Merantau (Indonesia, 2009)

When Yuda, master of the Indonesian martial art silat must follow his native tradition and leave home as a young man to find success in the big city (in Yuda’s case, to teach his chosen art form to the children of big city Jakarta), trouble arises and his dreams are dashed when he is left homeless, without a job, and mixed up with deadly thugs embroiled in dangerous transcontinental dealings.

For most fight fans, the prospect of a new and exciting traditional martial art finally given life on celluloid is a thrilling one- with Tony Jaa making waves with his Muay Thai based action films in the last few years, is the community ready- or even there- for a new star to rise through the ranks of martial arts cinema heroes? Comparisons to 2003’s Thai hard-hitter Ong Bak are inevitable to a viewer accustomed to Tony Jaa’s debut star-vehicle.  It’s the familiar tale of boy from tiny village comes to big city, boy meets girl, and boy gets tangled up in a mess with people more powerful and dangerous than him. After a dramatic setup which is maturely told and woven into the framework pre-action, the film is left with nothing left to do but kick into high gear with the fight scenes coming thick and fast.

At first, it seems Merantau has something new to offer. Fresh movements packing agility with an emphasis on grabs and holds goes hand-in-hand with an abundance of sweeping knee manoeuvres and kicks. Quickly though, it becomes all to clear something is not quite on the money. Iko Uwais, our star, seems to be not fully adept at wholeheartedly convincing the audience he is a potent fighter. The choreography at times seems under-paced, just a tad not fast or slick enough, with the trading-of-blows looking very staged and seemingly the stuntman is, for the most part, doing all the work, taking away a credibility from fights that are nicely put together, if not exactly differing themselves from one another within the film. It does seem that with new each sequence, the same combination of blows are used over and over again and at its heart, this is what makes Merantau an eventual drag to sit through.

Narratively, what Merantau does have over it’s contemporaries is dramatically, it’s overtly more effective with very well written dialogue and emotional performances from the two main leads (Iko, and romantic interest, Christine Hakim) which culminates in quite a harsh, but affecting ending. The only negative is the main villains of the piece.  Speaking in broken English and wielding over-the-top pieces of dialogue, they seem to be not quite fully fleshed out characteristically; they’re evil, and this is all the viewer is meant to know.  If their anger and violent, cruel acts are anything to go by, this is all the viewer will want to know. Director Gareth Evans has clearly a talent for directing story and character-interaction, and other than the fight scenes being quite workman-like, they, along with the rest of the film, are shot well.

In conclusion, Merantau‘s heart is definitely in the right place. It’s a shame the action is a bit too generic to make it a real contender in the genre race, but the director-star team behind the film are definitely a pair to keep your eyes on. With the golden era of rough-and-ready action film behind us, it’s a pleasant feeling to have filmmakers around still interested in crafting movies of a begone era.

Check out our podcast discussion of Merantau here.

Tom Kent-Williams is a writer, reviewer and co-host at the Podcast On Fire Network currently residing in Birmingham, England. He has been in love with Asian cinema since seeing Akira for the first time and has a slight man-crush on Chow Yun-fat. Hong Kong cinema floats his boat big time, along with synthpop, classic gaming and cups of tea in large mugs.