before there is the raid: redemption or even the raid, welsh filmmaker gareth evans wrote and directed merantau, an indonesian martial arts movie. evans, an action movie fan, discovered the indonesian martial arts called silat and a teacher of said art, iko uwais, while working on a documentary of indonesia and decided to write a movie about it.
the title refers to the minangkabau rite-of-passage tradition. yuda (uwais) leaves his farming hometown to the big city. of couse, things don’t go as planned once yuda gets to the scary big city. an encounter with a kid pickpocket leads yuda to astri (sisca jessica) the exotic dancer, which in turn leads to the pimp-like character and eventually to the real bad guys: european human traffiker. as liam neeson and ashton kutcher illustrate (via twitter), it’s a real world problem, bro.
in addition to taken, it’s also hard to shake the works of jackie chan or tony jaa. the martial arts expert/country bumpkin saving the women and children from evil white men are almost as old as the genre itself. evans no doubt, like a lot of people i know, watched numerous golden era hong kong movies on videotapes. merantau is obviously made by an action movie fan.
though evans is striving for something more than another asian action movie. evans seems to spend more time and effort in the non-action scenes. perhaps it’s in the style of silat, the fights in the first hour comes at short bursts (instead of stunning setpieces), and they and few and far between. unlike most action movies though, the exposition scenes are shot beautifully. they are almost malick-esque. what’s surprising is that merantau is shot on digital, and evans doesn’t neveldine/taylor it by trying to be in the action scenes, instead the camera seems to glide smoothly throughout the movie. you can always tell what’s going on and who’s doing what to who. every wrist-breaking and bone-crushing (and there are more of these here than most seagal movies) are clearly shown.
the deliberate pace is both a blessing and a curse. while it’s admirable that an action movie tries build story and character (it’s hard not to skip through the non-action scenes in jackie chan movies or recall the plot of ong bak or the protector), i’m sorry to say the non-action seqences don’t work as well as the filmmaker intended. while i appreciate the ending, it doesn’t come across as emotional as it’s supposed to. the prolonged sex slavery scenes make the movie more depressing rather than emotional. it’s a chicken or the eggs situation: did the classic martial arts movies rushes through the exposition scenes because they know it’s a hopeless effort, or if they realized the action scenes are most often the most memorable part of the movie? and i am speaking as someone who’s only seen the shorter, international cut, which is 22 minutes shorter than the original cut.
though the first hour or so drags without much action, once the film reaches the third act, things start to look up. there’s the requisite construction scene fight that wouldn’t be out of place in a golden era jackie chan movie. there is the roof jumping sequence that the district (b) 13 movies would be proud to have. there’s also a tens on one close combat that is required in martial arts movies, in addition to the final fight scene, which takes place, of course, on a shipping yard. and before that, yuda has to enter a building and go up into the real bad guys’ apartment that perhaps inspired the raid and the raid: redemption. there’s an elevator scene here that bested the one in die hard 3 with a vengeance.
it’s kind of ironic that merantau would have made a decent under 100 minutes martial arts movie. though nothing here is as breathtaking as the golden era/90s jackie chan or that staircase sequence in the protector, it nevertheless ends up being most memorable for its action scenes. it’s a rare case where i’m glad i saw the shorter version instead of the longer director’s cut. nothing in the movie wowed me or pumped me up as the district (b) 13 movies, or shoot em up, or point blank 2011, or power kids aka force of five, or that one sequence in the protector but at the same time, i don’t regret seeing it. merantau is more like a demo reel in that it makes you want to see what everyone involved is going to do next.
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