Action Fest 2010: MERANTAU Review

Associate Editor, News; Toronto, Canada (@Mack_SAnarchy)
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Action Fest 2010: MERANTAU Review
[Mack's review of Merantau originally ran with the film's premiere at Fantastic Fest and with the film now screening at Action Fest we present it to you again.]

Merantau is the next great martial arts film to come out and is the best one this decade. That's really all I want to write about it. I think it is that good. Let me expound on that some though.

Yuda lives a simple life in his village of Minangkabau with his mom and his brother. But the time has come for a rite of passage, called Merantau, [hey that's the title!] means a lot to not only him and his family but his whole village. Yuda sets out, his dream is to open a Silat school. But when Yuda arrives in Jakarta the home at the address he has been given has been demolished and he has nowhere to live. Unwilling to admit failure so quickly in his journey he spends the nights on a construction site and the days walking through the city looking to settle down somewhere. Then one day Yuda thinks he saves Astri and her brother Adit from Johni, a low life thug she owes money to from her earnings dancing in clubs. Little does he know he is about to enter a much darker world with deeper secrets than just extortion.

Because Merantau is a film that takes its first moments to explore its character Yuda and draw you into his life, because of the time spent to establish character and endear us to him and his family we're there, willingly, ready to cheer him on. Other than previous powerhouse martial arts films to emerge from Asia of the past couple years Merantau takes its time to explore its central hero, to familiarize us with this stage in his life. We are allowed the time to become emotionally invested in his journey.

That's the first 30 minutes. The rest of the hour and fifteen minutes is some of the best fighting and action set pieces you will ever see.

Gareth Evans never loses control of his camera and never makes the mistake of getting too close to his subjects. He believes that the only way that action is to speak on the screen is through the motions of his subjects, not the motions of the camera. And perhaps a lot of that also has to do with his background in photography and uses that skill set when filming. I have always been a firm and ardent believer in allowing your actors to dictate the action in the film and Evans allows his cast to do that. For that I am very happy for both Evans and his cast.

And they do it well enough that you would never guess that this is a group of actors and stuntmen that have only until now been doing wire-fu and fantasy martial arts projects. The learning curve was short for this crew but they deliver one hell of a punch for all their hard work. I'm sure as they work harder at it that issues like timing and flow will improve greatly. For most of the film Evans keeps a taunt leash on his cameras but does allow for some really nice trick shots. And because they are small in number perhaps that is why they stand out all the more instead of becoming the filter through which you try to make out the action. This is even more important than ever because this is the first time that the Indonesian martial art Silat has ever been shown on screen. It is important for us to be able to see this art fought out on screen.
Though perhaps risky of Evans to take a unknown quantity in newcomer Iko Uwais he proves that he is equal to the task and not only delivers tip top action but also enough dramatic chutzpah to keep us interested in his life and his choices. He has great presence on the screen and nothing feels awkward about his acting skills. Iko Uwais is the real deal! He can act. He can kick ass. He looks good on the screen. He has a lot going for him that a lot of martial arts actors haven't been able to either attain or find the right balance of.
Evans supports Uwais with a good supporting cast. Mads Koudal and Laurent Buson are equally menacing human traffickers, Buson an established martial artist in his own right. Sisca Jessica as Astri is as cute as a bug's ear and is the reason why Yuda gets caught up in this trafficking ring in the first place. She looks after her little brother Adit [Yusuf Aulia] and has Johni [Alex Abbad] hot on her heels for money owed him. Another notable character is Eric [Yayan Ruhian], a Silat fighter like Yuda, but has been through life's troubles and trials and knows more about life in Jakarta. Eric has already made those hard choices in Jakarta that Yuda isn't ready to make - sold his soul to the devils, if you may. Eric is at a place where Yuda doesn't want to be.

