Merantau: The Films of Gareth Evans
With The Raid: Redemption now in cinemas around the world or on the cusp or release, the names of its stars have been gaining traction, those names being Iko Uwais, the star and master practitioner of Pencak Silat, and the director, Gareth Evans, from the Welsh valleys, who grew up with a love of Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, Sam Peckinpah and John Woo. That love relayed itself into pursuing a career in cinema. Despite the misstep in 2006, with his little seen directorial debut, Footsteps, Evans never gave up on his dream until a moment of genuine serendipity when he found himself with the opportunity to direct a documentary about martial arts in Indonesia, an opportunity that lead from his Japanese-Indonesian wife. That lead to him making his next film, Merantau, where he started his work partnership with Iko Uwais and Yayan Ruhian, and the rest is history, as they say.
The notion of a foreign director coming into the martial arts cinema industry and changing it is not a new one. Take King Boxer (Five Fingers of Death), for example. One of the most important and influential martial arts films that established things like the jumping face off, white powder on the actors to accentuate the power of blows, many genre tropes and conventions where established through this movie, and it was directed by a Korean director (Chang-Hwa Jeong). Where does Gareth Evans fit and what has he done for the genre?
The reputation this movie has is imbalanced and perhaps overtly destructive. There are far worse contemporary martial arts films that have gone unscathed in the presence of the internet’s bang on critical faculties (Choy Lee Fut and BKO: Bangkok Knockout, perchance?). Now it would be over-zealous to suggest that Merantau is faultless, but as a seed from which something great grew there is plenty to take note of.
Taking a backward step, Merantau is a cultural tradition of Indonesian people where the young men go out in the world to become men. Upon arriving in the big city, Yuda (Iko Uwais) meets a lovable exotic dancer being abused and steps in to save the day; from there the dancer and the fighter become inexorably connected as the innocent, fresh-faced Yuda fights to keep her away from this seedy world. Naturally the dancer, Astri (Sisca Jessica), has a younger brother. There are also two Caucasian brothers who run a crime family involved; naturally they are fighters too, in this case a boxer and a kick boxer. Merantau deals in broad stereotypes and clichés of the genre, as per expectations it’s in the fight that these types of films live and die.
Before we get to that, it is very clear that this is a director learning his trade. Allow me indulge in a geeky film-making detail that the film fails wholly at. When there is a scene where two people are talking to each other, the camera has to be moved in a certain way for the audience to understand who is talking to whom. Here there is a scene where Astri is talking to Yuda in an industrial pipe and the way it has been shot implies that they are talking to each other and themselves. It’s all a bit of a mess and for a scene that is supposed to be suggesting some blossoming potential romance between the two it muddles the scene. The director of photography did a poor job, but it’s still a forgivable occurrence given Evans’s flair for action.
The first sign that Evans has an inclination towards excessive screen violence is shocking in a way all good on-screen violence should be. Yuda has just been beaten down, dusting himself off he pursues the man who snatched Astri against her will, and he beats up the lackeys in the night club with more confidence than he has at any other point so far. He then picks up a bottle from the bar before rushing into the next room and kicks it into one of the aforementioned Caucasian’s faces. The bottle smashes and many of the fragments of broken glass stick into his face. Bleeding profusely, he then takes some of the broken glass out of his face to teach the club owner a lesson for letting this happen. It’s a strange piece of screen violence, and a nasty one at that.
The centrepiece of Merantau, as is the case with many martial arts films, is the final act. Here the standout moment is the face-off between Uwais and Ruhian in an elevator and it’s an intense and frantically choreographed screen-fight which in no way is hampered by the limited floor space. It’s a truly magnificent sequence. After the elevator doors open, we see Evans first foray into his shooting mode with guns. It’s here that the Western technique of shakycam is used, only it’s not to mask a lack of technique, it’s to accentuate the power of the weaponry tearing through flesh and muscle.
