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.

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