This silat film breaks the mold
Gary Nathan Gartenberg
The Raid: Redemption is the first Indonesian motion picture to gain international recognition and commercial success. Welsh-born, Jakarta-based director Gareth Evans and Iko Uwais, his native Jakartan action star, have found the magic formula to bring Indonesian martial arts culture to the world stage. This is a gritty, mean streets Jakarta combat film that is not designed for the faint of heart.
Merantau is a Minang term that denotes leaving home in search of fortune and experience. Although he is a Welshman rather than a West Sumatran, and not yet fluent in Indonesian, clearly merantau resonates in Gareth Evans’ world. About five years ago, after his filmmaking career stalled in the UK, Evans’ half-Indonesian, half-Japanese wife, Maya Rangga Barack-Evans, arranged for him to direct a Christine Hakim Films documentary on the Indonesian martial arts called pencak silat. A lifelong lover of Asian martial arts cinema, Evans then seized upon silat as the subject for an action film. Merantau (2009) is also the title of Evans’ first martial arts feature, in which he introduced silat star Iko Uwais. Together with experienced Jakarta producer, D. Ario Sagantoro, Evans and his wife have established a vibrant film production company, P.T. Merantau Films and have made Jakarta home.
The Raid: Redemption is an off the chain, headlong plunge into improvisational martial mayhem. It celebrates the no holds barred, single fighter style of combat long favoured in gangland Jakarta society. There is really no time to explain the particular silat styles in The Raid. What ensues is a protracted yet suspenseful dance of death. Within the claustrophobic interior of a run down, high rise condominium, the action unfolds rapidly in unexpected ways that do not give the viewer much breathing space to indulge in a critique of logical inconsistencies in the narrative.
The film opens with scenes of the hero Rama (Iko Uwais) faithfully reciting his morning prayers, alternating with close shots of his intense pugilistic discipline. He bids his father and pregnant wife goodbye, admonishing his unborn son to await his return. Then it is off to work for the rookie SWAT team in commando blacks. In the blink of an eye his squad is loaded in a battle van and hurtling towards its target, the condo tower lair of ruthless drug lord Tama (Ray Sahetapy).
From the early minutes of the assault it is clear that the elite force has entered a death trap and is outgunned, outmanned and under detailed video surveillance. On the first few floors of the building, Tama’s street hoodlum followers (preman) handily dispatch most of the commandos. We later discover that the mission is covert, unauthorised and without back up. Rama and the few other surviving team members have no choice but to fight their way to the top of the building through gun and machete wielding bands of thugs. What follows is a desperate kill or be killed cavalcade of violent encounters featuring myriad weapons and hand to hand combat techniques executed at breakneck speed.
The surviving members of the commando force must also get past the potent silat skills and tenacity of Tama’s chief enforcer, Mad Dog (Yayan Ruhian). Ruhian’s cold, menacing performance and fighting talents are a highlight of the film. It is truly remarkable how poorly the elite commando force fares at the hands of the local gangsters. In the New Order past, a film featuring corrupt police officials and preman killing SWAT commandos would likely have faced significant obstacles from the censors. It appears there is some kind of new day dawning in Jakarta.
Budgetary constraints forced Evans to adopt a repertory approach with a small group of actors. Iko Uwais and Yayan Ruhian also served as the combat choreographers for the film. Pre-production included an elaborate martial arts and military regimen consisting of a bootcamp for the actors portraying SWAT commandos. This was held at the headquarters of the Indonesian Navy Elite Frogman Corps (Kopaska).
In 2011, Tempo Magazine awarded ‘best film of the year’ to the original Indonesian version of The Raid, entitled Serbuan Maut. Soon after, it won praise in the international film festival circuit in venues ranging from South by Southwest (SXSW) in Austin Texas to the Sundance Film Festival in Utah. Sony Pictures Classics picked it up for distribution at the Cannes Film Festival, and it later won the ‘Midnight Madness’ award at the Toronto Film Festival. Mike Shinoda, key member of Grammy Award winning new metal band Linkin Park, and Daft Punk collaborator Joseph Trapanese created a bold, futuristic score for the international version of the film.
In March 2012 Sony Pictures Classics released The Raid to a limited number of specialised markets in the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, and Indonesia. Its popularity grew exponentially from there and it continues to penetrate new territories.
With The Raid: Redemption, Gareth Evans proves himself a rising talent. He is quickly becoming a master of the action medium, capturing fast paced martial arts sequences in a compelling manner. Evans’ filming techniques allow the actors to fully articulate their movements, vividly showcasing every deadly subtlety. Evans had the astute vision to tap into the lingua franca of martial arts to promote his cinematic talents through an Indonesia centred lens. This is a well-planned project with room for sequels and spin-off products like comic books and video games. A U.S., English language version is in the works after rights were acquired by Screen Gems.
Until now, Indonesian cinema was largely a domestic affair with little hope of crossing over into the international film market. Silat films of decades past did not have adequate production values or cinematic charisma to transition into foreign markets. Evans’ powerful creations have established a benchmark for more Indonesian martial arts films to rival action cinema from China, Japan, Hong Kong, Korea and Thailand.
The future is bright for Mr. and Mrs. Evans assuming that they wish to fulfill the promise to represent Indonesia’s silat world. There is no shortage of local narrative material to work with. It would also be exciting to see some of the silat stars of yesteryear strut their moves before a director with such sensitive devotion to the representation of traditional combat arts. The lack of female warriors in the first two features surely demands a robust remedy. Gareth Evans has the potential to join the storied company of such legendary action directors as Sam Peckinpah, John Woo, or Roberto Rodriguez. His challenge will be to build upon the momentum as budgets and expectations rise.
The Raid: Redemption, (Dir.) Gareth Evans, 2011.
Gary Nathan Gartenberg (email@example.com) is an independent scholar in Berkeley, California.