I gotta admit, I barely knew Indonesian cinema existed until I saw MERANTAU and THE RAID. We all loved THE RAID and THE RAID 2 and then THE NIGHT COMES FOR US came along and that was arguably even more impressive. It was directed by Timo Tjahjanto, who’d already done another Iko Uwais martial arts movie I loved called HEADSHOT with his long-time collaborator Kimo Stamboel. They also did a horror one called KILLERS that I had to turn off in the opening scene because it was too much for me at the time. Some day I’m gonna get up the guts to go back. These days Stamboel has a heavily hyped horror movie called THE QUEEN OF BLACK MAGIC, written by Joko Anwar. Anwar is the guy who directed SATAN’S SLAVES (which I enjoyed) and IMPETIGORE (which I haven’t seen yet but it was on some best of the year lists).
So clearly there are healthy action and horror scenes over there, and those are my primary interests. But did you know they also have a local answer to the Marvel Cinematic Universe? The aforementioned Anwar wrote and directed the 2019 film GUNDALA, based on an Indonesian comic book character created in 1969, and will be overseeing a series called the Bumilangit Cinematic Universe (BCU), with seven more films planned in Volume 1.
I knew there’d be something interesting about an Indonesian take on modern super hero movies, but once again I was caught off guard because you guys, this movie is really good. It certainly takes some inspiration from the Marvel films, and there’s a costumed hero with some powers and some colorful super villains, but mostly it’s a legit martial arts movie with lots of really well directed fights. And it’s interesting to see how a character like this compares and contrasts to the ones that have caught on here. The main difference is that his life has been way harder than any of our guys.
Many of our most popular comic book characters experienced incalculable loss, but they had some sort of safety net to catch them. Bruce Wayne had all that money and the support of Alfred. Kal-El and Peter Parker found outstanding adoptive parents or guardians to raise them. This character Sancaka has none of that.
Like Richard Donner’s SUPERMAN there’s a whole section dedicated to his childhood. It opens with him as a little boy (Muzakki Ramdhan), scared, running. He climbs to the top of a building to watch his father (Rio Dewanto, JAVA HEAT) and two other men leading a worker’s revolt. The factory is guarded by a row of guards in riot gear. Some unseen person throws an object at one of their helmets, and a riot explodes. (A cinematic one that includes unarmed workers launching flying kicksand blocking billy clubs with their fists and forearms.) In the midst of the chaos, Sancaka’s father stops one of his fellow workers from clubbing a guard on the ground. He extends his hand to the guard to help him up… and the guard clubs him in the head. Ain’t that the truth.
Young Sancaka has been told his dad is a “troublemaker.” “My friend’s dad says he doesn’t mind the low pay, as long as he has a job.”
“Just because others won’t stand up for their rights, doesn’t mean we have to be like them,” his dad says. “If there’s injustice before our eyes and we do nothing, then we’re no longer human.”
That’s not easy to live up to, though. Before long, his dad has been killed at a protest and his mom (Marissa Anita) has left to find work and never come home. While Sancaka is on his own and on the verge of starvation, the guilt-ridden wife of a guy who sold his dad out shows up with a bunch of food she cooked for him. He stares at her for a long beat, his chest heaving, then kicks over the stack of dishes and slams the door. I’m not saying this is necessarily better than all of the American super hero movies, but few of them have emotional moments that hit me as hard as that.
There’s normal super hero origin stuff too. He’s good at fixing electronics. He… seems to have some kind of lightning powers. But that stuffs peppered into an intense story about surviving on the streets, where angry mobs wielding 2 x 4s seem to be a constant. They’re about to maybe kill him when an older kid named Awang (Faris Fadjar Munggaran, 212 WARRIOR) shows up and fights them off. He tells Sancaka the opposite of what his dad did – that he should mind his own business so people will stop coming after him. But also he teaches him to fight “so you can defend yourself and no longer be my problem.” There’s a nice training montage in abandoned buildings with textured walls and sunbeams shining through holes in the ceiling.
Awang and Sancaka plan to hop the train that comes through town once a year, in hopes of finding a better life, but Sancaka is too slow, gets left behind, and is all alone yet again. You see what I’m saying? He didn’t lose his whole planet like Superman, but he keeps losing the people he cares about, as well as the values his dad taught him. Now when he sees people in need of help he puts his head down and walks away.
Finally one day he’s being chased by the mob and a couple in a BMW stop and save him. When they find out his situation they decide to adopt him. “You can be our son. We’ll put you in school and make you smart, okay? What do you want to be? An engineer? An artist? A scientist?”
Oh, okay. This is how he’ll become a super hero. Through the kindness of rich people.
Nope! He gets out of the car and runs. Cut to jogging as an adult (Abimana Aryasatya, Fatih from THE NIGHT COMES FOR US). He works on the other side of the metal wall from where his father protested – he’s a security guard for what is now a newspaper printing plant, and he fixes the machines when they’re jammed. There are cell phones now, but still mobs with 2 x 4s, and still people getting robbed that he doesn’t help. But under the influence of older co-worker Agung (Pritt Timothy), his dad’s philosophy seems to finally come back to him and he intervenes to help his neighbor Wulan (Tara Basro, THE GOLDEN CANE WARRIOR, KILLERS, SATAN’S SLAVES, IMPETIGORE) as she’s being attacked by thugs. Pretty soon he reluctantly finds himself defending a market where Wulan works from looters, and he starts to discover his unusual strength and lightning-related abilities.
