I am a big believer that settings in fictional stories should be meaningful. Settings should complement a story, not simply add an aesthetic. A few times, I have consumed stories wherein the author has an interesting setting or time period for their work, but their setting proceeds to make little impact on their plot and feels needless and wasted. For example, say an American author writes a story taking place in France and the only effect this has on the story is everybody eating a lot of croissants and one character being named “Pierre”, what a waste. Today’s feature is the 2009 film Merantau, an Indonesian martial arts film. Does Merantau fall under this setting trap? There is only one way to find out.
Merantau was directed and written by Gareth Evans, who also directed the 2011 film The Raid: Redemption and the ‘Safe Haven‘ segment of 2013’s V/H/S/2 horror anthology. Merantau follows the exploit of Yuda a practitioner of Silat, a form of Indonesian martial arts, as he embarks on the titular merantau. A coming-of-age tradition, merantau entails Yuda leaving the comforts of his countryside home and finding work in the city. Yuda plans to work as a children’s martial arts instructor but faces an immediate setback when he finds his planned living quarter in the city unexpectedly demolished, forcing him to take up residence in a construction site inside several unused pipes. The following morning, as he eats at a restaurant, Yuda’s wallet is stolen by a young boy named Adit, prompting Yuda to chase after him through the narrow city alleyways. When Yuda finally catches up to Adit, he witnesses a woman named Astri being abused by her boss Johnny. Yuda steps in to defend Astri, who is actually Adit’s older sister, but she loses her job as a result.
The next day, Astri is once again abused by Johnny after he begrudgingly agrees to take her back as a semi-erotic dancer. Yuda moves in to protect her again, though he is severely beaten by Johnny’s goons. After recovering from the counterattack, Yuda follows the two through Johnny’s strip club and encounters Ratger, Johnny’s ambiguously American/European boss. Yuda, unaware of Ratger’s high status, kicks glass in Ratger’s face and runs off with Astri. Ratger, enraged by the wounds inflicted on him by Yuda, decides to track both Yuda and Astri down with the assistance of his brother Luc. Meanwhile, after being taken back to Yuda’s construction pipe living space, Astri reveals to him that she has been working as a semi-erotic dancer in order to support herself and her brother after they were abandoned by their parents. After Astri is kidnapped by Ratger’s men, Yuda resolves to save her, and confronts Ratger and Luc head-on.
Merantau embodies basic elements of general actions films: less emphasis on story and characters, more focus on combat and fast-paced clashes. The result is a well-rounded, if not a little unimaginative, film that is entertaining without needing to be substantial. However, while Merantau is quite fun to watch, its lack of deviation from the typical action-film formula leaves it rather forgettable. Additionally, Merantau lacks any real unique elements to help the film stand on its own in comparison to other action films. I commend Evans for the Indonesian cultural focus, but it’s so poorly implemented that it may as well not exist. The merantau tradition is effectively just an excuse to shove the protagonist onto dangerous streets to watch him beat up people, and could easily be replaced with something far more mundane such as “Yuda goes to the city to buy groceries for his family and ends up involved in a human trafficking plot”. The film seems to exist to show off Silat as a martial arts form and not much else.
On the subject of pacing, Merantau is fairly consistent until the last third of the movie. The film is quick to set up the plot and introduce characters, but ends up dragging its feet in its last half-hour. This is mainly, due to the fight scenes being quite lengthy and unedited, with the final showdown between Yuda, Ratger, and Luc being the biggest offender. While the film is flashy enough to make these pacing hiccups forgivable, the feeling of padding is still noticeable.
Pros: A simple yet entertaining action film. Fights are fun to watch.
Cons: Missed opportunities for more cultural focus. Film as a whole isn’t particularly notable in its story or execution. The fight scenes in the last half hour feel needlessly long.
Merantau is available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Magnolia Films. Merantau is good, but not great; although it is fun to watch, it’s not particularly notable in any angle. If you’re in the mood for a standard but solid action film with lots of hand-to-hand fighting, Merantau might satisfy your needs, just don’t expect the film to stick out in your mind otherwise.