Unabashed mayhem

The first Indonesian film to go on general release here for decades has a disturbing intensity that borders on sadism

As hype about the Asean economic link-up grows frenetic _ even though nobody is quite sure what that pipe dream might entail _ let's savour the coughed-up blood, the fevered sweat and the rabid, slaughterhouse smell of a film from a fellow Asean member state.

The violent menage a trois in the Indonesian film The Raid Redemption, with Iko Uwais, on the floor, Yayan Ruhian, in the air, and Donny Alamsyah.

The Raid Redemption is the best-known film to emerge from Indonesia over the past 12 months, and the very first from that island nation to open in Bangkok in several decades, having already elbowed its way into the best-of lists of action-flick devotees in many territories, the US included.

But national identity, the topic of much debate as we prepare for a closer regional alliance, remains satisfyingly murky here.

The Raid is billed as an Indonesian film, with the story taking place in Indonesia and the characters speaking Bahasa (when they're not busy fracturing skulls and bashing faces), though the director, Gareth Evans, is from the UK.

The finance seems to have come from mixed sources and, to complicate the matter, the 35mm print that I saw last week _ and that you will see this week _ is an American version in which the dialogue has been dubbed into English.

Watch without blinking, which isn't easy, and you may also be able to identify the murderous, almost hallucinogenic moves of its sadist-in-chief, Mad Dog (Yayan Ruhian; rumoured to be the object of Hollywood courtship), as a violent rendering of panja silat., the Indonesian folk martial art.

But then again, the swirl of fists and frenzy that exhaust and electrify this film don't seem to be particularly Indonesian, or Southeast Asian at that; The Raid thrives on a passion for extreme cinema that is rooted more in the universal taste for blood and butchery.

To feel punch-drunk is to understate it. The Raid is a tropical storm that begins, typically, with a beguiling calm.

It opens with the central character, called Rama (Iko Uwais; also a silat expert), performing the dawn prayer for Muslims, an act of piety that has nothing to do with the bloodbath that will soon follow. After saying goodbye to his pregnant wife, young Rama joins a squad of elite commandos, armed to their socks, in a morning raid on a dilapidated high-rise which a powerful drug ring is using as its headquarters.

The plan is to slink past the guards, secure the building, floor by floor, and then ambush the ringleader, Tama (Ray Sahetapy), who's protected by two dangerous bodyguards, cool Andi (Donny Alamsyah) and crazy Mad Dog.

What follows is practically inevitable. The raid quickly goes awry, and the commandos become the hunted rather than hunters, stalked by a homicidal band of ruffians equipped with machine-guns, machetes, swords, hammers, daggers _ and maybe a belief in immortality.

The movie has gained attention for its rough-edged scenes of hand-to-hand combat, especially those where Rama confronts Mad Dog and Andi, but before we get to see anything remotely like silat, the carnage is served up by hails of bullets, close-up gunshots, noisy salvos from heavy weaponry and even a deadly refrigerator at one point.

It's all mayhem punctuated by brief respites and The Raid, which is largely devoid of humour, feeds on a calculated rhythm and the way rapid-fire action is piled up and stretched out, hitting us with a few extra knocks when we think we've been dealt the last blow.

Remaining within an Asean framework, The Raid brings to mind the 2001 Thai film Ong-bak, a global smash hit that also relied on sweaty, low-budget, Third World die-hardism.

They are both action flicks from lands where poverty and corruption, slums and fist-fighting seem like so many hot breaths on the back of your neck. They are action films that aren't shy of their physical vulgarity _ which is what happens when you strip away the yee-ha! exoticism of Bruce Lee.

But The Raid differs from Ong-bak in at least one respect: while the latter was deliberately designed as a spectacular, nationalistic showcase, the Indonesian film has a disturbing intensity that borders on sadism. And what's strange is that the best response, for me at least, is to laugh so as to prevent it all from getting too much, too real, like when Mad Dog, Andi and Rama engage in a protracted, vicious menage a trois in which all of them seem to get high on violence _ a transformative violence not possible in, say, The Expendables 2.

Whether you can take all this in without blinking is very much down to personal taste. If pandemonium is on your shopping list, you'll dig Mad Dog, a shaggy, irrepressible presence who, in the fine tradition of bare-knuckled pugilist, prefers a hand-to-hand death match over a swift but unromantic dispatch from the barrel of a gun. Rama may be the pretty boy who knows how to fight, but Mad Dog is the real nightmare and The Raid, which feels cluttered after the midway point, holds its unruly head high because of him.

About the author

Writer: Kong Rithdee
Position: Bangkok Post columnist