Joseph Campbell Would Have Been Proud – Merantau

I did a fairly stupid thing recently. Well, stupid by the definition of others, perhaps, but to my mind, it was worth the gamble I threw the dice for. When I was in Jakarta some weeks ago, it came to my attention that there is a film festival called the Indonesia International Fantastic Film Festival. Interestingly, the shorthand for the festival is INAFFF. It took me some time to wonder how the name fit into that.

Anyways, the surprise for me was the closing film of the festival being ‘The Raid’. Lauded at a number of international film festivals worldwide, ‘The Raid’ is an action film that will soon be released internationally, a mighty fine achievement for a film from Indonesia. However, though I am attracted by the trailer, I am also keen on the film because of the film’s director-actor combination. Gareth Evans and Iko Uwais were responsible for the excellent ‘Merantau’ I had heard of for many years, but only saw some months ago. I wanted to write a review for it then, but it slipped off my mind. Now is the time for me to make amends for it.

Even crossing bridges in Jakarta can be dangerous.

‘Merantau’ is an Indonesian silat film, and you’re not likely to forget it. Given the fact that started out with the film’s star performing some solid moves in a sequence that appears to be outside of the film’s narrative, I conclude that the opening bit is designed to capture the attention of the audience. But capture it it did, and before long, we are thrust into the story of Yuda (Iko Uwais), a young Minangkabau man from West Sumatra, who must leave his home in order to find experience and success. It is a tradition called merantau, which fans of the film ‘Australia’ may associate as ‘walkabout’, but what many Malaysians call ‘cheap foreign labour’. While that seems harsh, that appears to be the fate that befalls our star; upon his arrival in Jakarta, he finds that the address given no longer exists, being nothing more than a house under renovation.

As fate would have it, he has his wallet stolen by a young child, Adit (Yusuf Aulia). He goes off after the perpetrator, and bumps into her sister Astri (Sisca Jessica) having a major argument with her boss, Johni (Alex Abbad). He comes to her rescue, but discovers that she is in the GRO business, and Johni is as good as her pimp and rice bowl. Of course, with that, she becomes angry at Yuda instead. However, his country boy charms, perhaps even naivity, endears him to her, and over time, they become more involved, which complicates things even further for all those involved.

He's so hot his hands looks like they're on fire...

As I watched the film, I was moved to be reminded of the hero’s journey as written and popularised by Joseph Campbell. It is a standard formula that has been used for many stories, and I wondered whether copies of his writing had been left in Indonesia long ago, sparking this tradition of wandering and experience as a measure of being and becoming a man. There are more than just a few similarities between this film and the likes of ‘Gladiator’ and ‘Star Wars’. I find myself being encouraged at the reminder of the universality of the hero’s journey.

Of course, that’s reading a little too much into the story’s structure. This is an action film that deserves to be looked at as such. From that point of view, the action sequences in the film is as impressive as any other film I’ve seen. One must remember that with more limitations, a small film like this had to be smaller in terms of its scale and imagination. Of course, no one told Gareth and Iko, and they bled every single drop of imagination out of their skulls to craft some very eye-catching scenes. As a result of that, though this may be something that flies in the face of the realistic world the film appears to reside in, Yuda comes off looking like Superman. Perhaps to be more specific…he reminds me of Jackie Chan. Action sequences that involve sofas and those taking place in a construction site evokes Jackie’s tendency to use the environment as a character in the fight scenes. A few more smiles and “Ah, that really hurts!” expressions, and we’d wonder whether the spirit of Jackie has made its way to Indonesia. He gets beaten, he comes back for more, giving more credence to the journey that is merantau; experience is the greatest teacher of all, and Yuda is a very, very good student.

He misunderstood the concept of high heels.

Having said that, this is an action film with a heart. As we see in the film, Johni is not the ultimate bad guy, being subservient to Ratger (Mads Koudal) and Luc (Laurent Buson). They’re interested in, shall we say, expanding the business interests. The fact that their business is concerned with trafficking women and enslaving them in the foreign sex trade is the slightly off-putting part about these good-looking goons. A more serious review might even consider the connotations made between the film’s representations of the foreigners in this film and Indonesia’s colonial history, a history that was bloody and brutal in its own nature. I don’t know much about Indonesian history, though, so I shall refrain from expounding a deeper analysis here.

Ultimately, then, this is a film that shows the building of characters in the best way possible. Many would think of martial arts films as action films, requiring nothing more than the most visceral of visual experiences to be satisfied. A film that ‘Merantau’ has been compared to is ‘Ong Bak’, and it is understandable, as the main character also deals with issues of isolation and alienation in a similar fashion. Without wishing to make a direct comparison, I will say that ‘Merantau’ stands strong and tall because the film itself is a kind of journey for us. We see the character growing throughout the entire film; at the same time, the other actors are not particularly neglected either. I challenge you not to feel something by the film’s end.

This guy is really Mads for Jakartan chicks. Ho hum.

Oh, and the gamble I mentioned at the start? Turns out the film screening was on the day of my flight itself. Having considered it, I decided to change my flight ticket and extend my hotel stay, both of which costs several hundred ringgit. I wondered whether I was mad or just a big film buff…or both. Given that I did not have a ticket in hand, it might not have been the wisest thing to do, but it is a gamble I can’t not take, a dice I had to throw.

And a very big part of the reason why is ‘Merantau’.

Fikri didn’t get to watch ‘The Raid’, but he did drink a copious amount of Teh Botol from a botol.

3 thoughts on “Joseph Campbell Would Have Been Proud – Merantau

  1. you’ve taken some time to wondering how the shorthand “INAFF” fit to the name of the festival and still don’t get that the real name is “INAFFF” :lol

    although I agree that it is not really suitable abbreviation…
    i prefer “INA-IFFF” than “INAFFF”…

    1. Haha, yeah. The proofreading department has let me down. Heads will roll for this… 🙂 In truth, I think I got it fairly quickly (INdonesiA international Fantastic Film Festival), but it’s still not the most natural of abbreviations…


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