Merantau

a.k.a. Merantau Warrior
directed by
 Gareth Evans

2009 / Pt. Merantau Films / 106
written by Gareth Evans and Daiwanne Ralie
cinematography by Matt Flannery
starring Iko Uwais, Sisca Jessica, Mads Koudal, Laurent Buson, Yusuf Aulia, and Alex Abbad

This write-up is based on the shorter international version of the film. There seems to be a nearly twenty minutes longer “director’s cut”, but what wonders it may contain I known not.

Country boy Yuda (Iko Uwais) is going on his Merantau, which, if I understand the film correctly and it’s not lying, is a kind of journey into the outside world all young men of his area have to fulfil to be accepted as proper grown-ups. Yuda plans to got to Jakarta and teach the martial art silat there.

But having arrived arrived in the big city the not exactly world-wise young man,soon finds himself penniless and without a roof over his head. The handful of contacts that should have provided him with a helping hand or two are all gone and unreachable, and so – this is after all a quest for him – Yuda decides to rough it and hope for the best.

Instead of teaching martial arts, Yuda falls foul of the unpleasant gangster Johni (Alex Abbad) when he decides to protect dancer Astri (Sisca Jessica) from his bullying ways – and that just after Astri’s brother Adit (Yusuf Aulia) has stolen his wallet. At first, Astri isn’t too happy with Yuda’s kind of help, seeing as it closes up the only source of income she and her brother have.

 
 
 

That’s just the beginning of Astri’s bad day, though, for Johni isn’t just your normal shady type, but in fact selling off some of his dancers to the insane couple of white slave traders Ratger (Mads Koudal) and Luc (Laurent Buson), and of course Astri is supposed to become part of the “merchandise”. Fortunately, Yuda is again at the right place to save the girl from trouble, even if it means first getting beat up by Johni’s henchmen to then start in with a furious comeback. Unfortunately, Ratger does not approve of getting hurt in the ensuing fight and begins to pursue Astri and Yuda with a passion, violence, and hordes of mooks.

By now, we all know about the horrible films that result when venerable Asian directors are exported to the west. Merantau is something of a bright mirror image of that sickening trend, and shows the great things that can happen when a young Welsh director goes to Indonesia to make a martial arts film. Even better, the positive buzz coming from everyone who counts (so not Roger Ebert, who couldn’t even be bothered to get the film’s plot right, it seems) for director Gareth Evans’s next Indonesian movie The Raid: Redemption (again starring Iko Uwais) suggests the success of Merantau to be far more than a happy accident.

Unlike what one might fear, Merantau isn’t the slightest bit touristy. Evans neither wallows in pretty postcard pictures (unless when it makes sense) nor in the look into the gutter aesthetic (again, unless when it makes sense). The director doesn’t present his characters as “exotic” Indonesians, instead showing them as people whose culture might be different from the one the director grew up in, yet who are individuals and not symbols for an interpretation of that culture.

At its core Merantau is telling a very traditional martial arts movie story about a country guy going to the big city and working for good there with his pure heart and his martial arts skills, but there are a few elements that deviate from the usual formula, if mostly in small ways. There is, for one, Evans’s complete avoidance of the horrible “country bumpkin in the city” humour that all too often doesn’t let a film’s hero look naive and a bit simple as it’s probably supposed to, but instead makes a viewer doubt his intellectual abilities completely; there’s a difference between being too stupid to live and lacking experience in city life the writers of that type of humour never seem to comprehend.

 
 
 

Evans’s film shows other positive deviations too, but those are of a kind I found a bit too surprising to want to spoil now, so I’ll just say that I did not expect two central plot points of the film to become quite as dark as they do in the end. It’s also very praiseworthy how the film’s actual dark moments surprise, yet still feel like organic parts of the movies and not like Evans shouting “look how grim and gritty this is”.

Merantau also differs from many (though by far not all) martial arts movies by putting actual effort into the non-action scenes, going out of its way to leave room for quiet moments that not so much provide depth to the characters as they provide them with humanity. That does of course make the action all the more impressive because the audience cares more about the characters inthose scenes. We’re not talking “naturalistic psychology” here, of course, but I don’t think that sort of thing could actually work in the context of a martial arts movie. Especially not in one that has the scenery-chewing Mads Koudal (and the less exalted Laurent Buson whose characters share the sort of male friendship with sado-masochistic undertones John Woo would approve of) as its big bad; including quiet moments does after all not mean a film has to eschew the larger than life when that’s more interesting.

