Merantau (2009) was the first collaboration in Indonesia between director and screenwriter Gareth Evans and action/martial arts expert Iko Uwais. This film follows a rite of passage theme. The word refers to a kind of spiritual journey to be taken by a young man as he seeks to become an adult. The underlying notion is that the relationship you form with nature teaches basic moral values. So the story migrates from an idyllic pastoral opening with a calm and loving family life to Jakarta where an entirely different culture dominates. The film-maker’s intention is to show deep roots in the local community and the problems of displacement. The danger in leaving home is that, when you return, you have become a different person who no longer feels comfortable in the original setting. So the theme is about identity and the balance between who you were when young and who you choose to become as an adult. Assuming there’s some degree of control of the process, the intention should always be to preserve what was good and to add only good new elements. Except, of course, what is good in one place is not necessarily a virtue in another. Experience is culturally specific as everyone adapts to their immediate environment and decides whether to conform to local conditions. Socially, the desire to fit in may lead to compromises in previously held values.
His arrival in Jakarta is not auspicious. The address and telephone number he’s been given no longer offer hope of a welcome. He spends his first night roughing it in a construction site. The next day Adit (Yusuf Aulia), a young thief, tries to steal his wallet and he saves Astri (Sisca Jessica), the boy’s older sister, from a beating by a club owner and pimp. This Johni (Alex Abbad) has a contract to deliver five girls to two more powerful Western businessmen who are organising a trafficking operation. When Johni only has four virgins to make up the final number ordered, this gives him a problem so he sends out his men to find Astri. Of course, our hero is accidentally in the right place at the right time and we see him initially fail to rescue her. It’s a good try at odds of four-to-one, but he loses. Being kicked on the ground does not make him feel better, but it does trigger a new determination. Left outside on his own, he makes a decision about who he wants to be. He may not know the girl but he feels obligated to help her. Naturally this establishes the basis for the rest of the film as a chase with a fairly continuous fight sequence as the outraged gang tries to get the girl back and take revenge on this troublesome youngster.
Some of the fighting is terrific. The form of martial arts involved is silat which is very popular in the ASEAN region and, as seen in this film, appears very effective. In saying this, I’m making allowances for the necessary dramatisation of the fights for cinema purposes. I’ve seen it in television highlights on reports from local and regional competitions and what we see here is similar. We do, of course have the usual problem that sometimes people who are hit bounce back and keep fighting but, on key occasions, everyone lies down as soon as they are hit so that the fight can develop sequentially and then come down to the climatic fights with fellow experts. The fight in the lift with Yayan Ruhian and at the end with the two Western brothers are impressive. The co-ordination between the two brothers in their attacking style is particularly interesting (it features Mads Koudal and Laurent Buson).
Overall, we have a coherent story of an innocent young man who gets sucked into a running battle and chooses to stay in the fight. No-one knows him. If he went back to his village, he would be safe. But as he strives to become an adult, he has the determination to keep fighting. The tenuous relationship he forms with the girl and her brother is simple and emotionally direct. He helps and they accept his help because they have no choice. The ending is rather mawkish and melodramatic but, in the final scenes we come back to the strength that can flow from the sense of belonging to a community. This leads me to conclude this is a good but not outstanding film. It has some impressive fight sequences and the script is more than adequate.
The slight problem lies in the youthful inexperience of Iko Uwais as the hero. Somehow he never comes across as having the “killer” instinct that would be necessary to survive. You can’t fight this number of different assailants if you think they are going to get up after being hit and keep fighting. You have to be prepared to main if not kill. Throughout he just feels too nice. Worse, when he has a moment to reflect on progress to date, he never once expresses remorse for the injuries he’s caused. Because of the opening sequence, he should be conflicted when forced to injure fellow human beings, even in self-defence. Indeed, I find the performance slightly monotonous. It contrasts quite strongly with the acting in The Raid: Redemption or Serbuan maut (2011) where, as a seasoned SWAT officer, our hero has no compunction about disabling or killing anyone who gets in his way. The relationship between the actor and his screen wife and brother make a stark contrast to the man as an officer defending himself which comes over well. In Merantau, Iko Uwais shows immense martial arts skills but is somewhat wooden as an actor.
For a review of another film by Gareth Evans and Iko Uwais, see The Raid: Redemption or Serbuan maut (2011).