Thus this journey called Merantay begins for our hero Yuda. Where does it end? Well, you're just going to have to find out for yourself won't you. 
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anton_esSeptember 28, 2009 10:47 AM

thx for the review....I guess this is the international cut, do you know the differences to the original thai cut that was featured here not long ago ?
so the total running time was 1:45 I assume ?
Also, it's actually a bad move for other markets, I know many martial art fans that will wait for the original to appear on video since they are sick of truncated, english-friendly releases (even if done right, there has just been too much bad things happening to movies getting different cuts, music or even a total different story)

Todd BrownSeptember 28, 2009 11:39 AM

The long version is the Indonesian cut, not Thai, and yes - this review is based on the International. The short answer is that in this version Yuda gets to Jakarta a lot faster, there is less time spent on his mother and brother, and once there the focus remains more tightly on him, with some scene with Adit and Astri removed. The Indonesian cut treats the story slightly more as an ensemble piece, the International makes the story purely about Yuda.

deacon_spiresSeptember 30, 2009 1:18 AM

Sounds great and the trailer was fantastic.. Any idea when we'll get a chance to see this one?

bobafettOctober 4, 2009 9:23 PM

I was able to see the International cut at Fantastic Fest last week. I thought that it was a great film for all of the reasons mentioned in the review. Of all the films that I saw at Fantastic Fest (39 total), this film is in my top 5. I can't wait to watch Merantau again! I am definitely going to be spreading the word to my friends back home here in Milwaukee. I am interested in seeing the Indonesian cut at some point.

xinoApril 17, 2010 8:37 PM

can somebody enlighten me. what is all these fest stuff?
i don't know what it/they are and I've been seeing it a long time.

AlephApril 18, 2010 3:58 AM

The movie is pretty good, too bad that most people here in Asia can't look past the superficial similarities it has with Ong Bak (which I don't see much to begin with).

renaeApril 18, 2010 3:27 PM

It's a mystery to me, but I felt like the movie was lacking many of the things you mentioned. I thought the film missed an engaging story and believable characters you can identify with and feel sympathy for. I also thought the plot just wasn't that original (chivalrous boy rescues pretty girl from foreign bad guy) and Mads Koudal's (the foreign bad guy) acting seemed very poor.

Uwais can kick ass, but he was lacking charisma to me and I thought the movie just made him look like a chivalrous guy who will automatically do the right thing and save the girl - because, you know - that's the right and chivalrous thing to do.

So I thought it was a bad movie, lacking both in originality and credibility. I don't understand how we can feel so different. I think I've also seen the international version. Maybe my expectations were too high (I was VERY eager to see this, as it's about silat) or I wasn't looking at it the right way. Once the original uncut version is available to me, I'll go see it again and see if I feel differently.

MikeOutWestApril 19, 2010 2:28 AM

The film is being released in the UK under the title Merantau Warrior, by MVM on June 7th.

I whole-heartedly agree with the review, it is one of the best martial arts movies to come out in a while, probably on a par with The Rebel. The plot may not be original but it has enough new creases to keep it interesting. The camera-work is excellent - bad guys get a great framed shot for their introduction and during the climactic battle it flows as Yuda battles his way from opponent to opponent.

The highlight for me was the confrontation between Yuda and Eric, which was reminiscent of the "opponents showing respect for each other" that John Woo does so well.

kujoo1June 6, 2010 5:35 PM

This film is impressive. The comparison's to Ong Bak are somewhat unfair, that being said, I think It's better than Ong Bak in every category (you could make the argument that the fight scenes in Ong Bak were better, though I'm not sure I would agree). The film actually takes time to develop character, and plot (though not original, it's handled well). The acting is surprisingly good.

Like you said, Uwais has a great screen presence. Unlike Tony Jaa, he can act, on top of being a great martial artist.

I look forward to seeing more of Uwais, and silat on screen. Silat reminds of kind of modified version of Muay Thai.

zomboyFebruary 28, 2012 2:16 PM

I like your page and get good info on movies. I just got 'Merantau' in the mail as a prelude to watching 'The Raid'. As a professional movie site, you should employ more stringent editing. Noticed "Merantau" spelled "Merantay". Other than that, keep up the good work. Live and be well, zomboy out

Tom StoneFebruary 28, 2012 3:18 PM

I agree about the editing. Writers need to re-read their posts a few times before publishing.