So once again we have survived.

Merantau

tn_merantauMERANTAU is a simple, straight forward martial arts movie from Indonesia. Iko Uwais plays a young man named Yuda (I know, make a Yoda joke, or “Yuda man” or something) who goes on his merantau, his journey to find himself and become a man. He lives out in the boonies practicing his silat, he figures he’ll take a bus into Jakarta and try to get a job teaching it, see how that goes. But he gets sidetracked.

He finds the plot quickly and coincidentally. While he’s eating a little kid steals his wallet, he chases him through narrow alleys, after he catches him he happens to see the kid’s older sister, a gogo dancer, getting ripped off and slapped around by a club manager, so he intervenes. This only makes matters worse for the girl, but now he knows about her and has to try to help when he sees her get snatched by thugs to give her to sex traffickers (the new go-to action movie villains. Sorry Nazis, commies, terrorists, white supremacists and bureaucrats. Your services are no longer required.)

I like this set up. The villain is a perverted, sadistic, egomaniacal, English-speaking rich prick who stays in a fancy hotel. The hero is a humble, decent young man who sleeps in a cement tube on a construction site. Both, for some reason, know how to fight. So that’s gonna have to happen at some point.

mp_merantauThe obvious comparison is to ONG BAK and THE PROTECTOR – honest farm boy comes to corrupt city to fight for old fashioned values and portecting the innocent. (No cultural symbols like statues or elephants, though. And no comic relief buddy named Dirty Balls.) I’m hesitant to bring that up, because some of the stunts and moves in ONG BAK are so jaw-dropping that nothing can really compare, and I don’t want anybody to expect this to match up in the “holy shit!” department. It doesn’t. But it’s still outstanding.

The fights have the Jackie Chan influence – he moves around using his surroundings and found objects to his advantage, he tricks opponents into hitting each other, uses people as weapons. Again I’m not gonna say it’s ONG BAK, but truthfully some of the dudes he beats up perform falls onto solid ground worthy of the Thai stunt teams. There are a few incredible gags like a rooftop chase where he rams a guy in the chest with a long bamboo pole as the guy is jumping between buildings, and a really smart way to escape a guy on a motorcycle by making an innocent bystander think his towel is being stolen.

There are themes of Fight Brotherhood. I won’t give it away, but I like what happens when Yuda and another guy have to fight even though they respect each other. There’s also a weird abusive love relationship between the villain and his brother (?). There is hugging and bleeding. One weird bit I like is the scene where the gogo club manager brings in some fighters to show to the boss. He walks in while the two brothers are hugging, and the entire time he’s in there the brother keeps his head turned away to hide a gushing wound. And somehow the guy doesn’t figure out he should excuse himself immediately. You don’t usually get that kind of discomfort in a martial arts picture.

Speaking of the gogo club guy, I like how different he is in different contexts. In his club he thinks he’s King Shit. He slaps the girls around and when Yuda hit him he tried to make like he was real important. He said, “Do you know who you’re fucking with?” (“No, I don’t. Now give her the money,” Yuda responded.) But when he’s trying to bring girls to his creepo boss he’s a yes-man doofus who keeps screwing up and getting yelled at.

One thing I really wonder about this movie: did Yuda ever go back and pay the guy for the food after the kid stole his wallet? He promised he would, but it wasn’t shown. Man, I hope he did.

This is a solid, well-directed, completely enjoyable martial arts movie. It’s a little longer than most of its type, and that might bother some people, but I sort of appreciate that it allows time for the scenes to breathe a bit. It’s not always in a hurry, it lingers a little.

I like how international the martial arts movies are becoming. Hong Kong and mainland China have been coming back with a vengeance, a scene has exploded in Thailand, there was that BESOURO movie out of Brazil, they got some martial arts in some of the Korean and Japanese movies, Israeli director Isaac Florentine is doing some great American ones… now here’s one from Indonesia, directed by a British guy named Gareth Evans who was living there working on a documentary about this martial art silat, decided to write a script about it. Many practicioners of silat are actually Muslim, it would be interesting if that came up in the movie, that would make it stand out. Anyway, I like that modern action cinema has turned into the It’s a Small World ride, a showcase of different cultures and codes. And awesome ways to spin around or beat people up.

