I didn’t know much about Merantau. In fact, I didn’t know anything about this action flick, but I learned really, really fast. Taking its title from the Indonesian rite of passage into manhood, Merantau follows Yuda as he takes on his journey with Jakarta being the place where he will mature. Yuda is hardly in the city a full day when he stops a gangster from abusing a girl in the sex trade, and what follows is the best martial arts film I’ve seen in years. If Ong-Bak is Ken from Street Fighter, flashy and not so heavy on story, then Merantau is Ryu, equal yet differing in its presentation.
What makes Merantau work so well for me was how quickly the story shifts from something innocent and fluffy to just dark and full of substance. This tale starts off as boy-saves-girl and ends not quite as one would expect. Not only does the narrative darken as it progresses, but Yuda must change to match it, as he is far too soft and naive at the beginning to stand a chance. He goes from losing a simple fight near the start to inflicting serious damage to his opponents, to the end of the film where he is all business, breaking bones and horribly (and sometimes fatally) kicking the crap out of the bad guys.
Centering the story around a relevant topic – the global trafficking and sex trade – was a brilliant idea, though I do feel there were a few things that didn’t come off as well as they could have. The main villain, while sinister and unforgiving, was at times a little too over the top. There is a scene where he hits his best friend in the face with a whiskey glass, cutting him bad enough that the blood (a really poor fake blood at that) flows in rivers. Worst, he does it really without a reason I can call valid. Also, I find his obsessive hatred for Yuda a little skeptical. With the resources he has available to him, his motives for wanting Yuda dead – his face was cut by a glass bottle our hero kicked - are a little flimsy at best, but we go along with it because “he always settles his scores.”
My negatives aside, Merantau is still a really exciting film in the regard that it now causes me turn an eye toward Indonesian action films, as well as the martial art of silat, which I will have to do some homework on. Thankfully this won’t be the only time I see it on film; the director Gareth Evans as well as Yuda’s character, played by Iko Uwais, are teaming up for another film called Berandal, currently in preproduction. Rest assured I will be keeping tabs on this one (taking place in a prison), hoping that lightning strikes twice in Indonesia.
If you’re interested in Merantau, check out the trailer:
Merentau will be playing on Thursday, July 8th at 3:45pm at the Walter Reade Theater. Tickets can be purchased here.