This five-ten minute sequence is a dress rehearsal for what is bound to forthcoming in The Raid. Easily rivalling anything that already infamously violent follow up can offer. Afterwards there is a climactic face-off between Yuda and dozens of men. It’s nothing new to have a one-versus many climax, but the beautiful and brutal fluidity of the Pencak Silat martial art is never more magnificent in its exhibition than it is here. Merantau is a flawed film, but it’s never anything less than a violent dress rehearsal for greater things to come from Gareth Evans and co.
With that warm-up comes the main event. In the first act of the film, it’s guns and not the pivotal martial arts that take the centre stage. That same shakycam application in that one scene of Merantau is played with to optimum effect, though debatably there is less viscera and flayed fleshhere than in that sequence.
Conceptually similar to many horror scenarios and the siege dynamic of the action genre, many people on the invading police forces side die quickly. With those quick deaths, the mechanics of the film change from a point and shoot ideal to a beat-‘em-up with a horror-tinged stalking of the survivors by the superiorly equipped gang members. Where Merantau was a traditional genre film, this is anything but, even by the standards the genre has turned towards with dark themes and plots paving the genres way in recent years. This too is dark, potentially more so than anything the genre has ever given us before, however contrary to that tone, the darkness doesn’t extend its touch to the lead character (Uwais’s Rama) and his resolution.
The violence cannot be overstated; heads are smashed into walls, backs are broken and jugulars are sliced, and there’s always something around the corner to outdo what comes before. The splatter might be limited, but the broken bones and blood are incredibly excessive; martial arts cinema has rarely been this extreme. Thanks to the flurry of fists and feet, though, it’s also always breathlessly entertaining. If this truly was action packed from the first to the final second the audience would be overwhelmed with adrenaline and excitement. The occasional respites, or breaks between levels to continue the video game analogy, help to process what came before.
Still in a developmental stage in Merantau, the direction of Evans here is that of someone with incredible confidence for such a young director at such an early stage of his (hopefully long and fruitful) career. What sells all of this idealism and excessive use of the superlative is the approach that Evans has to screen violence. These men are not superheroes. Both heroes and villains get beaten thoroughly, even after a winner emerges; they emerge with cuts and bruises. If any inspiration could be drawn it could be drawn from Sammo Hung’s classic filmography. Strangely there is a reality that undercuts the hyper-real, hyper-nasty violence that imposes meaning and humanity onto the relentless and bloody murder of countless re-spawning villains. If they were no consequences, The Raid wouldn’t thrill in the same adrenalized way.
The Raid isn’t without its problems, of which we have blink-and-you-miss-it story and character growth and the soundtrack. Regarding the script, written by Evans, it shows that he still has plenty of room to grow, and that prospect and potential for growth is very exciting. The soundtrack, however, reeks of compromise to get people in cinemas in the west by using the producer from Linkin Park, Mike Shinoda. By using him it basically ticks the box, ignoring a history of martial arts cinema composition that both reflects the colour of its country of origin as well as a momentum that keeps the adrenaline pumping when it’s necessary and the excitement palpable when it’s not. This re-cut score merely ticks a box.
The work of Gareth Evans, Iko Uwais and Yayan Ruhian has achieved something incredible: it has announced the existence of the Indonesian film industry in a bigger way than ever before thanks to the best martial arts film since the last golden era. Such excellence brings to the fore what Evans means in the grand scheme of things. By being such a gold mark of brilliance and creating such a beast of hype, Evans has shown the world that this style of cinema that has long been confined to the DVD shelves has the potential to appeal to a mass audience, thanks to the story being universal instead of centric to Eastern mores and culture. Furthermore, this is thanks the influences that he has incorporated into his work, whether it is a vague sense of dread from horror, the chaos of John Woo or the paranoia and claustrophobia you’ll find in the work of John Carpenter.
Gareth Evans and his production company, Merantau films, have made this martial cinema fan optimistic for the future. In opening the door, it’s now just a matter of seeing who walks through it and what they bring with them.