An Introduction To Indonesian Action Cinema10 min readReading Time: 7 minutes
When we think of Asian action stars (or action stars, period), our minds might first wander to the groundbreaking work of Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan and Donnie Yen. For close to a generation, Chinese action cinema and its stars have been the de-facto face of martial arts films with their phenomenal stuntwork and choreography.
However, a new challenger, right from the heart of Southeast Asia, has risen in recent years to challenge for the throne. The next breakout Asian action star and household name may not be East Asian — but Indonesian.
Heralded 10 years ago by Gareth Evans’ The Raid (2011), this new wave of Indonesian action cinema has astounded genre fans the world over with its no-nonsense approach to bone-crunching action. Pencak Silat, the Indonesian martial arts mainly showcased in these films, couldn’t ask for a better introduction on the world stage.
The Raid’s runaway success led to the meteoric rise of the genre, both domestically and internationally. The film’s leads, Iko Uwais, Joe Taslim and Yayan Ruhian, have had several crossover successes in Hollywood. Most recently, Joe Taslim starred as Sub-Zero in Mortal Kombat (2021), receiving critical acclaim as one of the bright spots in an overall lukewarm film. Meanwhile, the Mo Brothers, better known for their work in horror, raised the roof with Headshot (2016) and The Night Comes For Us (2018), presenting a blend of action and horror that makes even the most abrasive Hollywood thriller seem tame.
It has been all gas, no brakes since The Raid. We examine the films that have come to define Indonesian action cinema, and how they have left an indelible mark on the genre throughout the world.
Before ‘The Raid’
The action genre has always been a mainstay throughout Indonesian film history. Some of the earliest films, which emerged in the 1930s, were martial arts theatrics produced by Chinese immigrants. The genre saw a highwater mark during the 1980s and 1990s. For many in the West, Lady Dragon (1992) and Angel of Fury (1992), both set in Indonesia and starred Cynthia Rothrock, would be their first introduction to the archipelago.
Locally, action stars such as Barry Prima, George Rudy, and Eva Arnaz became household names for their hit films, including Jaka Sembung (1981), Ferocious Female Freedom Fighters (1982), and Jaka Gledek (1983). These movies often feature over-the-top violence with plots and settings that are exceptionally unique, bookmarked by the integration of Indonesia’s culture, history, and martial arts.
Indonesian cinema as a whole saw a decline from 1989 onwards mainly due to the growth of television. The year saw the launch of Indonesia’s first private TV channel RCTI, breaking TVRI’s long-held monopoly as the country’s then-only public TV station. Six more stations would emerge in the following years. Many in the film industry hopped on the opportunity to switch to television, leading to a significant drop in domestic film productions compounded by the rise of imported films and government censorship. Only seven films were produced in 1999 — a sharp decline from the 721 titles made during the 1980s.
The New Wave of Indonesian Action Cinema
Action films were not the only reason why Indonesian films have seen a revival in recent years, but their influence on the genre, critical acclaim, and box office success practically in any country they were shown in are undeniable.
Despite sluggish performances for all domestic productions in 2011, over 1.8 million Indonesians turned up to watch The Raid instead of The Hunger Games, both of which premiered in the same week. The Raid would go on to garner US$9 million in the international box office — a feat never achieved before by any Indonesian production. This success would continue with the 2014 sequel, being one of two local productions in that year to garner a million viewers domestically while continuing its winning streak overseas.
The franchise’s stars, accomplished martial artists Iko Uwais, Joe Taslim and Yayan Ruhian, would become mainstays of the genre. Timo Tjahjanto and Kimo Stamboel, better known as the Mo Brothers, joined in on the action in 2016 with Headshot, starring Uwais, and 2018’s The Night Comes For Us, which reunited Uwais and Taslim. Both films received acclaim from international critics and audiences alike.
Meanwhile, all three stars would spend the 2010s working in Hollywood, featuring in films such as Fast & Furious 6 (2013), Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015), Star Trek Beyond (2016), and John Wick: Chapter 3 (2019).
How These FIlms Became Genre Game Changers
They brought the genre back to its basics
It’s the late 2000s. Hollywood actions films have been in a rut for quite some time now. Compared to the decades before, these films started to over-rely on editing tricks, shaky cameras, and computer effects for their action scenes, often leading to nauseating messes where nobody has any idea what is going on. Even the action films from Hong Kong and China in recent years have been guilty of overcomplicating their action thrillers with political undertones and convoluted stories.
Indonesian action films didn’t reinvent the wheel as much as they reminded audiences of the shape of the wheel. They cut off (sometimes literally) all the unnecessary fluff that has bogged down the genre. There are no romantic subplots, no sweeping changes in locales, no greater mystery at work. The film’s protagonists only have survival in mind, armed with nothing more than their skills and wits to live another day.
