Sometimes cultural institutions and traditions lose their importance and appeal. Their vitality sapped, they fade to relics or hackneyed symbols. Sometimes a fresh set of eyes is needed to appreciate what was once honored.
It took a 20-something Welshman and an Indonesian delivery driver to help many in Indonesia rediscover the power and grace of silat. The centuries-old martial arts form popular in Southeast Asia has played an important role in Indonesian culture, but over the years, the brawn and beauty of the fighting style has been diluted.
Gareth Evans, writer-director of "The Raid: Redemption," moved to Indonesia with his wife in 2008 to make a documentary about silat. In making the film, he met Iko Uwais, a delivery truck driver for a phone company and a master of silat.
While the documentary focused more on the philosophy of silat, the physicality of the sport fascinated Evans. He saw a grace to Uwais' movement, coupled with a harsh brutality. The director found the blend of styles unique and cinematic. He wanted to make a feature film, "Merantau," but the filmmaker's passion for the ancient art confounded many in Indonesia.
"In Indonesia it's been used in television a lot, but it's been mutated in television. It's not true silat," Evans said in an interview during the South by Southwest Film Festival, where "The Raid: Redemption" screened. "It's a bunch of guys flying up in the air on wires, turning into panthers. ... Everyone's understanding of silat was some terrible TV version or an old-fashioned, antiquated version they'd only seen in demonstrations and didn't understand as a real martial art. So when we tried to get the money for ‘Merantau,' people were looking at us like we were ridiculous."
Working with Uwais and fellow silat practitioner Yayan Ruhian, Evans made "Merantau," and that collaboration led to "The Raid: Redemption," which opens in theaters today. Uwais and Ruhian served as choreographers and lead actors in the ultra-violent film that makes your average Chuck Norris movie look like an episode of "Teletubbies."
"The Raid: Redemption" follows Uwais' Rama, a rookie cop in Jakarta who leads his police unit on a blood-soaked and ill-fated attempt to capture crime boss Tama. Between Rama and his prey stands Ruhian's Mad Dog, a maniacal human pit bull with the grace of a ballerina, but first the young cop must defeat a slew of killers on more than a dozen floors of Tama's high-rise compound. Evans acknowledges that the narrative style and aesthetic reflect that of a video game.
Evans and his two leading men spent three months choreographing the intense action sequences that feature sword play and men flying through walls and defying gravity. They choreographed the sequences based on rhythm, clapping their way through the orchestration like a dance.
The action genre is a natural for the 31 year-old Evans, who grew up making regular trips to the video store with his father. While he had a love for Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan, Evans said he and his father watched everything from "The Seventh Seal" to "The Magnificent Seven."
"If they entertained us, that's all that mattered," Evans said.
With a director already attached to the next installment of the "Dirty Dancing" franchise, Evans jokingly laments that he will stick to the action genre. First up, a sequel to "The Raid: Redemption." After that, he says, possibly a foray into making films in America.
Maybe he can come to the States and help reinvigorate the beloved and beleaguered action genre here.
Contact Matthew Odam at 912-5986