Also I gotta hand it to the digital video. I used to be so against it, because people started using it before it looked good. Now it’s great because somebody can shoot a movie like this on what I’m sure is way less than a Hollywood budget, but they don’t have to worry about cheap film stock making it look all faded or cloudy. The colors are so crisp and vivid. Just get one of these nice hi-def cameras and go to a part of the country that hasn’t been on film that much and you got yourself some eye candy.

On another note, I wonder if we need a formalized tradition of merantau in our culture? I guess for some kids it’s to go to college, or take a trip to Europe, or join the military. Or maybe it’s just leaving the house, getting an apartment. I guess even in the movie it’s not a tradition everybody believes in. The mom would rather keep Yuda at home and take care of him, but he wants to face the real world on his own to toughen himself up. I don’t know. It’s good and natural to want to protect your kids. Lions do it. Godzilla does it. But maybe some of the kids these days would feel better about themselves and be better people if they were less sheltered and had to work harder. Plus if everybody did this maybe we’d be able to shut down all the sex traffickers. Yuda and Liam Neeson can’t do all the work.

trivia: for once the U.S. got to have the original title, it was the UK that decided to change it to “MERANTAU WARRIOR.” That’s refreshing because it’s usually here that they assume we don’t have the capacity to learn the meanings of words we haven’t heard before (that’s how we got ONG BAK: THE THAI WARRIOR).

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.
This entry was posted on Friday, March 25th, 2011 at 2:26 pm and is filed under Action, Martial Arts, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

50 Responses to “Merantau”

  1. Oh wow I could be the first to reply to it. I thought the ending was complete bullshit and made me really upset. But the fights were fun and the villain was fun in his uber-Villainry.

  2. I completely agree with literally every word of this review. MERENTAU is highly HIGHLY recommended, but it is indeed a tad on the long side, so maybe an audience member can be excused for multitasking during some of the first hour.

    If any movie at ActionFest 2011 touches this one (MERENTAU won awards at ActionFest 2010, iIrc) for quality, it will be a good trip.

    That damn elevator scene was straight awesome! One of my favorite scenes ever.

  3. It’s so awesome I forgot how to spell the title!

  4. I wish I liked this one as much as the internet does. I think the digital video is part of my problem. It almost always tends to make movies feel a little cheap and fake to me. Like something the neighborhood kids would film in their backyard. (Obviously I’m talking about the ones that are proficient in silat and speak fluent Indonesian.) I had the same problem with the end of RAGING PHOENIX when it seemed to switch to digital for the rope bridge fight. It just took me out of the movie. I’ll take the genuine film stock of ONG-BAK or the countless cheap Hong Kong films of the 80s and 90s any day. At least until everyone is as good as Fincher at making digital look like film.

  5. One question I ask myself every day when I get up in the morning:

    “What would Godzilla do?”

    Hasn’t steered me wrong yet.

  6. Hey, Vern. Been reading your reviews since Geocities and I think you’re the best there is. I pop out reviews for Chud.com every once and awhile and I reviewed this one a few months ago and thought I’d shoot you the link to it. http://www.chud.com/29189/dvd-review-merantau/

    This Monday I have my first ever column starting on Chud where I review a random Netflix Streaming movie and then announce what the following Monday’s movie is going to be so everyone can try and watch it. If you’re ever in that neck of the woods, I’d be an honor to have you comment. You’re the reason I started reviewing.

    Anyway, sorry for all that shit. I’ve been a long time lurker here and think this board is the best film criticism board there is but was always too intimidated to post. Well, I found my first pubic hair yesterday. It was green, but I’m pretty sure it’s real. So, hi. First post ahoy.

