Friday, July 13, 2018

Past Misdeeds: Merantau (2009)

aka Merantau Warrior

Through the transformation of the glorious WTF-Films into the even more glorious Exploder Button and the ensuing server changes, some of my old columns for the site have gone the way of all things internet. I’m going to repost them here in irregular intervals in addition to my usual ramblings.

Please keep in mind these are the old posts presented with only  basic re-writes and improvements. Furthermore, many of these pieces were written years ago, so if you feel offended or need to violently disagree with me in the comments, you can be pretty sure I won’t know why I wrote what I wrote anymore anyhow.

This write-up is based on the shorter international version of the film. There seems to be a nearly twenty minutes longer "director's cut", but what wonders it may contain I know not.
Country boy Yuda (Iko Uwais) is going on his Merantau, which, if I understand the film correctly and it's not lying, is a kind of journey into the outside world all young men of his area have to fulfil to be accepted as proper grown-ups. Yuda plans to got to Jakarta and teach the martial art silat there.

But having arrived arrived in the big city the not exactly world-wise young man soon finds himself penniless and without a roof over his head. The handful of contacts that should have provided him with a helping hand or two are all gone and unreachable, and so - this is after all a quest for him - Yuda decides to rough it and hope for the best.

Instead of teaching martial arts, Yuda falls foul of the unpleasant gangster Johni (Alex Abbad) when he decides to protect dancer Astri (Sisca Jessica) from his bullying ways - and that just after Astri's brother Adit (Yusuf Aulia) has stolen his wallet. At first, Astri isn't too happy with Yuda's kind of help, seeing as it closes up the only source of income she and her brother have.

That's just the beginning of Astri's bad day, though, for Johni isn't just your normal shady type, but in fact selling off some of his dancers to the insane couple of white slave traders Ratger (Mads Koudal) and Luc (Laurent Buson), and of course Astri is supposed to become part of the "merchandise". Fortunately, Yuda is again at the right place to save the girl from trouble, even if it means first getting beat up by Johni's henchmen to then start in with a furious comeback. Unfortunately, Ratger does not approve of getting hurt in the ensuing fight and begins to pursue Astri and Yuda with a passion, violence, and hordes of mooks.

By now, we all know about the horrible films that can result when venerable Asian directors are exported to the west. Merantau is something of a bright mirror image of that sickening trend, and shows the great things that can happen when a young Welsh director goes to Indonesia to make a martial arts film. Even better, the positive buzz coming from everyone who counts (so not Roger Ebert, who couldn't even be bothered to get the film's not exactly complicated plot right, it seems) for director Gareth Evans's next Indonesian movie The Raid: Redemption (again starring Iko Uwais) suggests the success of Merantau to be far more than a happy accident.

Unlike what one might fear, Merantau isn't the slightest bit touristy. Evans neither wallows in pretty postcard pictures (unless when it makes sense) nor in the look into the gutter aesthetic (again, unless when it makes sense). The director doesn't present his characters as "exotic" Indonesians, instead showing them as people whose culture might be different from the one the director grew up in, yet who are individuals and not symbols for an interpretation of that culture.

At its core Merantau is telling a very traditional martial arts movie story about a country guy going to the big city and doing good there with the powers of his pure heart and his martial arts skills, but there are a few elements that deviate from the usual formula, if mostly in small ways. There is, for one, Evans's complete avoidance of the horrible "country bumpkin in the city" humour that all too often doesn't let a film's hero look naive and a bit simple as it's probably supposed to, but instead makes a viewer doubt his intellectual abilities completely; there's a difference between being too stupid to live and lacking experience in city life the writers of that type of humour never seem to comprehend.

Evans's film shows other positive deviations too, but those are of a kind I found a bit too surprising to want to spoil now, so I'll just say that I did not expect two central plot points of the film to become quite as dark as they do in the end. It's also very praiseworthy how the film's actual dark moments surprise, yet still feel like organic parts of the movies and not like Evans shouting "look how grim and gritty this is".

Merantau also differs from many (though by far not all) martial arts movies by putting actual effort into the non-action scenes, going out of its way to leave room for quiet moments that not so much provide depth to the characters as they provide them with humanity. That does of course make the action all the more impressive because the audience cares more about the characters in those scenes. We're not talking "naturalistic psychology" here, of course, but I don't think that sort of thing could actually work in the context of a martial arts movie. Especially not in one that has the scenery-chewing Mads Koudal (and the less exalted Laurent Buson whose characters share the sort of male friendship with sado-masochistic undertones John Woo would approve of) as its big bad; including quiet moments does after all not mean a film has to eschew the larger than life when that's more interesting.

Once it gets going - Evans clearly believes in a careful build-up - the film's action (and here you thought I'd never actually talk about it) is quite fantastic, looking to my eyes like a mix of the brutal type of stunt work found in Thai cinema of the first decade of the century and more traditionally elegant fights. "Elegant", even in the truly brutal later fights, is also a fine way to describe the film's approach to fight choreography, as well as Iko Uwais performance. Even when blood is (mildly) spattering and bones are broken, Uwais seems so poised the old, and true, connection between martial arts cinema and ballet comes to mind again, especially after the film has brought the connection up directly early on in the proceedings.

As for weaknesses, from time to time it becomes visible that Evans must have worked on something of a shoe-string budget that didn't allow the fights to take place in surroundings as impressive as their choreography would deserve, so the action occurs in the rather traditional bars, back streets and around a bunch of cargo containers, but at least it's not a series of warehouses (or rather, one warehouse standing in for a series of warehouses). Truth be told, for most of the time, it's too riveting watching Uwais to care about the background too much anyhow.

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