Once it gets going – Evans clearly believes in a careful build-up – the film’s action (and here you thought I’d never actually talk about it) is quite fantastic, looking to my eyes like a mix of the brutal type of stunt work found in Thai cinema of the first decade of the century and more traditionally elegant fights. “Elegant”, even in the truly brutal later fights, is also a fine way to describe the film’s approach to fight choreography, as well as Iko Uwais performance. Even when blood is (mildly) spattering and bones are broken, Uwais seems so poised the old, and true, connection between martial arts cinema and ballet comes to mind again, especially after the film has brought the connection up directly early on in the proceedings.

As for weaknesses, from time to time it becomes visible that Evans must have worked on something of a shoe-string budget that didn’t allow the fights to take place in surroundings as impressive as their choreography would deserve, so the action takes place in the rather traditional bars, back streets and around a bunch of cargo containers, but at least it’s not a series of warehouses (or rather, one warehouse standing in for a series of warehouses). Truth be told, for most of the time, it’s too riveting watching Uwais to care about the background too much anyhow.


The Horror!? is a regular cult cinema column by Denis Klotz, aficionado of the obscure and operator of the film blog of the same name.

The Real Pocong

company: Sinemart Pictures
year: 2009
runtime: 97′
country: Indonesia
director: Hanny R. Saputra
cast: Sakinah Dava Erawan, Nabila Syakieb,
Ashraf Sinclair, Kinaryosih
writer: Aramantono
cinematography: Khatulistiwa
not on home video in the USA

As is somewhat traditional in films, a small, young family consisting of mother Rin(i) (Nabila Syakieb), father (I)Van (Ashraf Sinclair) and little daughter Laura (Sakinah Dava Erawan) moves into a new home in the country, although as a non-Indonesian I’d call it “the jungle” or at least “the deep dark woods”.

Rini and Van are enthusiastic about their new house. It was cheap, and there are none of the dangers of the city threatening their daughter now. One would think that the country air could also be good for Laura’s asthma. There’s a certain lack of neighbours, though, with the only person living nearby the young physician Dr. Nila (Kinaryosih). At least she’s friendly and could probably be of help when little Laura has one of her attacks.

Less friendly are other inhabitants of the area. Right on the family’s first day in the new house, Laura follows a strange, unsmiling girl of about her own age deeper into the woods, until she comes to a weather-beaten old shack beside a well. There, the other girl seems to disappear into thin air. Instead, something dressed in white funeral shrouds jumps Laura.

When Rini finds her deeply disturbed daughter, she can’t get a word out of the girl, and puts her strange behaviour on an understandable reaction to the new environment. In truth, a pocong (female Indonesian ghost dressed in white shrouds that often seems to have religious connotations I won’t pretend to understand) has taken an interest in the girl. At first, it seems relatively benign, turning into a kitten and sneaking into Laura’s room, or singing her lullabies, but just too soon the ghost again lures the girl to the shack.

Only this time, Laura doesn’t return.

The police (who are never actually shown by the film) find not a trace of the child, nor any explanation of what happened, so the desperate Rini seeks the help of a medium, very much against Van’s will. The medium diagnoses the place to be haunted and declares a pocong to be the child snatcher, but seems unwilling to act on her findings. Only when Van calls her out in a fit of aggressive scepticism she deigns to do something, and I can’t say that I find giving the sceptic an amulet that is supposed to help him cross over to the spirit world and then drive away never to return to be a very responsible action.

Surprisingly enough, Van actually uses the amulet to cross over (through a gate of pine trees, no less), and manages to bring Laura back. Of course, this is not the end of the family’s troubles.

The more films of the (as it seems still merrily continuing) Indonesian horror film boom I see, the more impressed I am with it. Of course, quite a few of the films are terribly generic, or marred by the sort of comic relief that is neither comical, nor any kind of relief, but you can say that of every country’s genre film output at the best of times. The important thing is the good films, and the good horror films made in Indonesia in the last five years or so tend to be very good, and quietly ambitious in exploring the possibilities of their genre.

