Okay, I know after 15 years many people have sort of fallen out of love with the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I feel you. Maybe you’re looking forward to a world with fewer comic book movies. Fair enough.
But before you go can I interest you in Indonesia’s answer to the MCU real quick? A few years ago I reviewed the 2019 film GUNDALA, written and directed by Joko Anwar (SATAN’S SLAVES), based on an Indonesian comic book character from the ‘60s. I really liked it, and thought it was cool to see a super hero origin story that’s obviously inspired by the American ones, but based in the history, culture and cinematic traditions of Indonesia. Most specifically, for my tastes, that means it has a whole bunch of really great martial-arts-based action. So I was intrigued that it was meant to kick off something called the Bumilangit Cinematic Universe. In the MCU tradition it even had a little tag at the end introducing the heroine of movie #2 here, SRI ASIH. Then the whole endeavor got delayed by that bastard COVID-19, but it finally made its way to U.S. DVD (but I guess not blu-ray) this week under the insulting title SRI ASIH: THE WARRIOR.
Anwar is the executive producer of the whole series, and he co-wrote this one with its director, Upi Avianto (HIT & RUN), just credited as Upi. Pevita Pearce (MAY THE DEVIL TAKE YOU) stars as Alana, whose mom died giving birth to her four months early, during a volcanic eruption, in a car being chased by a demon-faced ash plume. So Alana grew up in an orphanage defending others from bullies until a rich lady named Sarita (Jenny Chang, also a mother in competing Indonesian comic book universe movie SATRIA DEWA: GATOTKACA) adopted her and taught her to be a fighter, who competes against men and is undefeated.
Sometimes while training blindfolded her eyes glow, she goes into a rage and super-punches people. It seems she’s had visions of a cool looking fire goddess all her life, but she tries to suppress them. I don’t know if this is common after volcano births or not but it seems stressful.
Alana’s true calling is revealed to her because of some male bullshit. Mateo (Randy Pangalila) is a fighter and rich playboy son of real estate mogul/crime guy Prayogo (Surya Saputra). He just got out of jail because the woman he beat up was scared into recanting her story. His dad is mad at him for what he did so Mateo apologizes, hugs it out, and satisfies him by promising it will never happen again. He’ll have someone else do it for him.
I’m sure you’re aware of the power of a viral fight video in modern fight movies. Someone shows this guy Mateo one of Alana, so he wants to fight her. His dad’s right hand man (Revaldo, THE NIGHT COMES FOR US) – who got a little of my sympathy just by seeming annoyed with all the evil shit he has to do – sets up a bout, demanding Alana lose in the third round. Her mom says no, but Alana does it to protect their club from retaliation. She whoops Mateo for two rounds and it seems like she’s not gonna take the fall, but he genuinely turns the tables and knocks her to the ground. Trouble is his insults draw out that fire goddess.
So Alana loses control and humiliates him in the ring, kicking off a war that leaves people from both sides dead, hospitalized and bombed. Then the super hero shit. She finds herself and her bed-ridden mother rescued and sheltered by mysterious blind lady Eyang Mariani (Christine Hakim, MERANTAU, The Last of Us) and her shy son Kala (Dimas Anggara, THE NIGHT COMES FOR US) who explain a bunch of mythological business about five demons trying to sacrifice 1,000 souls to free the fire goddess, who’s been trying to corrupt her because she’s the descendent of the goddess Sri Asih, destined to inherit her name and powers. I enjoy this mix of a BLADE-type “hey, check out the secret operation we got going here” reveal and backstory exposition like a lost Ralph Bakshi fantasy movie or some shit. Plus you can sense a long comic book history because they show her footage of and the costume belonging to a previous generation’s Sri Asih (Najwa Shihab). From what I’ve read it sounds like Alana is the third character to take on the persona in comics, just like how American comics have multiple Green Lanterns, Flashes and I believe Popeyes although I may be mistaken about that one.
