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Fantastic Fest Review: Merantau

By  · Published on October 3rd, 2009

In Indonesian culture, a merantau is a rite of passage, the journey that every young man must experience before he can be considered a man. Think of it as an Indonesian Bar Mitzvah. And you can think of the film Merantau as an Indonesian Bar Mitzvah with loads of impressive ass kicking and a fantastic story that engages every second its on screen.

Yuda (Iko Uwais) is a skilled Silat fighter who is heading from his family farm to the big city to try to make his way in the tradition of merantau. Instead of getting a job there, he saves a young girl named Astri (Sisca Jessica) from ruthless thugs and becomes her guardian as a pair of mob bosses attempt to kidnap her to sell her into sex slavery.

It’s movies like these that put me in an awkward position. As some of you may realize, my very first review here on FSR was for Ong Bak and I gave it an “A.” After all, it deserves it. It’s a fantastic movie that’s fun and displays some incredible martial arts. But considering that Merantau is much, much better than Ong Bak, I find myself searching for a grade above “A.”

That may seem like a bold claim, but it’s obvious to anyone who’s seen both films. Merantau is a brilliant display of a complex martial art where the fighting is organic to the characters and the camera picks it up exactly how it needs to be. There are no repeated shots here for effect – just good old-fashioned cinematography that keeps a keen focus on the two (or the thirty) fighters that are going at each other. It adds to the scene while allowing the fight to naturally show off its intensity without the aid of fancy edits or camera tricks.

Beyond that, the story is actually meaningful, the characters are rounded and I ended up feeling for each and every one of them – even the villains. Here is a simple story that’s been told many, many times before but Merantau does it with fantastic adeptness that stems from the writing skill of writer/director Gareth Evans. He’s managed to do the impossible by making an action film with depth. The key, it seems, is writing tight scenes of emotion and dialog that aren’t just cliches. That way, we get a connection to the characters, but we don’t have to feel like we have to eat our dramatic vegetables before getting to the ass kicking dessert.

The other key is offering up a ton of ass kicking dessert. Unlike some martial arts films, Merantau delivers fight after glorious fight. It doesn’t make promises with a huge opening fight scene only to roll out an hour of exposition and gloominess before a climactic battle. No, friends. It promises an unnatural amount of fighting and then drops it right into your lap. Case in point: where some Save the Girl movies would see the young lady kidnapped while the hero broods for several scenes about how he’s going to infiltrate the old mill/discotheque/palatial estate where the baddies hang out, when the girl gets kidnapped in Merantau, the next scene is Yuda busting down a door and beating the bloody life out of the henchmen. Why waste time planning when we all know you’re going to end up fighting a bunch of disposables anyway? Merantau takes that question to heart, and then answers it with a boot to the face.

Sure, there are a ton of lame fighters who fall down easily at the fate of Yuda’s fists, but there are also plenty of fights where he’s evenly matched. The best example is the final fight scene where both mob bosses happen to the best fighters in the gang. The scene is complex, lasts a satisfyingly long time, and they all end up bloodied by the end. Even more refreshing is the fight choreography which sees the opponents learning from each other. They all evolve during the fight, finding and attacking weaknesses and then fortifying their own weaknesses against the attacker. Hands down, that final fight scene is one of the best I’ve seen in a fairly healthy history of watching people beat the living soul out of one another.

But you can get some great fight scenes out of a lot of movies, right? That’s what the genre is there for. The difference here is that I actually cared about the characters, and that only served to enhance the fights. I was rooting for a definite winner not because he was “the hero,” but because he’d earned my respect and had truly connected with the people around him that he was trying to save. It also helps when the villains and the hero have a personal connection, a rapport and a mutual respect for the skills of the fellow fighter. Instead of a cookie-cutter mob boss chomping down on a cigar, Ratger (Mads Koudal) and Luc (Laurent Buson) seem more likely to offer Yuda a job after punching his jaw into pulp than to shout at two poorly trained goons to toss him in a river somewhere. That sort of thing shines out. The fights become more brutal and more fun at the same time.

Speaking of brutal, there’s a scene in the film that stuck out in my mind as far more amazing stunt-wise than any single fight in Ong Bak. I wouldn’t want to spoil it, but it teaches a valuable lesson about leaping off a building at your attacker, and will probably go down in history as The Pole Scene.

And after picking my jaw off of what seemed like an unsanitary floor, just a half hour or so later I found myself misty-eyed. That’s the combination this film works with – mind-exploding action sequences coupled with genuine emotional impact. Yuda’s relationship with his mother is created simply and, like Yuda’s relationship with damsel in distress Astri, is built with phenomenal understatement. Winning the battle becomes more fulfilling, and the ending of the movie is one of the most cathartic and challenging that I’ve seen in a marital arts flick.

Over all, Merantau doesn’t hold back on the expert display of Silat or the emotional value of characters. It builds lasting connections between everyone on screen without outstaying its welcome when the kicks start to fly.

The Upside: Brilliant fighting sequences, tight writing, great characters, strong acting, a moment that should become iconic, and a final fight scene that pays off massive dividends.

The Downside: I’m having to rethink my Ong Bak score.

On the Side: Mads Koudal, who plays the main bad guy, looks like he’s been in martial arts training for about, oh, all his life, but he’s actually never fought before this movie.

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