Why doesn’t Indonesia produce more martial arts films? I’m sure that someone with more knowledge of Indonesia’s film industry and cultural history than I have can answer that question, but as a simple fan of Merantau, I cannot. I’ve seen most of the well-regarded recent Thai martial arts films, and my share (although by no means a deep survey) of contemporary Hong Kong action films but I’ve never seen a film quite like Merantau.

On the surface, the story might look a lot like Ong-Bak. Yuda is a young man who has finished his training in Silat and has to leave home to experience the world for himself so that he can return to his village and family with lessons learned and knowledge and perspective to share. That task is his Merantau, and it’s something that his older brother has already gone through.  We hear that his brother’s return home wasn’t a warm one, but most of that back story was apparently removed from the international version of the film. As Yuda leaves for Jakarta, we are keenly aware of the love he has for his family, and of the pride they have in him as he sets out. He isn’t sent out in the world to make trouble, right wrongs, or do anything more than grow as a human being and then come back to be with his family once again.

The film’s slow and familial first 30 minutes might bore people looking for wall to wall fighting, but they are essential to setting up the film as a real real story–something more than just a string of fights and stunts. Yuda’s relationship with his family is important because when he gets to Jakarta, he runs across a young boy and the boy’s older sister who have been orphaned and who are struggling to get by on the sister’s nightclub dancing tips. Enter the Dragon is one of my favorite movies, but it’s not because I feel a real emotional connection between Bruce Lee and his slain elder sister. With Merantau, the relationships give weight to the story and they ultimately give the film value beyond its spectacular fight scenes.

And about those fights–they are indeed spectacular. I’ve never seen Silat in action, but it’s a quick and brutal form of martial arts that seems to place particular emphasis on snapping limbs backwards at their joints. Yuda immobilizes most of his opponents with flurries of quick punches to the body and swift downward kicks to the shins. He scales walls and shipping containers, he takes out thugs with segments of plumbing pipe, and he has a knack for knocking people backwards into hard objects like the edges of tables. Newcomer Iko Uwais is a slight young man, but once he gets moving, you will have no doubt that he can kick serious ass. The fight choreography is fantastic and the film is shot with a lot of wide angles so that it’s easy to appreciate the action as Yuda takes on four or five attackers at once. The music is also fantastic, combining the usually-generic techno of modern Thai films with better production and a flair of ethnic instrumentation that flows perfectly with the film’s visuals.

The Actionfest program guide mentioned that Merantau is a rare action film with heart, and I couldn’t agree more. If you took out all of the fighting and replaced it with character drama, the core of the story would still work. Likewise, if you cut out all of the family stuff and left only the amazing action sequences, you’d have a wonderfully fun hour of chasing and fighting. But Merantau does something pretty special by combining the action and the story perfectly, weighting them equally, and paying as much attention to the reality of men getting thrown through windows as it does to the moments where a proud mother wishes the best for her kids. 

I was delighted to see that Merantau took home Actionfest‘s best picture award.  The festival had lots of great action and lots of great films but Merantau was perhaps the best true action film and I hope that it gets a statewide release sometime soon.

Also from Actionfest:
Valhalla Rising