The Real Pocong definitely is one of those good films. Directed by Hanny R. Saputra (whose other films I unfortunately know next to nothing about), it is a film that treats its horror story as a fairy tale. One just needs to have a look at the plot structure - like the way the film uses repetition - or the elements (the deep dark wood, the road into the other world, the child-snatching supernatural creature etc) of the plot to realize this.

The characters are more archetypes than psychologically “realistic” people. As such, they don’t always act as rational or logical as some viewers might want them to – especially Rini’s inability to completely understand what is happening around her in the final third of the film could be very problematic to some – but I’m not too sure I would find people learning that their little daughter has been kidnapped by a ghost and then acting rationally and logically that much more believable. Thankfully, the handful of actors is good enough to provide performances which do not confuse the archetypal with the inhuman.

I was especially impressed by Sakinah Dava Erawan. Child actors are often terrible, and I find it somewhat unfair to blame them for it, seeing that they just don’t have much life experience they could draw from, but I didn’t find it difficult at all to sympathize with this little girl. Cleverly, the first part of The Real Pocong lets the film’s audience share Laura’s perspective, her mixture of terror and wonder and the naturalness with which she treats the stranger occurrences around her; as a child, she doesn’t have the grip on what should be reality and what not a grown-up possesses, and because we share her view of the world, we don’t get to have that grip either.

As any good fairy tale would, the movie does well addressing anxieties people typically don’t want to be confronted with quite directly. The Laura-centric half of the film embodies many childhood anxieties. It’s not only the more banal ones like “the thing in the cupboard” or “the thing under the bed”, but the fear of not being understood by one’s parents, and the more painful fear of not being able to trust them.

The second half of the film puts the same (slightly painful) spotlight on the big parental fear of the loss of one’s child without going down either the road of Spielbergian kitsch, nor that of exploitative melodrama.

Apart from that, The Real Pocong also manages to be quite creepy (again, as a good fairy tale should be). While some of the special effects look a bit ropey, the production design and photography are excellent. This is one of the few horror films whose actions take place nearly entirely by daylight, and it proves that a director who knows what he’s doing doesn’t need darkness to build a mood of dread.

For more bizarre movie goodness, be sure
to visit Denis’ excellent review blog The Horror!?

Hantu Jeruk Purut

company: Indika Entertainment
year: 2006
runtime: 87′
country: Indonesia
director:
Koya Pagayo
cast: Angie Virgin, Samuel Z. Heckenbucker,
Sheila Marcia
writer: Ery Sofid
not on home video in the USA

Three friends are visiting an old cemetary by night. It is said that if an odd number of people circles the cemetary seven times, they will see the beheaded ghost of a priest who is supposed to haunt this place.

The legend turns out to be true. For some reason, it has missed the part about the ghost then slaughtering the odd number of people in a Final Destination-like semi-accident.

Romance writer Anna is trying to branch out by writing a non-fiction book about the supernatural. Unfortunately, she has decided on the same cursed cemetary as base for her book. After a short visit there of her own, the ghost starts to follow her around threateningly, or rather, the ghosts do - apart from the beheaded guy pittoresquely carrying his head in his hand, there is also a rotting and pale female ghost and a ghostly dog. Most active of them is the woman. She warns Anna that she’d better stop writing lies about them, but doesn’t give her much time to reconsider her writing or bothers to explain what exactly she is talking about.

Instead, the headless kills Anna in another strange semi-accident. While she’s bleeding to death (or is already dead – the film is never making this clear), Anna calls the student Rin (Angie Virgin), an acquaintance and aspiring writer herself, to beg her to finish the book for her.

Even after discovering the corpse of her idol, Rin decides to respect the dead woman’s wish. It’s not as if she hadn’t enough problems of her own, living with a mother who has become clinically depressed after divorce and Valen, the assholish boyfriend of her best friend Nadine trying to creep himself into her heart. The new writing project however grabs the girl at her ambition.

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Together with Nadine and Valen, Rin visits the cemetary, does her seven rounds and is from then on haunted by the ghosts herself. The girl isn’t dissuaded from her course by spooky visions, though, and soon the ghosts put their energy into harassing her friends and her mother whose fragile state of mind seems to make her quite attractive to unfriendly spooks.

Koya Pagayo’s Hantu Jeruk Purut is an extremely competent effort in the seemingly neverending struggle of a handful of Indonesian production houses to mix the more international version of the still popular Japanese ghost horror genre no reasonable person will call “J-horror” with typical teen horror and Indonesian ghosts and spooks. Describing it as “Final Destination meets Ju-On” wouldn’t be too wrong, but is also meaner than the film deserves.