You remember in that one movie BATMAN, the guy says “Who are you?” and Batman says, “I’m Batman”? When somebody asks Sancaka who he is, he says, “The people.” He seems like a guardian of the working class. I don’t totally follow the politics of the market thing, but it has something to do with a scary gangster named Pengkor. Pengkor is definitely a comic book super villain not only because he’s defined by having half of his face burnt in a fire, but because we see his whole mythical backstory in flashback. Like Sancaka he’s an orphan, but he was sent to his abusive uncle’s orphanage, where he led the kids in a murderous uprising. I don’t know if kids are supposed to watch this, but the shots of little boys happily slashing and lighting the adults on fire are, let’s say, above PG-13. Anyway, that little psycho inherited his family’s wealth, used it to put his killer kid army through school, and now they’re his loyal soldiers who help him with things like, say, horrendously executing the family of a newly elected politician who declined to shake his hand at a party.
Things turn a little more Jokery-y or Luthor-y with a weird scheme involving tainting the national rice supply with neon green poison that causes pregnant women great pain and creates a panic that it will cause a generation of children with no sense of right or wrong (?). But the real goals is to trick everyone into taking a vaccine. I’m gonna go ahead and pretend there’s not a significant portion of our population endangering the human race by believing shit like that is real and just enjoy it as a supervillain masterplan. Thank you for your understanding.
I should say, although this is in many ways heavier than most of the American super hero pictures, it’s not a wallowing-in-the-muck type feeling, and it does have humor. I laughed when a thug threw pre-super-hero Sancaka off a roof and then turned to his friends and said, “Might as well, right?” I even laughed at the SPIDER-MAN style makes-his-first-costume-and-it-looks-stupid gag, because it causes Anung to say “I’m ashamed to be Indonesian.”
I’m personally more into Sancaka as a reluctant street fighter than a guy wearing goggles and shooting lightning, but that part is cool too. The best of the comic-booky business is after Pengkor summons all his orphan buddies via text, in a montage that reminded me of HOSTEL PART II and JOHN WICK CHAPTER 2. His killers include a doctor, a runway model, a blacksmith, a chef, a rock sculptor, a wicked girly college student, and best of all Cecep Arif Rahman (THE RAID 2, THE FORCE AWAKENS, JOHN WICK CHAPTER 3) – who is also the fight choreographer – as “Swara Batin the Dancer.” He wears a devil mask on the back of his head and has a distinct snake-like dance movement as he fights.
There is nothing cheesy about this movie, production value is outstanding, but obviously it’s not as expensive as the Marvel movies. Fortunately the FX-oriented action is kept pretty light. What they have that Marvel will likely never be able to compete with is legit great martial arts filmmaking. I mean, we’ll see how they do with SHANG CHI, but they’ve shown no signs of being able to do something like this. Sancaka has many fights, including large scale ones against large crowds, as well as more personality driven show downs with Swara Batin and the other gimmicky fighters. I like the way he deals with a barrage of attackers, repeatedly using their momentum to toss them behind him, getting distance from them while he deals with the next guy. And there are some cool fight locations like a warehouse with stairs and catwalks used similarly to that Malaysian film I loved, WIRA.
Anwar and his regular cinematographer Ical Tanjung clearly have the action chops required, and they also know how to get the horror movie atmosphere going. Fair or not, when I saw the DVD cover with a guy wearing goggles and wings on his head I didn’t picture this level of filmatism. I think I pictured something like MIRAGEMAN but with a bunch of CG lightning.
You know that feeling when you see a Marvel or DC movie and you can tell they’re making an allusion to some comic book thing that’s over your head, and you hear a murmur or some applause in the theater and you think “I’ll have to look that up afterwards”? It’s kind of fun to see that in this movie that’s from another culture where I’ve literally never heard of the characters or have any context for them. I could still feel a ping of excitement for the obvious setup of the character Sri Asih (Pevita Pearce, MAY THE DEVIL TAKE YOU), who will star in the next BCU film.
Admittedly, part of that is because the person who says her name (hold for applause) is Zack Lee, aka White Boy Bobby from THE NIGHT COMES FOR US. I hope he ends up being her partner or her Alfred or something.
The surprising way GUNDALA’s narrative comes together and sets the next story into motion is very clever and stakes-raising, and I’ll be damned if I’m not reading up on which characters are from the comics and anxiously awaiting the future installments. Like, oh shit, Sancaka’s homeless buddy Awung, who taught him how to fight, must have gone through something on the other side of that train ride that changed his attitude about helping people, because he becomes a super hero called Godam, soon to be seen in GODAM & TIRA.
Also the BCU is divided into four eras and one of the eras is “The Swordsmen Era” which will include a movied called THE BLIND OF THE PHANTOM CAVE: ANGEL’S EYES, set to be written and directed by none other than Timo Tjahjanto. The hero of that one, Barda Mandrawata, is a blind stickfighter with long hair, a headband, and a little monkey on his shoulder named Wanara. So sign me the fuck up, please. Make mine Bumilangit!