“Merantau,” where the film gets its name, is a kind of vision quest or walkabout for practitioners of silat, an Indonesian martial art. Indonesia used to export a bunch of B action and martial arts movies until about fifteen years ago when they just plain stopped. This is pretty much the first one since then. As the story goes, a Welsh director, Gareth Evans, was in Indonesia making a documentary about silat when he thought “Hey, this looks pretty bad ass, I should make a proper martial arts movie with this.” He found the star of Merantau, Iko Uwais, driving a truck for a telecom company.
The plot is bog standard – Yuda (Uwais) leaves his country home on his merantau, goes to the big city, falls on hard times (as in real life, apparently, being a super ninja doesn’t pay the bills) and immediately comes across a girl and her scrappy little brother who are in trouble. A slick gangster is looking to force her into a life of sex slavery with some ruthless white international crime bosses (of uncertain provenance – Dutch? South African?) . Only ass kicking can save the day. So far, this sounds like “Ong-Bak: The Indonesian Version,” right? Interestingly, however, the movie is well done – the story is about 50% more coherent and the acting about 100% better than Ong-Bak and similar B movies. There are some great scenes between Yuda and his family, especially his mother, played by Christine Hakim. We were told afterwards that the version of the movie we were screening had 45 minutes of “family drama” cut from it to get to the action more quickly – from what I can see of the actors’ work, that is a shame. All the characters are interesting and have some depth to them, even the villains – I particularly liked Alex Abbad’s “Jonhi” as the Indonesian pimp/thug trying hard to impress his bosses in a no-win situation; it was played for comedy but with a very light hand.
The martial arts action is good and seeing a new martial art is always interesting. Silat is a very sinuous and close-in style, mixing hard strikes with joint locks and throws. There are a couple entertainingly brutal takedowns – the crowd favorite was one where Yuda is fleeing thugs across a series of rooftops; he jumps from one roof to another and stops to grab a bamboo pole – when the first mook leaps after him, he gets speared right in the chest in midair and then falls three stories.
The action setpieces, decently though not spectacularly choreographed, aren’t as over the top and interesting as Ong-Bak or some kung fu movies, but with the interesting characters and genuinely emotive acting, I thought Merantau transcended being a generic martial arts movie from Undiscovered Country Of The Month and was a truly enjoyable film overall. I could tell the crowd at the screening felt the same way; there was a general feeling of (very pleasant) surprise at having expected an unpolished martial arts movie but getting a film with depth and character instead.