Alana gets her own updated costume, with Wonder-Woman-esque bullet-blocking gauntlets, plus new super-speed and flight powers. Those FX look a little on the goofy side, but I don’t mind. Her trademarks are jeweled attachments to her ears that make her look like an elf and a long red magic scarf that she uses as a whip and can do things like loop it around someone and then swing them back and forth bashing them against walls.
There’s not much in the way of training. She just goes out there and enjoys cornily taunting her opponents in fights. It’s kind of a convoluted super hero premise, but what I like about it is the push and pull between her potential for good or evil – she can unleash fire powers if she gets angry, but can only use Sri Asih powers if she doesn’t. She chooses to stay calm.
Like GUNDALA, the SRI ASIH movie is on the side of the poor living in the slums of Jakarta, and against the rich, who are depicted as corrupt and possibly literally demonic. It’s a world where whenever the cops show up everyone is in more danger. On multiple occasions it’s spelled out that police protect the powerful and oppress the poor. One solitary cop (Reza Rahadian, VENGEANCE IS MINE, ALL OTHERS PAY CASH) is frustrated with this and wants to make a difference, but (SPOILER) that guy turns into a raven-themed demon man in a cloak and metal mask. All cops are bastards or super villains.
Both movies also glorify crusading reporters, not of the Lois Lane/Alexander Knox type trying to get the big front page scoops, but the humble, quiet nerd living in a tiny rathole with a laptop, trying to expose corruption in a community newspaper, possibly getting assassinated for it. Unfortunately I think the parts about trying to save the projects are less interesting here than in GUNDALA, where they more directly involve the lead character, and for me it drags in the middle. It’s also a little longer than GUNDALA without seeming as eventful.
But there’s a cool lady flying around fighting 1%er demons and their henchmen, so it gets fun. I like that both of her bashful male associates turn out to be good martial artists who fight as much as she does – you don’t get that in the Marvel movies. The action is credited to “Uwais Team,” choreographed by Very Tri Yulisman, a.k.a. Baseball Bat Man from THE RAID 2 and Besi from HEADSHOT. So obviously it’s good, it’s a fun time, but I didn’t get as excited about any of the fights as I did some of the ones in GUNDALA, maybe because that had more of an emphasis on grounded, hard-hitting fights while this one involves more fantastical FX-based moves. Though honestly I appreciated how many times she did a three point landing. I still like seeing real people do comic book poses in these things.
To me GUNDALA is definitely a better movie, not just in its action but in the emotion it gets out of its lead character and the ordeal he goes through that (even setting aside his lightning powers) shapes him into a working man’s avenger. Alana’s journey feels much less focused, more random, in keeping with the character’s fantasy background and powers. But it’s an entertaining movie and, just like with GUNDALA, the high quality martial arts and Indonesian cultural perspective make it distinct from all the other comic book pictures.
The character of Sri Asih was created in 1954 by R.A. Kosasih, starring in five 32-page issues whose popularity is credited with making comic books a viable medium in Indonesia. There was also a SRI ASIH movie made that same year, which I believe the previous Sri Asih character in this movie is referencing (though the actual movie is considered lost).
Sadly, Zack “White Boy Bobby” Lee, who was with Sri Asih in her GUNDALA cameo, does not appear in this movie. Maybe that happens later. This one has similar larger-universe-setup scenes at the end, with a tiny Gundala cameo and the introduction of future lead character Godam (Chicco Jerikho as the grown up version of the street kid who taught Gundala how to fight but got separated from him when Gundala failed to catch up to a train). There’s a big build up to showing his face and he punches a guy and it shows he has a particular ring and you can tell you’re supposed to go “Oh shit, it’s Godam!” I like watching that without any illusions that I should know what to make of it, since you can’t even get those comics here. That’s okay! He punches guys. I get the idea.
Godam will return in GODAM & TIRA, already mentioned in my GUNDALA review, now planned for a 2024 release. But the actual next BCU movie is VIRGO AND THE SPARKLINGS, which was released in Indonesia in March. That one is about teenagers and at least one plays electric guitar, so it should be pretty different from the first two. I’m still on board.