Merantau tells the same story from Ong Bak and countless films before it. In it, a young man from a poor town goes to the big city in order to better himself, hoping to return to the village in order to share the wealth. Said young man is incredibly skilled in martial arts (though told to restrain himself!) and of course soon runs into a girl/kid/town in trouble, and butts heads (usually quite literally) with the gang members/foreigners oppressing the people. After a minute or two’s consideration over whether to unleash his inner beast our hero puts dozens of minor baddies in the hospital before facing the bad bad man who’s responsible for the whole mess, in a pitched battle where it seems at one point that evil might triumph. But our hero finds strength within himself to finish his foe, and presumably heads off to deflower his woman/adopt the kid/live in the new town, loved by all.
Here young Yuda (Iko Uwais) is on his merantau, which is much like Rumspringa for the Amish, (or a Quarian’s Pilgrimage), where young people are sent out to experience the world and hopefully bring something back to their strange, backwards culture. Yuda wants to teach martial arts in the big city and but all his plans fall apart and he spends his first night homeless.
But Yuda almost immediately runs into a girl in trouble, a prostitute getting beaten by her pimp. He intervenes and basically ruins this poor girl’s life even more, because now she’s on the run from her pimp and the rest of his gang. The pimp’s a bad man- he’s actually looking for nubile Indonesian women to sell to a sleazy European for his own nefarious purposes. Long story short, the pimp manages to capture Yuda’s love interest, forcing Yuda to hunt down the leader of the drug trafficking ring, who of course knows martial arts.
Merantau isn’t perfect. The villain is a white devil, evil for evil’s sake, always yelling about something. He exists solely to make the viewer want to see him brutally beaten down and in that respects the film delivers. But the film makes the unfortunate mistake that countless other recent kung fu flicks have made (Chocolate, Clash, etc.) in that it focuses far too much on cliched, melodramatic scenes, relationship nonsense that doesn’t matter to a viewership that simply wants to be entertained by ridiculous stunts and impressive feats of human strength. A running time of nearly two hours makes for quite a bit of filler, and a film that could’ve done with a good 20-30 minutes cut out of it to hurry things along.

But holy hell does the action deliver. The Indonesian martial art of Silat is pretty much brand new to the world of film, and this is actually the first Indonesian martial arts flick in 15 years. It makes for a refreshing and exciting style, one that seems to combine elements from many other disciplines with a whole lot that’s just its own. Thankfully Yuda gets into a lot of fights in the film, all very different with some fantastic choreography. One memorable battle takes place entirely in a freight elevator, a brutal display of close-up combat, and the last battle in particular is pretty stunning as Yuda fights not one, but two pieces of Eurotrash at once, with some amazing displays of fighting from both sides.

Now that Tony Jaa has squashed his chance to become the next Great Yellow Hope, the world is still looking for a man to call the new reigning kung fu champ. Could Iko Uwais be that man? He’s certainly got the skills (just check out the below trailer for a sample) but sadly he isn’t too memorable, lacking the charisma that Jaa demonstrated in his few films. Of course, he’s saddled with a stereotypical role that doesn’t exactly give him a lot to work with. It will be interesting to see what will come of this film, and whether this will bring about more Silat films to enjoy in the future.

7 out of 10

Merantau is playing this Thursday, July 8th at the New York Asian Film Festival. Check Merantau Film’s Vimeo site for some awesome behind the scenes videos that demonstrates some of the skills and stunts on display.