Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Fantastic Fest review: Merantau

Merantau [****]

There’s not much to say about Indonesian martial arts film “Merantau” that isn’t complementary. For being the region’s first martial arts film in over fifteen years it seems like a triumphant return to form, the action choreography is, in a word, stellar and the film itself is, well, gorgeous. At least, the best looking movie I’ve seen since “My Blueberry Nights.”

The plot of “Merantau” is standard stuff, it concerns the merantau (coming of age journey, like a walkabout) of a young man named Yuda (Iko Uwais) who goes from rural Sumatra to Jakarta hoping to land a job teaching Silat (the martial art showcased in the film), but when the address he’d been given turns out to be under construction he spends his time wandering the streets and sleeping at construction sites. Everything changes when he chases a young pickpocket down an alley and subsequently saves the young pickpocket’s sister from a beating by a club boss which leads to a series of confrontations and the reveal of bigger villains in a tall, imposing Eurotrash slave trader and his twin brother.

The film’s main villains played by Mads Koudal and Alex Abbad, are like so much else in the film a study in opposites. Mads Koudal’s Rutgar is ferocious, but somehow calm, cool and collected all at once. When he picks a shard of glass out of his face, he uses it to cut Johni (Alex Abbad), the other villain, just below the eye and that small wound seems to affect him almost as much as being bent like a pretzel during his first encounter with Yuda. Johni is reminiscent of a smug, wimpy, less attractive version of Zachary Levi unless you put him up against a woman and then he’s king bad ass. Putting Rutgar beside Johni one begins to wonder how a man can be in the slave trade doing business with such a dangerous man and still be a huge pansy. Another henchman sees in Yuda a reflection of himself, young and idealistic once but now making ends meet as a thug. He’s an intriguing enough character that I wish I knew more about what led him to choose a less virtuous path, but like so much of the movie what it does give me is enough.

I don’t need to tell you that the fights on rickety bamboo structures, inside night clubs and on a pedestrian overpass are glorious, but it must be said that they are appropriately scaled. Not every single action scene is bigger than the next, some only build to a certain point and end without excessive escalation, something you don’t see happen when it’s time to showcase the next great martial art and its heir apparent (I’m looking at you, Tony Jaa). One fight even acknowledges a fact that I’ve been made aware of numerous times in my Harlan Coben reading, that three guys could take one well trained guy on because nobody attacks one at a time. It doesn’t stop the hero from engaging in impossible fisticuffs later but it is refreshing to see that fight end on that note.

The thing that really sets “Merantau” apart from other martial arts films is the baggage that it gives characters. An early exchange between Yuda and his mother suggests a burden was placed on his older brother that he couldn’t bear, while the pickpocket’s older sister Astri inherits the role of parent and protector when she and her brother are abandoned by the family, even the villain bears the burden of his brother’s scars. “Merantau” is about the shadows that loom large over us and how we struggle through our actions to cast them away, it’s that sentiment (and “Merantau” is pretty much slathered in sentimentality) that makes this the most affecting martial arts picture in some time in a way that goes beyond technical excellence. It truly manages to be moving by the end. I loved it.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Fantastic Fest review: The Legend is Alive

The Legend is Alive [**]

With a title like “The Legend is Alive” a certain expectation is built in automatically such as the promise of things happening that are, in the words of Barney Stinson, "legendary" (or super exciting for the uninitiated) and punching and kicking people on a grand scale should ensue (also because we've seen the trailer). Nevermind that after “The Rebel” the presence of Dustin Tri Nguyen inundates viewers with the prospect of the thrills so prevalent in that film (a cunning, furious, ruthless martial arts epic), but also that the story we see, if we buy into, will move us to our core and be something we carry in our hearts forever. Like with “A Man Who was Superman” it presents us a simple situation we must take as the gospel of the film.

Bruce Lee (Dustin Tri Nguyen) is a mentally handicapped boy who lives with his mother, a martial arts instructor, and he believes his shadow is his father. The children make fun of him and with that his mother eventually tells him his father is the martial arts legend Bruce Lee and he is dead and buried in America. When his mother dies, Bruce tries desperately to find a way to America to spread his mother’s ashes to be with the real Bruce Lee and he befriends a girl who, in the old traditional martial arts standby, is kidnapped and forced into prostitution and Bruce tries to help her. He’s a great martial artist, an idiot savant with a deadly temper, but he’s trying to honor his mother’s wishes not to use martial arts to hurt people, but he can’t reason himself into fighting these men—he tries asking, but it doesn’t work. Things get ugly…eventually.

Half of “The Legend is Alive” could have been the traditional martial arts picture viewers were expecting. It could have sated the appetites of people whose expectations went unfulfilled while still being the artsy introspective story of a guy trying to honor his mother. I was behind the film’s central lie that you have to believe for it to work, I loved the relationship between Bruce and his mother and I think Dustin Nguyen’s full retard performance was a thing of beauty. So much of this film works because I love the emotional component brought to the story, but the film’s martial artsistry figures heavily into the advertising and the expectation so as a viewer I can’t forgive myself or the film for being ashamed of the fact that it should be an epic ass kicker for the last forty-five minutes. The film does everything it can to foster this belief in us about Bruce then when it gives us the truth of the lie it wants us to do so without giving us the satisfying emotional or physical payoff we've earned. Bruce’s mother would’ve wanted him to help, but he’s mentally challenged so maybe he shouldn’t just go in half-cocked…it’s a cheat giving us a damned if you do, damned if you don’t type situation. We are firmly supplanted in a scenario where nobody wins, I could forgive it everything for being about a retarded guy and say all is forgiven, but the Thai’s gave me “full retard” action with “Chocolate” and I think her mom would’ve told her not to if she could’ve and if her mother did then she didn’t listen. She fucked people up from start to finish. Maybe I’m just spoiled, but then again Bruce Lee is supposed to be the goddamn legend and he is alive. It takes about seventy-seven minutes to show it but it finally happens.

When you consider this film is supposed to be a film dedicated to mothers you have to ask yourself: are mothers opposed to things for them that kick ass? I bet when Quentin Tarantino crafts a movie with a strong heroine he is probably thinking of his mother and I bet his mom isn’t thinking “this movie would be better if these bitches weren’t so bad ass.” I bet that writer/director Luu Huynh’s mother (assuming she is still alive) said I wouldn’t have minded if he kicked the bad guy’s butts more or sooner. Nobody would’ve minded the fighting, but bending over backwards not to be honest with yourself is kind of a problem.

Sadly, the legend is a lie.