Merantau: A Review

After being wowed by the action of The Raid: Redemption, I decided to check out the same team’s first collaboration, a 2009 Indonesian film entitled Merantau, which also stars real life Silat champion Iko Uwais in the lead role of Yuda. Yayan Ruhian, who also had a hand in the fight choreography for The Raid, also plays a supporting role, and Donny Alamsyah who was Iko’s brother in The Raid, again plays his big brother in this movie.

Merantau (Wandering) is an Indonesian rite of passage for young men in transition to manhood. When this time comes, they are encouraged to leave their homes and undertake their own journeys to learn about life, and further widen their perspectives through new experiences. Tomato picker Yuda (Uwais) is excited to go on the journey to follow the footsteps of his brother (Alamsyah) whom he idolizes. While his mother dissuades him from going, he asks that he be given a chance to try his luck and she concedes. But the optimistic country boy is shocked when he reaches Jakarta, to find that success is not very easy to achieve, espcially when he gets involved in the lives of siblings Adit Yusuf Aulia), a pickpocket, and Astri (Sisca Jessica), an exotic dancer being pursued by a prostitution ring led by Ratger (Mads Koudal) and Luc (Laurent Buson).

Unlike The Raid, Merentau is not presented as an outright action movie. It has a dramatic element that is explored lengthily in the beginning of the film. At first, the movie is a bit slow, following the steps of Yuda as he discoveres new things about himself and the people he interacts with, so this makes the film a bit lopsided but when the action kicked in, it was hard to put the brakes on.

Action wise, Merentau seemed like a great preview for The Raid. While there were several notable action scenes, but I felt like the story limited the action to Uwais vs gazillions of henchmen and Uwais vs the two white guys towards the end. Not that it was bad per se because the action scenes not only highlighted the use of Silat, but was executed with a fluidity that is ridiculously flawless. However, it seemed like everybody else was outclassed by Uwais’s character when in fact, the perfect opponent for him skill wise would have been Eric (Ruhian) — (case in point — Ruhian vs Uwais in an elevator). But all is good as the preempted action fest between these two were finally seen in The Raid, dubbed by critics as one of the best action scenes of the decade.

I would like to give a huge kudos to writer/director Gareth Evans for having great instinct in casting Uwais in the lead role (He discovered Uwais when he did a documentary on the Indonesian martial art of Silat). Uwais, while he did not have extensive acting experience prior to this movie, is oozing in charisma. And even better, he can do these action scenes in his sleep, being a real life expert of Silat. This guy looks like a nice guy, which gives him a sense of vulnerability, but he has the swagger of Bruce Lee in his heyday when he gets in his martial arts position. This guy could be Indonesia’s version of Jet Li, truth be told (Li is a real life wushu expert). And I find myself liking him more after seeing two of his films.

I loved Merantau mainly because it had a heart. It was merciless in its depiction of the slums and the underground business in Indonesia but it was not lacking in sentiment when depicting the good in people. That, I believe, kind of balances it out. I loved that the story had something to do with family and going the extra mile to make a difference in another person’s life, even if it meant making sacrifices. The ending truly brought tears to my eyes but also gave me peace with all that transpired.

All in all, Merantau is a quality movie that has made me a bigger fan of this film team and Indonesian cinema. Two thumbs up.