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Merantau: a Silat player’s review

After several months of waiting, I finally saw Merantau[1], an Indonesian language, martial arts flick.  When watching the trailers it was billed as kind  of an Ong Bak, but with Muay Thai swapped for Pencak Silat.  Merantau more than delivered on this premise.

In terms of story, Merantau does very little to differentiate itself.  A boy from the country goes to the city and encounters evil men doing evil things to the vulnerable, and through gifts of well placed punches and kicks, he remedies the situation. Almost stereotypically, the main villain is a white guy with a bad temper who mistreats the women he plans to sell into prostitution.  Additionally, blood and gore were overused to little effect.[2]

Nonetheless…While the plot is overly familiar and the acting is not altogether memorable, director Gareth Evans breaks ground in a much more interesting manner.  This film marks the first time I’ve seen real Pencak Silat in a movie.   Most Indonesian movies seem to forget the beauty and richness of their native arts, and typically present fight scenes using choreography that looks more like karate or tae kwon do.  While those are respectable arts in their own right, they are not Silat, and it shows.  Though Merantau has a good number of Hollywood (Bali-wood?) touches with gigantic leaping kicks and improbable knockouts, it manages to stay grounded in its Silat core.   From the opening jurus scene to the finale, Silat practitioners will recognize many of the locks, traps, and manipulations that make the art so deadly and effective.  I took great pleasure in seeing foot traps and puter kepalas [3] subtly woven into the choreography.  Moreover Iko Uwais does an incredible job of making us believe Yuda, the protagonist, is truly a pendekar[4] of Silat Minangkabau (a style from Western Sumatra well known whose movements are well known throughout Indonesia).  Most importantly, Evans’ cinematography allows the viewer the fully appreciate the timing and fluidity of this choreography without getting overwhelmed with strange camera angles and slow motion effects.  For the most part its pure, enjoyable, unadulterated hand-to-hand combat.

I am hoping this movie will start an upward trend of Pencak Silat in movies.  If all goes well, someone will one day make an epic set in Dutch colonial times featuring not just Silat Minang, but also Silat Madura, Silat Cimande, Silat Mataram, and even Chinese Kuntao,

[1] The word “merantau” is roughly translated as “to wander about” or “to go abroad”  It plays a central role in Minangkabau culture, as inheritance is passed down matrilinearly (i.e. from woman to woman) and a man must go out into the world and earn his keep before returning to his homeland in Western Sumatra.  I believe this practice explains the multitude of Padang-style eateries across the archipelago.

[2]This review reminds me of why sentiment analysis is such a hard proposition.  I managed to state both negative and positive aspects in the same review in a manner that makes it nearly impossible for any algorithms to tease apart in a principled manner.  This little meta-blurb at the bottom probably doesn’t help as well.

[3] Puter = turn, Kepala = head

[4] Pendekar = master of martial arts