[In honor of the North American premiere of Indonesian martial arts film Merantau I'm pulling forward my review of the film from its world premiere at PiFan. The version screened at Fantastic Fest is significantly different from that screened in Korea, this being the first ever screening of the shorter International Cut of the film, so some comments may not apply.]
The official closing slot of PiFan 2009 belonged to Merantau, Indonesia's first martial arts film in roughly fifteen years and quite possibly the first to ever feature a serious treatment of local martial art silat. Finished just days before the festival began, the screening featured the full Indonesian cut of the film - all two hours and thirteen minutes of it - in what will very likely be the only screening of this particular cut of the film ever to occur outside of Indonesia's borders.
Making his screen debut, Iko Uwais stars as Yuda - a young man from rural Sumatra about to begin his merantau, a traditional rite of passage still very much in practice today in which young men are sent off to find their way alone in the big city, to experience new things and learn in a new environment and then - eventually - return home to enrich the local community with their new skills and perspective. The young man is full of hope and optimism but on his arrival he quickly learns how cold and harsh the city can be. The house he had arranged to stay in has been torn down, his prospective landlords having disappeared - presumably with whatever money he had paid them for rent. Totally alone, knowing nobody in the city and afraid to ask for help from home for fear of shaming his family, Yuda has no choice but to squat in a local construction site - a bad start to his journey. And things get worse. The next morning he is robbed by a young boy, the subsequent chase of whom leads him directly into a conflict with a local go-go bar owner beating and extorting money from one of his dancers. This is Yuda's introduction to Jakarta's seedy underworld, and his intervention will lead him on a path of ever-escalating violence.
Beautifully shot, Merantau begins with a very slow, measured pace. If not for the opening demonstration of Yuda's silat skills and later sparring match with his master the film could easily be confused with a domestic drama in the early going. Getting the family and cultural dynamics right is clearly important to Evans and crew, the film spending a significant amount of time in Sumatra before Yuda arrives in Jakarta - the energy and omnipresent concrete of the big city standing in stark contrast to his much more simple home life.
The film may ask for a bit of patience from its audience in the opening act but once the action arrives it comes fast and hard. The first hour teases with just the aforementioned demonstration sequences, a chase scene and Yuda's first encounter with local gangster Johni and then delivers up the full meal in the back half of the picture, the final hour and ten minutes rushing virtually non-stop between high energy, fight intensive set pieces. The fighting is very diverse with every sequence designed to showcase a different aspect of Yuda's skills, neatly balancing technical fighting with a touch of improvisational Jackie Chan style stunt work and raw ass kickery. Silat - at least the variant of silat employed here - is an unusual combination of hard and soft martial arts styles - the hands re-directing while the elbows and knees strike - and Evans shoots his fights with wide, long shots designed to both showcase the fighting style itself and the obvious skills of his star.
Which leads us to Iko Uwais as Yuda. A first time actor who has trained in silat for over fifteen years, Uwais' fight skills have never really been in doubt, not since producers released a behind the scenes training video that showed his preparations for the film. The question was could he act. And the answer is a very resounding yes. Blessed with natural charisma and screen presence along with a script that plays to his natural strengths, Uwais is clearly a major star in the making - a fact borne out by the swarm of instant fans who came to him for autographs and photos not just after the film but for the remainder of the night. Thanks to some obvious physical similarities Uwais will likely field comparisons to Ong Bak's Tony Jaa for the rest of his career but Uwais has a comfort with himself on camera and an ease to his delivery that Jaa has never had.
Boasting very strong technical values, a deceptively simple story that packs an emotional punch, and universally strong performances from a cast blending experienced actors with those making their screen debuts Merantau serves very loud notice that Indonesia is back in the action game, riding on the back of their first legitimate martial arts star since Barry Prima. This particular version of the film undoubtedly runs longer than what international audiences are used to, with a heavier emphasis on domestic drama in the early going, but with a shorter international cut currently in the works - at the time of this writing it looks as though that version will come in at one hour and forty six minutes - that issue should soon be disappearing.