  7. I agree that this one is not a classic like ONG BAK, but it is a good martial arts film that I really enjoyed. I would recommend it to any fan of the genre. It lacks the budget and scale of movies like the IP Man films, but in some ways I enjoyed this film more.

  8. jaredrasicpark, welcome to the discussion. I frequent Chud.com and enjoy it, but have never posted on that site. I will have to check out your work.

  9. I am gonna watch this next week sometime. For all you netflixers, it’s available to Watch Instantly: http://movies.netflix.com/WiMovie/Merantau/70118368

  10. Thanks, Charles. My big question about Merantau is whether Yuda really does look like Tony Jaa or whether I’m a racist. Hoping for the former.

  11. Glad to see you finally catch up with Merantau Vern. It’s not as flamboyant as Ong Bak 1&2 but has better characterisation in my view and delivers some nicely off-kilter scenes, such as when Yuda first bursts in on the eurotrash badguys (they really look like they’re from the band Franz Ferdinand). Up til that point, he’d just been kicking back, checking over his sex-slave merchandise when suddenly a completely random stranger bursts in and kicks glass shards into his face! And the scene in the elevator is classic heroic bloodshed brotherhood stuff.

    Gareth Evans is currently shooting his next movie. It was originally going to be a prison movie but he couldn’t get the funding. However the film he *is* making sounds great and stars Iko Uwais and Yayan Ruhian (Eric, the guy in the elevator). Here’s a link to Gareth’s bts blog:

    http://theraid-movie.blogspot.com/

  12. He actually reminded me a bit of Michael Cera in that trailer. Think it’s the gawky naivety.

    Silat is a pretty cool looking martial art with all that unpredictable movements and so on. Went to look up a bit more about it and had to share this gem from the wikipedia entry.

    “Since the Islamisation movement of the 1980s and 90s, there have been attempts to make silat more compliant with Islamic principles. It is now illegal for Muslim practitioners in Malaysia to chant mantera, bow to idols, practice traditional meditation, or attempt to acquire supernatural powers.”

    How great is that? It’s not that they can’t acquire supernatural powers, it’s just against the law if you’re a Muslim.

  13. jaredrasicpark, you racist fuck. Just b/c Iko has the same skin tone, a similarly flattish nose, a very similar physique, and a very similar proclivity to hit bad guys with his forearms & knees rather than his fists does *not* mean that he & Tony Jaa are interchangeable visually filmatistically.

    That being said, I look forward to seeing these 2 studs play half brothers at some point in what I’m now preemptively but correctly calling the greatest martial arts film of the 2nd decade of the 21st century.

    Make it happen, Weinsteins!

  14. I knew it. Oh, well. Off to find some brown skinned friends.

  15. Great. Now I have Cheeto dust all over my monitor.

  16. I’m assuming the movie everybody is watching the same one, which has been cut for international release. So if this one felt long, imagine how the Indonesian cut would feel. I own a copy which my friend’s wife brought back from Indonesia when she was back home over christmas, and I watched it with him translating the stuff that wasn’t in my DVD. You can see scenes in the doco on the disc, like a formal dinner before he goes off on his journey, and more stuff between Eric and Yuda, including a recruitment fight type scenario. There’s actually a lot of little cuts made throughout the film, to really streamline it. Unfortunately, I don’t speak Indonesian, so I can’t really appreciate all the differences, but they’re there. So yeah, Vern, there is more reference to Muslim culture in the film, which I assumed I got cut because of the possible barriers it might create to fully reaching a wider audience, but then they go and cut a pretty good fight too, so I think it had more to do with streamlining it.

