Why Gareth Evan’s The Raid Delivered What It Promised, But Left Me Cold
…And so I finally watched Gareth Evan’s The Raid…
Ever since I saw the trailer last year, I pledged that checking The Raid out would be a high priority on my list when I visit Indonesia this time. So I did, and here’s what I have to say about it.
Full-throttle ‘Kinetic Aesthetics’
The best thing about watching The Raid’s trailer and moreover hearing the hype it received in the international film festival circuit prior to seeing the actual movie is that it gives you a bit of insight about where Evans is heading toward with the film. This concerns the fact that there will be some predicted ingredients in it: relentless fight scenes that consequently relegate narrative depth to the side. I knew that, and I expected that. On that particular aspect I am content that the film structurally builds itself out of confined physical battles between the SWAT team led by the idealist Jaka (Joe Taslim) and the drug mob cronies. From the precision-engineered choreographed showdowns to wall-to-wall shootouts, The Raid succeeds to showcase what I call the ‘kinetic aesthetics’ of many pre-CGI martial arts films that withstand the test of time say A Better Tomorrow (Woo, 1986) or Ong Bak (Pinkaew, 2003). The most frequently cited comment when I ask people about their take on The Raid is that it is ‘all action but no story’, and I take that when they say no ‘story’ this usually means the devoid of arc or some sort that typically glues all the scenes in a conventional Hollywood-oriented film together. But my problem with The Raid is not simply with this meagre size of narrative depth, but with one element that I think is crucial to a narrative film: characters’ relations.
Lost in Relation
Regardless if in the end the filmmaker aims to flaunt the kinetic virtuoso of the martial arts technique, which in this case involves pencak silat (an Indonesian traditional form of self-defense), or the action staging that involves camerawork, actors’ movement and set design known as mise-en-scène, one thing that needs to be established and established very clearly is how the characters relate to one another. Especially since The Raid follows the cause-and-effect plot logic, coherence in regards to who’s-who in the film is beyond imperative. Let’s take Iko Kuwais’ character Rama for instance. From the get go, Rama is the leading character in this fully concentrated action drama: A SWAT team is set to raid a decaying building that housed a sadistic gang leader, the goal is to seize the kingpin and paralyze his operation. We see Rama praying at the beginning, we see him saying goodbye to his wife and we see him saying “I’ll bring him back” before the title comes in. Obviously with the amount of screen time that Rama gets, he is the MAN in the film. However, one sudden twist appears in midway through the film: We discover that one of the gang members that the team supposed to apprehend is his biological brother. What? When? How? I am dumbfounded. OK, let me backtrack a little bit here. So when he says that he’s going to bring “him” back at the beginning of the film he refers to this long lost brother of his? But I already forgot about all of this “let’s bring him back” scene, probably I was caught up with so many fight scenes that the narrative information is simply taken for granted. Secondary. And who are those guys with the machetes invited by the drug lord Tama (Ray Sahetapi) to play the ‘game’ inside the building? I am lost here. But is it really my fault not comprehending all of this? Absolutely not! In any basic scriptwriting manual, writer is mandated to always delineate story information in a lucid and transparent way. Characters’ relations should be given in what Kristin Thompson calls the ‘set-up’, which basically is the first 30 minutes of the film that spells out who’s the main character, his/her goal, and more importantly what his/her position among the other characters that we will see throughout the film. But perhaps one may argue that The Raid is non-conformist in the sense that it doesn’t want to follow the 3-4 act structure of many Hollywood movies? I can live with that, but if that’s their intention, why not go all the way? Throw in some ambiguities and open-ended endings, and be subtler with the dramatic points. Moreover, get the acting and the dialogue more fluid, because sometimes you could notice that the script was translated into Bahasa Indonesia rather than writing it in Bahasa Indonesia from scratch, hence the stiff formal Indonesian or contrived Jakarta dialect that to me borders on being cringeable. It doesn’t take a Method acting to pull out naturalistic performances; I must say that the most plausible acting actually comes from Donny Alamsyah (Andi; Rama’s brother), who was totally under my radar, but now I give him the two-thumbs-up. In that way perhaps The Raid may climb up the ladder as a genre-revisionist film, better yet maybe an art action movie first ever made in Southeast Asia? Who knows?
Yet, with all its flaws, The Raid to me does something that perhaps we always hoped for from Indonesian cinema in the 21rst century.
What The Raid Does to Indonesian Cinema-going Culture
I always despise it when people say “Oh it’s good enough for an Indonesian film”! Regardless of its origin, a good film is a good film. Bad ones are everywhere too whether they are in France or Nigeria. But I don’t believe in the dichotomy of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ films in the first place; evaluative judgment is not really my raison d’être when I write about films. To me, speaking of narrative fiction films, there are only films that ‘work’ and films that don’t work, meaning that when a film can engineer its stylistic and narrative elements effectively and engender an unforgettable viewing experience, the film works and it is a successful film. When the film does so in a reckless manner, and does not really employ its filmic elements compellingly, the film will not stay in my cognitive and emotive experiential bank and thus fails. The Raid is a well-crafted object to look at. But I think what is worth taking a note here is the fact that The Raid makes watching Indonesian films in Indonesian cinemas cool again! OK, but some would say, “Yeah, but it is not made by an Indonesian, therefore it is not an Indonesian film.” What constitutes an Indonesian film then? It is shot in Indonesia, with Indonesian cast and crew, using Bahasa Indonesia, and Evans literally lives in Indonesia. So what more can you ask? If we can say that Clint Eastwood’s Letters From Iwo Jima (2006) is a legitimate Asian film, can’t we also say that The Raid, despite its director’s Welsh background, a legitimate Indonesian film? Abso-freakin’-lutely!