Merantau (2009)
AKA Merantau Warrior

Starring Iko Uwais, Sisca Jessica, Christine Hakim, Mads Koudal, Yusuf Aulia, Alex Abbad, Yayan Ruhian, Laurent Buson, Doni Alamsyah, Ratna Galih

Directed by Gareth Evans

Expectations: High. Heard some great things. Also heard it’s bad. We’ll see.

Told simply, Merantau is one of the most impressive martial arts débuts of all time. Iko Uwais, a practitioner of Silat since childhood, busts out of nowhere in his first film and literally annihilates the competition. He’s no joke, and he’s easily the next big thing in martial arts cinema. Watching Merantau gave me the same feeling I had when I first saw Tony Jaa work his magic on-screen in Ong Bak. Uwais comes off as a combination of Jaa’s hard-hitting brutality and Jackie Chan’s playful, “grab your surroundings as weapons” style, and it’s a true joy to watch. He’s doesn’t seem as athletic as Jaa, or as inventive as Chan, but he is a great amalgamation of the two distinctly different styles. There’s nothing in the world like watching a master martial artist at work, and Merantau is filled with stunning, thrilling examples of just that.

The merantau referenced in the film’s title refers to our hero’s journey from his small village to Jakarta. It’s his merantau, or the time in his life when he must leave his village in search of enriching experiences and success. It is Yuda’s dream to teach Silat to others and he hopes to do just that when he hits Jakarta. He does teach some baddies just how badass and effective a martial art Silat is along the way, but somehow I don’t think that’s what he had in mind. In any case, not much info is given on what the merantau entails before it begins in the film, and not much is needed. From the opening scenes it is clear that it is a perilous journey, and one fraught with danger and intrigue. It is a journey that every man in the village must endure, and we as the viewer will undertake it without prior knowledge, the same as Yuda.

The plot of Merantau can easily be written off as an afterthought, or perhaps underdeveloped, but it would be too shallow to simply hurl insults at it. Sure, there isn’t a lot of dialogue, but there is a strong through-line of emotion, drama and narrative running through every scene. The fact that everything comes through perfectly without the use of words is a testament to the direction of Gareth Evans, who skillfully tells his story with clever camera work and expert editing. And besides, the story is about a somewhat timid young guy in search of his manhood amidst a sea of villains who punch first and ask questions later when you’re in a heap upon the ground… how much dialogue does there need to be? About this much is the correct answer, and again, I was surprised at just how involved I was with every character by the end of the film.

But yeah, you’ve seen this story told before, and you’ve probably seen it told better. But don’t let that stop you from watching Merantau, because when you’re sportin’ a giant shit-eating grin through some of the most fun and impressive cinematic fights of the last few years, you just can’t argue about the worth of the film through its narrative. No shit, Uwais and Team Silat have crafted some incredible fights for martial arts fans to hoot, holler and cringe over. Every single fight is excellent, but my favorite in particular is the one-on-one fight in the elevator. I’m partial to one-on-one match-ups and boy, does this one fit the bill. A good majority of the fight is contained in a single take as well, exciting my intellectual filmmaking instincts as well as my primal instincts to knee an asshole in the face. Merantau is the real deal.

As much as I loved Merantau, it definitely has its flaws. But for a martial arts début, it is nothing short of stunning and Iko Uwais is definitely one to look out for. In fact, you can look out for him to hit a cinema near you soon (or perhaps currently, if you’re in a major market) in the newest collaboration between Uwais and Evans, The Raid! I’m going to be checking that one out as soon as possible. It opens on Friday near me, so if everything goes to plan, expect a review early next week.

And as a small side note, I love the fact that Merantau continues the Hong Kong tradition of having wildly over-the-top, asshole Western characters as the villains. To many non-martial arts fans, I’m sure this would be a turn-off, but for me it really hit the spot. The fact that these Westerners are also of the “super kicker” variety so often seen in Jackie Chan films of the 80s only furthers my love for the film.