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Silat in Focus - Merantau Film Review

Merantau FilmBy Pendekar Scott McQuaid

"As I looked up at the cinema screen I thought to myself, silat has stepped out of the shadows."

If you ask most martial artists what made them want to study within the combative arts, usually the answer results in an early childhood movie they watched. Be it Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, Jet Li or Jean Claude Van Damme, the influence of a martial arts movie along with its action star is the beginning and direction to which particular combat system we will begin training in.

For me, Bruce Lee's Enter The Dragon was my first introduction to the martial arts. The legend that is Bruce Lee along with the movie sets the bar for all other films in this genre to measure against.

Merantau Film

Through the decades, martial art films have had a loyal steady cult following, consisting of martial artists, wannabe martial artists and comic nerds. The 70's was the era for Hong Kong kung-fu films, the 80's saw ninja flicks flood the market, and in the 90's it was kick boxing movies. The millennium has cycled back through all the genres bringing a greater production value in script and performance. This has opened the doors to a wider audience, giving some much needed credit to this category. In 2001, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon earned an Oscar for best foreign film—the first time a martial arts film had won an academy award.

Being somewhat of a veteran in my preferred art of Indonesia's rare fighting style  Minangkabau Harimau Pencak Silat, I am grounded in reality based combat. The martial art films released today rarely capture my attention with their CGI effects and disregard for Earth's gravity.

Merantau Film

Then one of my students brought to my attention a new martial arts film coming out. Usually I do not entertain this conversation as its all fan boy talk that doesn't concern me,  but my students know better than this.

"It's an Indonesian film about Harimau Pencak Silat," he said—and he had my attention. Any Pencak Silat style is difficult to obtain information about, let alone the rare Harimau system.

A quick search of this style in Google will come up with only a handful of websites and information and the two main sources would be my teacher and myself. The only time Harimau silat features in Combat magazine is when I am writing an article for them.

As the system in Indonesia is fast becoming extinct like its inspiration the Sumatran tiger, I was intrigued to see how silat would be portrayed on the big screen.

Merantau Film

As I sat in the dark cinema in Kuala Lumpur, I held my breath for a moment as the opening scene faded with our hero holding a kerambit blade in the mountainous backdrop of Sumatra.

The film's title Merantau sets the initial story. 'Merantau' is an ancient rite of passage that is still practiced in Sumatra nowadays. The young boys abandon their towns and families to start a life on their own in the big city.

This is how the film begins with a new rising Indonesian martial arts actor Iko Uwais playing the role of Yuda, practicing silat duru's (forms). The actor Iko first started studying pencak silat in 1993 at the PPSI (Persatuon Pencak Silat Indonesia) school but it was in the Tiga Berantai Silat system where he found his eventual grounding.

Merantau Film

The silat on display in this film has obviously had an extreme makeover for the silver screen. Lots of the action scenes are very stylized set pieces. The choreography is certainly impressive with heavy influence from Thailand's Ong Bak film and early works of Jackie Chan.

It was reported that they shot ten hours of fighting scenes every night for fourteen days. This certainly shows as each fight sequence was shot in one take. Unfortunately, the film didn't really showcase Minangkabau Harimau Silat and this was very disappointing for a fellow practitioner of the art. At times, there were some evident low ground kicks from the Harimau system but mostly the fight scenes consisted of high basic front kicks and a continuous knee strike to the mid-section.

It would be very difficult to dress up Harimau Silat for the cameras and it would look far less attractive than the aerial flying kicks that tend to be the crowd pleaser. The strongest aspect of this movie was the overall production—the film was sentimental with some good solid performances by the Indonesian cast and some very artistic camera shots that are rarely seen in this film genre.

Merantau Film

British director Gareth Evans was at the helm of this project. Evans is a former freelance director that was hired to shoot a documentary in Indonesia over a period of six months. Shortly after wrapping the project he immigrated to the country's capital Jakarta and made many more documentaries including a piece on Pencak Silat which would become his inspiration for Merantau. After penning the script, he convinced the Indonesian government to back this project. Evans notes that he was always a big fan of martial art movies growing up with Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung flicks such as Armor Of God and Project A. Merantau screened at the 2009 Cannes film festival and received high appraisal. Naturally anybody who practices any style of silat has been talking about its release and fellow martial artists have also expressed interest around the circuit.

Merantau has put Pencak Silat on the map in the film world and this will help to spread the message of this overlooked unconventional fighting style. I have no doubt that more silat related films will follow in its footsteps.


This article was published in Combat magazine, 2010.