Gone are the days when local and regional films are thought to be inferior to Hollywood productions. Thanks to a burgeoning film industry, Southeast Asian movies are on the rise: and while they may lack the big budget their Hollywood counterparts have, some of these films more than make up for it through creative storytelling, beautifully choreographed scenes, and something Hollywood films might find hard to integrate – culture and heritage.
Tarung Sarung (literally ‘sarong fight’) is one of these movies, and it surprised me with how much heart it has, despite the simplistic plot. Directed by Archie Hekagery and starring young actor Panji Zoni in his movie debut, the film was supposed to be released in April last year, but was postponed due to the pandemic and subsequently released on Netflix on 31 December 2020.
Deni Ruso (Panji Zoni) is the spoiled and arrogant young scion of one of the richest families in Jakarta, who thinks that money makes the world go round. After a fight in a club which was caught on camera, Deni’s mother Dina sends him packing to Makassar, to manage a resort development project and learn some responsibility. There, he meets Tenri (Maizura), a local girl who is passionate about environmentalism, and is opposed to the resort project.
Deni hides his identity from Tenri in order to get closer to her, and sparks fly. Unfortunately, he gets on the wrong side of Sanrego (Cemal Faruk), a local thug who intends to marry Tenri. Sanrego challenges Deni to ‘tarung sarung‘ (literally, sarong fight) – a traditional martial arts practiced by the Bugis people of Makassar, whereby the participants take part in close one-on-one combat within a sarong. Naturally, Deni gets pummeled, and wanting revenge, seeks help from the village’s undefeated former champion Pak Khalid (Yayan Ruhian), who runs the local mosque, to train him in the ways of the sport. And while Deni starts off wanting to get back at Sanrego, he soon finds motivation and strength from other reasons: the love of Tenri, belief in himself, and ultimately, finding god.
Tarung Sarung is heavily inspired by The Karate Kid (I mean, Deni Ruso? Daniel LaRusso? lol) and follows the typical martial arts film formula, where we follow the journey of our naive and inexperienced hero undergoing training and tutelage under a master, emerging not only stronger physically but as a better person. And while the film doesn’t bring anything groundbreakingly new to the table, it still makes for a surprisingly entertaining drama about teenage love and discovering one’s self, with bits of action thrown in.
Now, I haven’t watched many Indonesian films so I don’t have a benchmark to compare it with, but I felt that the acting was pretty good, especially from Panji Zoni, who pulls off the role of rich, spoiled brat really well. (If I was 10 years younger I’d probably be fan girling coz he’s pretty cute).
Yayan Ruhian as Pak Khalid is also superb. He exudes a tranquil, Mr Miyagi vibe; friendly and wise, but not someone you’d want to piss off. Granted, I did feel that some of the other performances felt rather forced, like Deni’s two sidekicks Gogos and Tutu (who are there to provide comic relief), and the villain Sanrego whose one-sided personality seems to comprise of only over-the-top machismo and angry grunting…but overall I liked the characters and performances, as they feel relatable and believable. Tenri, for example, is a well written character who, despite wearing a hijab and being covered up, is a strong, independent girl with her own dreams and aspirations – a departure from the usual damsel-in-distress roles girls that look like her are supposed to play.
What I really enjoyed, however, is the film’s unique Indonesian perspective, which is refreshing to see in a sea of cookie-cutter action films themed around fighting and violence. Deni, who believes in nothing but the power of money and influence, is slowly guided to discover more about god and religion, which is obviously a big part of Indonesian life. Prior to watching the film, I had also never heard about tarung sarung (which is a real thing in Indonesia), so it piqued my interest in art. Back in the day, duels were fought to the death with badik (a traditional dagger) but this is no longer practiced today (in the movie, they fight bare fisted instead).
There are also interesting bits highlighting Indonesian culture, such as a scene where Deni takes part in pindah rumah, a practice where everyone in the village works together to help carry an entire house from one place to another (this can be done because the traditional homes in Makassar are usually made from wood and have stilts, so they don’t have piling in the ground unlike regular houses). Pindah rumah is also done in other Austronesian countries like Malaysia and the Philippines.
Another thing the movie does right is the cinematography, which is gorgeous and highlights the beauty of rural Indonesia – it’s sandy beaches and blue seas, the charm of its small towns and villages, and the warmth of its people. Without spoiling too much, I’d also like to commend the clever ending, I think some audiences might not like it, but I felt like it was very different and subverted expectations.
That being said, Tarung Sarung does have a couple of flaws. For me, it’s the long and draggy run time – at nearly two hours, I feel that the film could have done without certain scenes that don’t add much to the story. The fight scenes are all well choreographed, as expected of a film starring Yayan Ruhian (he was in John Wick 3, by the way. remember that epic scene with the two Indonesian shinobis?), but they are few and far between, which may leave audiences wanting more, since this is supposed to be an action film after all.
Tarung Sarung has a standard if somewhat cliche plot and characters, with a uniquely Indonesian flavour and a good mix of romance, coming-of-age, action and drama. And while it won’t be winning any Oscars anytime soon, I think it’s a nice and entertaining film nonetheless. Worth a watch.
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