scenes missing from that version, but I will state again that it is a shame that distributors do not leave their product alone for international viewers. Just let us see the original version.