  17. Saw this at NYAFF last year. This film is all honest blood sweat and tears, and lots of heart. I liked it.

    While I’m on the subject…

    http://www.subwaycinema.com/nyaff10/films/index.php

    Vern-worthy flicks I saw there:

    “Blades of Blood,” “Gallants” (Yes, Bruce Leung was at the showing, I met him, The Beast from “Kung Fu Hustle,” that was cool)

    Vern-worthy flicks I did not see (shame, shame):

    “LA Streetfighters,” “Eastern Condors” (Yes, I missed the chance to meet Sammo Hung, who was there, in person… shame, shame)

    “IP Man” and “IP Man 2” showed there. I missed both (shame, shame). I also missed Sammo Hung in “Kung Fu Chefs.” (!?)

    WTF movies I saw there: “Symbol,” “Doman Seman,” “The Blood of Rebirth.” Seriously WTF movies. Especially “Symbol.” That is THE WTF movie of all time.

    And I’m not ashamed to say it: My favorite movie from the festival was “Castaway on the Moon.” Total Estrogen flick. Probably gave me gynocomastia just watching it. I don’t care, that was a damn good movie. Where do I turn my bad ass film club membership in for saying this?

    Good times, that festival is always good times. If you are in NYC this June, do not miss NYAFF.

  18. Majestyk – wouldn’t that philosophy result in you eating a few Japanese people then taking a big shit on the street?

  19. Japanese are delicious.

  20. ** SPOILER **

    What a bunch of bullshit that they kill off Yuda.

  21. Ugh. Did not want to read that, Sternshein, but it showed up in the “recent commentary” list, so it was unavoidable.

    And yeah, some more heroic muslim action heroes. If Batman can have one as his french representative, then why not? Maybe a prequel to THE BOOK OF ELI about some guy delivering a copy of the Qur’an to Malcolm MacDowell? Halal meat must be hard to come by in Post Apocalyptia.

  22. ^some more heroic muslim action heroes, please.

  23. One thing I love about “Merantau”: Yuda really likes to kick people while they’re lying in pain on the ground. I don’t recall seeing that in many martial arts fight scenes, but it’s certainly efficient.

    BR Baraka:
    “Especially “Symbol.” That is THE WTF movie of all time.”

    Have you seen “Big Man Japan” from the same director? The ending is a big WTF and one of the most hilarious things I’ve seen in a long time.

  24. I’m not sure Yuda dies.

  25. Joe:

    Big Man Japan was in NYAFF 2008.

    http://www.nipponcinema.com/blog/nyaff-2008-lineup-to-include-27-japanese-movies

    And… I didn’t see it. But I DID see “Dead Time: Kala,” which is another Indonesian film.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dz6tzp_Lyps

    “Kala” is like “National Treasure” in that you have these various clues about the formation of a nation, with arcane clues in libraries and historical figures and such, but told as a film noir, with a lounge singer, a narcoleptic journalist, political and police corruption, and what would happen if Indonesia had a Statue of Liberty/ Angel of Death national symbol and she came to life as a buff Indonesian model chick delivering vengeance with two giant kris (that wavy Indonesian sword). The weirdest part was the openly gay main character. In a film from a majority Muslim country (Indonesia is actually quite moderate in its religious attitudes).

  26. That all sounds phenomenal, BR Baraka. It appears DEAD TIME: KALA is available in 11 YouTube chunks, but I heed David Bordwell’s description of such online film presentations as “mutants.”

    Ah, I found the full quotation: **These films are too beautiful to be reduced to those wretched mutants you get on YouTube.** from http://www.davidbordwell.net/blog/2010/12/10/revisiting-planet-hong-kong/

    And so I patiently await access to the DVD. BIG MAN JAPAN, meanwhile, jumps nearly to the top of my queue. ありがとう!

  27. Shit, sorry Stu and everybody I spoiled the ending to this movie.

  28. Ehhh…I kinda figured it was something like that anyway

  29. The deleted fight scene is amazing. It’s probably the best beatdown in the whole movie.

  30. Hi Vern,

    Thanks for the great review. I’ve also done one last year. Please visit it and tell me what you think: http://silat-melayu.blogspot.com/2010/02/merantau-overdue-review.html

    Thanks!

