Life

`MERANTAU' revives Indonesia's
martial arts in film

(Courtesy of PT Merantau Film)
(Courtesy of PT Merantau Film)

Years ago, Indonesia's martial arts movies like Si Pitung (the Robin Hood of Betawi) or Si Buta dari Gua Hantu (the Blind Man from the Ghost Cave) were the must-see movies for all movie goers, depicting the power and beauty of the moves of pencak silat (traditional Indonesian martial art).

The two action heroes were the idols of many people, from youngsters to adults, similar to Superman and Spiderman.

The success of the movies was followed by colossal films, like Tutur Tinular or Babad Tanah Leluhur, and dozens of modern action movies that starred the martial arts actor Barry Prima.

But the great phenomenon of these kinds of films, especially those portraying pencak silat, has been dormant for the last two decades.

Indonesian producer Ario Sagantoro from PT Merantau Films and British director Gareth Huw Evans, are trying to bring back the glory days of pencak silat through a movie called Merantau, which is believed to be the first to ever feature a serious treatment of pencak silat.

Making his acting debut, Iko Uwais stars as Yuda, a young man from rural West Sumatra, who is about to begin his merantau.

Merantau is a traditional rite in which young men leave their home towns to a big city in a bid to experience new things and then return home to enrich the local community with their new skills and perspective. Today, the tradition is still very much in practice.

Yuda leaves his mother and old brother Yayan in the village, making his way to Jakarta in the hope of becoming a pencak silat master.

He is full of hope, energy and optimism, but soon after his arrival he learns how cold and harsh the big city can be.

It all starts when the house he had planned to stay in is torn down. As he has no place to go, Yuda uses big pipes in a local construction site as his temporary shelter - a bad start to his journey. Things get worse when he is robbed by a young boy, leading him into a conflict with a bar owner cum pimp, Johny (played by former MTV video jockey Alex Abbad), who beats and extorts money from one of his dancers, Astri (played by newcomer Sisca Jessica).

Yuda's intervention later leads him into a series of bloody fights, dragging him into more serious problems.

Merantau begins with quite a slow plot, portraying the traditions and cultures of West Sumatra's rural community.

If not for the opening demonstration of Yuda's martial arts skills, called silat harimau (tiger-inspired martial arts practiced in West Sumatra), the audience could easily confuse the film with a local drama. However, the tension starts to run high after Yuda's arrival in Jakarta, which contrasts the condition of living in big city with his home life. In the final hour of the movie, you will be taken through non-stop and high-tension fighting pieces.

Unlike common action movies, there are no romantic scenes in the movie. Rather than telling a romance story, the film exposes more of a spirit of brotherhood, between Yuda and Yayan, Astri and her brother Adit and the villains, Ratger and Lars.

Gareth hopes the movie will regain the popularity of pencak silat, saying that he was first stunned by the exoticism of pencak silat after watching a martial arts exhibition in London in 2004.

"I've been fascinated with martial arts since I was a child. Pencak silat has its own unique characters, compared with other well-known martial arts such as the karate from Japan and kung fu from China," he said.

In 2007, he worked with senior actress, Christine Hakim, to produce a documentary titled Land of the Moving Shadows: Pencak Silat, which captures pencak silat around West Sumatra and West Java.

The master of silat harimau, Edwel Yusri Datuk Rajo Gampo Alam, was appointed to choreograph some of the fight scenes.

Edwel previously worked on the choreography for the 1991 film Sengsara Membawa Nikmat (Misery Brings Comfort), an adaptation of a novel written by West Sumatran writer Tulis Sutan Sati.

The movie is also aimed at encouraging young Indonesian people to love their own national heritage.

"I hope the film can change the ongoing perception that learning pencak silat is less trendy than learning other martial arts," said Christine, who appears in Merantau as Yuda's mother.

Besides regaining the glory of pencak silat, the movie is expected to be able to propel Iko to the status of a new action hero icon, just like Barry Prima.

Iko was chosen to play in the movie due to his formidable pencak silat skills. He has been learning pencak silat Betawi for years and was the champion in the 2005 National Jamboree in Jakarta.

Merantau itself has earned applause internationally even before it has been released in the country. Trailers of the film were played at the Cannes Film Festival in May, while the full cut of the movie was screened at the closing of the recent 13th Puchon International Fantastic Film Festival.

With the release of the movie, scheduled to hit the big screen on August 6, it seems like Indonesia is back in the action movie business.

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