My first impression on watching the film was one of craftsmanship and competence. I don’t know if this is typical of the films of Koya Pagayo, or if this one is an island of competence in the cheap mire that seems to make up about half of contemporary Indonesian horror (which is of course still a much better quota than we get from US horror), or if he is always this confident a director, but I am bound to find out sooner rather than later.

As is typical for films I praise with the less than enthusiastic word “competent”, Hantu Jeruk Purut impresses mostly through the avoidance of certain mistakes which too many other films seem to be seeking out with a true enthusiasm for wrong artistic choices.

Here, you won’t see supposedly ultra-hip young characters, nor experience the special kind of annoyance that comes with supposedly scary sequences only based on jump scares, nor will you have trouble parsing what happens on screen because the camera shakes as if held by an epileptic in the throes of a fit.

The young protagonists may be prettier than is realistic (not that I’m complaining, mind you) and have to deal with some soap operatic problems, but the film does not seem interested in glamour – something which usually is a bad fit for horror – and times its moments of melodrama quite well, never falling in the “too much boyfriend and not enough ghosts” trap. It does of course help that the actors playing them aren’t half bad.

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When it comes to the scares, Pagayo prefers the long shot of a ghost behind or floating over one of his protagonists to shouting “boo!” into his viewers’ faces, at first trying to build a mood before escalating the horror. This isn’t to say that there are no jump scares at all here, but rather that Pagayo uses other techniques in the horror book as well, which makes the few jump scares a bit more unexpected again. It’s also nice to have a relatively good look at the rather neat looking ghosts.

I really liked the way the film at first jumps into the horror action, but then decelartes for a slow build up and slow escalation to its plot until the loud and fast finale in a hospital. It’s an old-fashioned yet satisfying sort of structure.

Also worth mentioning, especially for people who know and dread the often clunky and ill-fitting way Indonesian horror uses comic relief, is that the film eschews humor completely apart from a moment in the introduction and one in the outro, which aren’t even all that painful.

The film’s big weakness and the point that could very well make you enjoy the film a lot less than I did is that it is not original at all in the elements it contains. We all have seen these kind of ghosts, these sorts of deaths and these characters a hundred times before in other films, screaming, running, dying and making creepy noises while crawling around on the floor. However, I can’t say that I mind much, or rather, I like many of the elements that make up the genre called “horror” and am watching horror films not necessarily for completely new experiences (although I’m fine with those), but for the way any given film mixes and matches the familiar elements, sometimes giving them unexpected twists, sometimes just repeating them in hopefully satisfying ways.

“Satisfying” is a good word for the way Hantu Jerak Purut turned out for me, and while it isn’t as brilliant as Rizal Mantovani’s Kuntilanak trilogy, it is a more than worthy part of the Indonesian horror boom.

For more bizarre movie goodness, be sure
to visit Denis’ excellent review blog The Horror!?

Bayi Ajaib

a.k.a. MIRACULOUS CHILD / INDONESIAN ‘THE OMEN’
P.T. Empat Gajah Film [1982] 94′
country: Indonesia
director: TINDRA RENGAT
cast: RIZWI IBRAHIM, RINA HASSIM,
cast: MUNI CADER, W. D. MOCHTAR

The Indonesian film industry has led an interesting, if troubled, life. Begun in 1926 by Dutch settlers and utilized throughout World War II as a propaganda machine for the occupying Japanese, the industry was turned towards nationalist and anti-Western propaganda by the post-war Sukarno government. Sukarno’s regime was overthrown in 1966, and the incoming New Order opened the medium to wider development while simultaneously restricting it with wide-ranging censorship laws. In spite of any number of political obstacles, the Indonesian film industry had come into its own by the end of the 1960′s and reached a veritable boiling point by the 1980′s.

Under the rule of Suharto’s New Order, film imports were all but unheard of [undoubtedly deemed dangerous to Suharto's authoritarian ambitions and his proposed social order] – but that didn’t stop producers from seeing the potential box office draw of productions based wholly or in part on popular international efforts. As had been the case in many other countries, Indonesia’s exploitation market, in particular, took notice of the trends around it, developing a unique and identifiable brand of horror that combined a whole world of genre traditions – from European gore to supernatural Hong Kong action.

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