The Jakarta Post
The original poster of 'Wiro Sableng.' (Lifelike Pictures/File)
My heart pounded and my soul cried through tears of joy when I saw the 20th Century Fox logo at the beginning of the latest Wiro Sableng movie.
The feeling reminded me of watching Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid ( 1969 ) on Betamax video as a child and Die Hard ( 1988 ) in the movie theater after queuing for a ticket as a teen.
The memories are directly related to an Indonesian film for the first time; the typical sounds of snare drums and trumpets open a silat (traditional Indonesian martial arts) movie.
Fox International Productions, a division of 20th Century Fox, was involved in the production of Wiro Sableng. The budget of this film does not equal those of Hollywood blockbusters, which can cost hundreds of millions of dollars to produce.
Sheila “Lala” Timothy, the producer, mentioned about US$2 million (Rp29 billion) for Wiro Sableng. Exceeding the average Indonesian film production cost today, this budget gave the filmmakers greater leeway to live out their creativity.
But I am not going to discuss the film’s business aspects. I just want to affirm that the increased budget enhances the production standards, which is quite evident on the screen.
Wiro Sableng displays luxury special effects against the benchmark of Indonesian fantasy pictures, which appear one after another throughout the story. Its sound is indeed magnificent, even too lavish at times. There are fantastically designed settings with surreal touches.
Sherina Munaf as Anggini in 'Wiro Sableng' (instagram.com/wirosablengofficial/File)
From the very beginning, the viewers find themselves fully immersed in a fantasy landscape. When the screen opens with a giant red moon, there emerges a silhouette of Mahesa Birawa (Yayan Ruhian) and his gang of villains, coming to destroy the village, where a couple of warriors live, the parents of Wira.
Then the backdrop of a remote mountain and jungle appears with Sinto Gendeng (Ruth Marini) drilling Wira, whose name is changed to Wiro Sableng, until adulthood (played by Vino G. Bastian). Later, Wiro is sent by Sinto Gendeng to leave the mountain, carrying an axe and stone with the task of bringing Mahesa Birawa to justice.
As Wiro descends from the mountain, different settings are presented, along with various fantastic silat techniques, offering a whole world of distinctive silat-fantasy lore.
The fight scene between Wiro’s group and Kala Hijau against the background of a rocky plain in the gloom of the night is worth praising for its combination of surrealism, choreography and especially smart special effects.
Figures of different colors of character constitute the film’s main bonus. At the foot of the mountain, Wiro meets Dewa Tuak (Andy /rif) and his disciple, Anggini (Sherina Munaf). Then, at a food stall, Wiro encounters the gang of Mahesa Birawa (too coincidental, in fact) attacking a palace entourage that accompanies Pangeran (played by Yusuf Mahardika) under the protection of Rara Murni (Aghniny Haque), the younger sister of Raja Kamandaka (Dwi Sasono). There’s also the introduction of unfamiliar warriors plotting evil plans in the Mahesa Birawa camp.
The diversity of the figures may not be a regular feature of a theater movie like this, but be more common with a television series.
However, Wiro Sableng adopts a movie business model based on the creation of an extended story. It’s the model applied to the product series of Star Wars or Marvel Cinematic Universe – the franchise model of various characters, each with a story of their own (lending themselves to independent films) but integrated in a big plot that accommodates a series of stories providing material for many films.
The basic material of Wiro Sableng makes such a model feasible. It is Bastian Tito’s silat serial novel comprising 185 series and 6 separate titles. In such a long serial, a lot of figures can be featured. Bastian is, thus, very imaginative in narrating the world of Wiro Sableng. Not only character names are imaginatively (and humorously) picked, but also fighting tactics and weapons are a feast of the imagination.
The courageous decision by Sheila Timothy as the producer and screenplay writer, along with Tumpal Tampubolon and Seno Gumira Ajidarma, to condense the story into a big-screen movie, seems to have been the right choice.
There’s a chance for the story to be extended. At least a sequel has been prepared if we notice the scenes amid credit titles. Plus, the odd allusions by Bidadari Angin Timur (Marsha Timothy) and the presence of this mysterious goddess really intrigue the imagination of the audience.
Marsha Timothy as Bidadari Angin Timur in 'Wiro Sableng' (Lifelike Pictures/File)
That is because, in this film, Bidadari Angin Timur apparently just serves as a plot device to save Wiro and friends, including Raja Kamandaka, in the middle of the story. This can create the impression of lazy writing. But the prophecy of Bidadari whispered to Wiro in the first third of the movie seems to have been meant to trigger curiosity about a major conflict with Wiro at the center stage.
Moviegoers that have read the Wiro Sableng serial (most popular in the 1980s and 1990s) know that Bidadari is supposed to extend the story. The question is whether the extended story will arouse the curiosity of the millennial generation and the generation Z that dominate the demography of moviegoers in Indonesia in the early 21st century.
In an attempt to attract an audience that has never read Wiro Sableng, Sheila Timothy has invited Chris Lie and his Studio Caravan to make visual designs close to the market of present-day youths. Chris is an Indonesian comic creator pioneering the penetration of American comic publishers with his manga style. He has chosen to focus on the development of the comics business in Indonesia.
Chris Lie and his team have translated the colorful imagination of Bastian Tito into costumes and poses with clear references to the esthetic of comics. Chris has succeeded in touching the visual imagination of a generation already used to manga and anime with colorful figures like those in the serial of Naruto or One Piece. This film, apparently, relies more on capturing visual imagination than emphasizing character development of a psychological nature. Tragedy and romance, also royal politics, are presented in caricature, and that suits the humorous style of Bastian’s narration.
The filmmakers’ decision to concentrate on the humorous aspect of the Wiro Sableng serial is right. The character richness in this extensive account is, however, narrowed down by the camera approach.
Director Angga Dwi Sasongko seems to have opted for narrow frames for film scenes. As a result, fighting scenes sometimes induce a feeling of claustrophobia. There are many close-ups even though the fighting figures frequently don’t lend themselves to being observed from close range.
Many of the weapons used need to be shot in broader frames; Anggini is armed with a scarf and blowpipe needles, Mahesa Birawa with a long-range chain, Wiro sometimes treats his axe as a boomerang. Moreover, battles waged by royal troops are eventually colossal.
The camera approach that gives the impression of the action taking place in a narrow space is actually suitable for modern martial art movies like The Raid, which is packed with close-in fights and short-range techniques. But the narrow-space camera approach disturbs the spectacle in the Wiro Sableng story.
Fortunately, Angga and the screenplay team managed to maintain the humorous character of the Wiro Sableng tale. All the scenes with Sinto Gendeng are very interesting. The crazy jokes of Wiro and Sinto when the master hands down the axe and stone 212 become a successful scene. Vino also turns into an amusing warrior. The impromptu remarks by Vino as Wiro are indeed hilarious. We are also led to forget how the story set by Bastian Tito in 16th century Java can freely use modern Arabic numbers (“212”) in the sacred art of silat.
This colorful and humorous silat fantasy story succeeds in offering light entertainment enjoyable with popcorn and friends. It is, in a way, the next phase in the tradition of such films as Saur Sepuh, with Hollywood standards for audiences of the 21st century. What’s more, it’s an opportunity for the growth of a unique and appealing genre.