  31. Good review Mohd. I didn’t understand all the terminology, but it’s interesting to see your observations on the fight scenes from the perspective of someone familiar with silat. Makes me respect the movie even more.

  32. I went to check out that deleted fight scene but it turns out my region 2 copy only has 5 minutes of deleted scenes and it’s not in there.

  33. Maybe we should have a thread for heroic Muslim action heroes in film?

    Ardeth Bey from the first two modern Mummy movies (but especially The Mummy Returns) would rank high in that list, I think. He is quite excessively awesome. {g} (Well, technically it’s possible that he’s an Arabian Christian, they use the same word as the title/name for God, Allah. But odds are better he’s Muslim.)

    I can think of several others, but I thought I’d let posters volunteer those instead.

  34. the film news from indonesia just keeps getting better and better: the new york times tells us about japanese porn stars making low budget horror films in jakarta…

    http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/29/world/asia/29indonesia.html

  35. Sabreman: there’s Ahmed from The 13th Warrior, which is obvious, but I’m honestly drawing a blank after that. I can’t count Malcolm X as an action hero, no matter how much I want to.

    Actually, if real people are allowed, Muhammad Ali is close enough. He’s heroic and used to punch people all of the time.

  36. After giving first viewings to Ong Bak, Ip Man, Ip Man 2, and Chocolate all in the last month or so, I gotta say that what most made Merantau stand out for me was that Yuda is a vincible martial artist (by that, I mean that he can be vinced, har har). He gets his ass kicked the first time he takes on >1 opponent, and it seriously made all the subsequent battles way more suspenseful and awesome for me. My favorite scene is the one immediately following that, when he picks himself back up, does a brief meditation/recalibrating of will, and goes mega righteous in the club…it’s nothing groundbreaking stunt-wise but just the combination of music, lighting, camerawork, and barely-overcome vulnerability really sat nicely with me.

    2 minor quips: 1) opens with him using this awesome blade rather expertly, but it never actually comes into play in the combat. 2) scene where she is convincing her brother to hide in the alleyway. didn’t help that Yuda has to go through the same scene with the little brat a scant few minutes later.

    major awesomeness: What a cold-blooded fucker of a villain. That shit where he’s enraged and people are trying to point out he has all these shards of glass protruding out of his face, you are wondering if he realizes it or not but then he starts taking them and shoving them into other people’s faces. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that shit in a movie before.

  37. I like this movie, nice one. Btw, Merantau is actually something that is still done up to today.

  38. You should check out the Trailer of their new movie “The Raid” (Indonesian title: Serbuan Maut). The movie itself got highly positive reviews after the premiere in Toronto International Film Festival few days ago. Some critics and audience call it as the best action movie of the year, some even call it as the best of the decade. In “Merantau” they use a rather mild version of Silat, but in “The Raid” they show the more brutal version of Silat. Iko Uwais and Yayan Ruhian (the guy in the elevator) are the fight choreographers for “The Raid”.

  39. I saw The Raid yesterday and it blew me away, so I wanted to see what Vern thinks of Merantau. I will definitely check it out. But The Raid is definitely worth the hype. Holy Moley.

    But why I REALLY wanted to comment on a months-old thread is to contribute to the List Of Muslim Action Heroes:

    Azeem from Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves: Redemption!

  40. With THE RAID just a week away from its UK release, I decided to get this finally. It was going ridiculously cheap on amazon too. Really liked it. I wasn’t mad at the ending per se. At least it was content to not allow for a sequel(unless the little kid grows up to look EXACTLY like Yuda for some reason). I was more pissed off in that scene where they go back for Astri’s money, and some random neighbour woman rats them out to the bad guys. WHAT THE HELL, LADY?

