The plotline for the Mo Brothers’ (Timo Tjahjanto and Kimo Stamboel) Headshot may sound familiar: a man (Iko Uwais) found on a shore, wounded and unconscious, wakes up in a rural hospital unable to remember anything. His attending physician, Ailin (Chelsea Islan), gives him the name Ishmael. It is only after an incident involving his physician that he is reminded who he really is – Abdi, a mercenary programmed by his adaptive father, Lee (Sunny Pang) to kill and protect his family of criminals. The film’s conflict rests on Abdi/Ishmael’s struggle to make way for a new life while confronting his past.
Stories of people from violent backgrounds getting out of their old ways to find new ones are staple narratives that are frequently utilised whenever a certain collective imagination is being faced with some sort of a change to its historical era. Often, this change of historical climate is being shouldered in fiction by a single character to create a fantasy that this certain change is to be struggled both individually and collectively. One of the most popular literature of this kind would be Nobuhiro Watsuki’s manga series Rurouni Kenshin (which, interestingly, is produced in a year wherein the parliament chairs shifted from the hands of their Japan’s Liberal Party to Socialist Party).
What Headshot presents is how such a culture of violence is not a spontaneous effect of their “nature”, so to say, but is actually systematically programmed and intervened by an external force. But the film offers a much more interesting layer by letting in its very text the figure of Lee serve as the cause of Ishmael’s suffering. While it would make sense if the father was actually caucasian, since it is actually the United States that is being pointed as the one who fueled of the 1960s killings – an intertextuality affirmative with Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary The Act of Killing (2012) – the use of Lee, a Chinese figure, as the Father is the intervention of their present history into the film’s discourse: of the southeast asia territorial dispute with China.
Headshot provides a gateway to confront a violent past and a confused present while not actually reducing into moral bipolarity. By intelligently and spectacularly presenting its fight scenes, the film does not condemn the use of force as a whole but reappropriate it back to its more basic sense – the use of force as a message, and it isn’t actually the method itself that is in itself, “evil”, so to say, but for what is this force being used. Headshot is actually mature enough to acknowledge that there will be a point in which the use of force will be necessary, especially when faced by enemies bigger than us. After all, it takes a bullet to the head to clear Ishmael of his fascistic programming.
Seeing Headshot makes me think that the imagination left by the violent history of the 1960s makes the film somehow a representative of their collective creative imagination. It is as if narrative unfolding with body movements and with bodies themselves would come out as natural in their films. The filmmakers took the liberty to inscribe its meaning on the representation of its characters while the fight scenes are used to illustrate the depth and intensity of each character’s relationship with Ishmael through the length of these confrontations and the way Ishmael fights his enemies (intensity of the punch blown, the amount of violence exerted). Narrative methods which are also present are characteristic of both chanbara and kung fu films (both cinema sub-genres were also, interestingly, products of historical transition of their respective countries).
The recent cultural climate, almost everywhere, is welcoming discussions of a political nature. Localized and cross-border discussions observably produce not just oral exchanges but also artistic and audiovisual texts. In the case of Headshot, it can be said that it a contribution to the on-going debate about Indonesia’s history, a response to The Act of Killing and Oppenheimer’s companion piece The Look of Silence (2014) using the same medium.
The existence of films such as Headshot makes me wonder about the age old debate between arthouse/mainstream/genre antagonisms between cinephiles and even critics. Or why is it that genre works often receive less serious appreciation and discussion, when it is such films that, most of the time, by intention or accident, more represent the collective consciousness, and thus can be a gauge of the actual material situation; the actual gauge of culture; an the actual field of power play between those who gets hold of the capital and their subjects (since, after all, genre works are being produced primarily for profit). While recent arthouse movements are burrowing more into the personal – appropiating socio-political issues for the “auteur’s” personal gain – recent genre cinema is increasingly becoming the arena of actual discourse.