There are never any cakewalks either. Some of these films feel more like horror than action. Every goon and every room bring clear and present dangers; they are not dispatched in a few hits. Heroes barely limp on from fistfight to fistfight. Even the locations themselves conspire, where the environments become weapons. The Raid films are perhaps the best examples of this. It creates an easy-to-understand hostile atmosphere, where every win is hard-fought and where the brutality displayed is cathartic.
How these films are shot only speak of the deep understanding of its simple concepts. Foley effects are almost always top-notch, making every punch feel visceral. The camera constantly stays on the action, only cutting and honing in to emphasise bones crunching. The constant attention to maintaining the geometry of each fight scene makes the ongoing carnage feel silky smooth without any doubts on what exactly is going on.
Martial arts films are often overly flashy and sometimes feels more like elaborate gymnastic routines than fights. What made Bruce Lee’s work so great was both his screen charisma and his use of Jeet Kune Do, where the martial arts’ lightning-fast strikes and street fighting approach made for fantastic action.
In terms of martial arts perfect for the film medium, Indonesian action films have shown that Pencak Silat could give Jeet Kune Do a run for its money. Techniques focus on adaptability, trading flashy high-flying kicks for takedowns and blows aimed at vital points in the body. The martial arts evolved with war in mind, leading to techniques that are designed to kill rather than to dazzle. Its heritage means the seamless incorporation of deadly weapons such as the kris and the karambit, the latter of which was on full display in the phenomenal final fight of The Raid 2.
Couple Pencek Silat with martial arts experts and it’s no wonder that Indonesian action films have floored genre fans the world over. Fights in these movies hardly feel choreographed at all, emphasising how just about every brawl is a matter of life or death.
They are plain brutal fun
Indonesian cinema is no stranger to over-the-top action. However, this new wave of Indonesian action cinema, especially with the Mo Brothers’ Headshot and The Night Comes For Us, makes on-screen savagery seem like a visual art form.
Frankly, Indonesian action cinema almost feels like video games — and that is in no way a negative. They present some of the most inventive and spectacular scenes of violence, yet somehow still (largely) manages to avoid feeling like exploitation films. Surely even fans of Park Chan-Wook and Takashi Miike might shudder at the ongoing mayhem. After watching The Night Comes For Us, you might no longer see pool balls the same way.
Sometimes audiences just crave non-stop action and Indonesia has not disappointed yet.
Influence on Cinema
Today, it might be crazy to think that shaky cameras and their efforts to portray gritty realism were once an acceptable way to frame action scenes. We have Indonesian action cinema to thank for making the nauseating technique a faux pas; its influence on the genre cannot be understated enough.
10 years on, The Raid continues to be celebrated as one of the best the action genre has to offer. with its look and feel even playing a part in shaping the Star Wars franchise and superhero films. As silly as it sounds, the Raid franchise, together with the films by the Mo Brothers, brought action back to the action genre. They broke the mould of unnecessarily complicated storylines and romances and made action the main language of storytelling with established martial artists as the main interpreters.
It seems no coincidence that the years following The Raid spawned a wave of action franchises — a phenomenon that cooled off since the 1990s, with the Taken and Bourne series as the few noteworthy names emerging from the 2000s.
The John Wick can be seen as a spiritual successor of the brutality and visceral choreography displayed in Indonesian action cinema. Even with superhero films, there is a clear difference between the action sequences of the first few Marvel Cinematic Universe entries, focusing more on the spectacle of explosions, with those post-The Raid, where fights are far more kinetic, relying on choreographed stunt work rather than (only on) computer-generated violence. Compare a fight scene in the first Captain America film with a square off in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier and the difference is night and day.
Meanwhile, the Mo Brothers’ films continue to enjoy an international cult following, with their latest film The Night Comes For Us praised as one of the best action films in years. Their brand of jaw-dropping violence remains unduplicable, sure to go on to shape a brand new sub-genre of action that is more akin to horror.
More so than their influence in Hollywood, Indonesian action cinema has been an important reminder that underdogs will always have a fighting chance to be undeniable on the international stage. In Southeast Asia, Vietnam’s Furie, which took cues from their Indonesian neighbours, became the highest-grossing Vietnamese film in history while raking in international critical acclaim.
The Raid had a hundredth of the budget of Iron Man yet arguably had the bigger impact on the film world. With the ever-growing scope of international and domestic work featuring Iko Uwais, Joe Taslim and Yayan Ruhian, it won’t be long before their names and all the spectacular action they will bring puts Indonesia on the pop-culture map.
Banner image credit: Film still of ‘The Raid 2’ / PT. Merantau Films