    Also, if THE RAID is getting an american remake, so should this. Only instead of being called MERANTAU, it should be called RUMSPRINGA:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rumspringa
    The only flaw I see is that the Amish don’t have their own martial art that could be showcased…

  41. I saw it earlier today. Although it didn’t leave THAT much of an impression on me, I appreciate its professionalism and overall awesomness during the fight scenes. But most of all: The villain’s death scene! Damn, that motherfucker really sold every aspect of it!

  42. Is it wrong that I liked this alot better than The Raid? The story doesn’t betray its simple roots, the hero is better developed, the main villain is more interesting, and the fights are more clearly shot and feel less choreographed. I did like The Raid but felt alot of the fights seemed almost over-rehearsed; here they seem sloppy and spontaneous – the counter-moves to counter-moves and usage of props have an off-the-cuff quality to them that made the fight scenes fresher and more exciting. I didn’t really like Merantau’s ending, but then again I honestly can’t remember anything that happened in The Raid after the Mad Dog Fight (like I literally don’t know if they arrested the kingpin who killed the police chief, or if they arrested the police chief who killed the kingpin.)

    I do like that both of these movies ends with a 2 on 1 fight, but flipping the ratio of bad guys to good guys. And the elevator fight in this one is an underrated classic. And btw, re: the villain’s death scene – how exactly did he die? It looked to me like he just got kicked really hard, which is kind of an interesting way to go.

  43. Neal, if my eyes didn’t betray me, it was a very hard kick against the throat.

  44. How does the story betray the simple roots of The Raid? Sounds like made up bs to me.

  45. Sternshein – to each his own, but i guess I felt let down by The Raid’s story once the simple horror-movie-like setup gave way to the whole nonsense with the corrupt police chief and the twist with the brother. I know it’s not fair to compare The Raid to true-life stuff like Black Hawk Down or Lone Survivor, but they’re very, very similar movies and ask yourself if those movies would have been improved with a double-agent mole working for the good guys.

    Another point of comparison is John Carpenter movies (obviously an influence on The Raid with the setup and the score) – the original Assault on Precinct 13 was lean and mean and almost like a zombie movie; the remake throws in all this superfluous twists and turns that I think most people here will agree bogs it down. Or Halloween – the “Michael Myers is her brother!” twist added in the sequel doesn’t really improve the nightmare-like simplicity of the original. But again, to each his own. (I fully disclose my preference towards simple plots and disdain for complicated stories is almost entirely an overreaction to watching too many Orci/Kurtzman/Lindelof movies)

  46. Once the martial arts start happening in The Raid, it could never be a simple horror movie type set up. There is a reason why Friday the 13th doesn’t pit Jason up against a martial arts expert. I mean, we can all agree there was nothing scary about the boxer scene in Friday and it was really just meant to set up a joke.

    I also think there isn’t anything in The Raid that makes the movie convoluted at any point. It’s still a pretty basic movie plot.

  47. When everybody is talking about THE RAID 2-RETALIATION, I went back to MERANTAU- THE BEGINNING OF THE RAIDS. And although the more primal aspects of the martial arts choreography are better examined in THE RAID, it is a very very good film. The decision to cut between drama and action within action-sequences is a bit jarring at first. But it means the humanity of the piece retains throughout.The ending of the film is quite moving. An unusual feat in martial arts cinema

  48. The “twist” with the rother ” really is no twist at all. Everything is said in the opening scenes. When Rama tells his dad he is gonna bring him back, we can assume it is his brother he refers to. And in the briefing scene when they mention Tama there is a reaction shot on Rama.

  49. Found this very interesting deleted scene from MERANTAU that gives us more Yayan Ruhian goodness. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zMe5NEmiraQ

    I am not quite sure how it fits in with the final cut of the film we have, since Yuda and Eric said goodbye at the bus, and they did not meet up until the elevator-scene. Clearly this sequence plays out as they both arrive at Jakarta. I am glad it got cut,though, because how the story between them are told is much better in the final cut and not as blunt as the end of this scene shows. That 360 tracking shot when Eric destroys a guy is pretty epic.

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