Director: Ifa Isfansyah
Writer: Jujur Prananto
Producer: Mira Lesmana, Riri Riza
Cast: Eva Celia, Nicholas Saputra, Reza Rahadian, Tara Basro, Christine Hakim, Slamet Rahardjo, Aria Kusumah, Darius Sinathrya, Prisia Nasution
Running Time: 112 min.
By Kyle Warner
I have not seen many Indonesian films. And interestingly the only Indonesian films I’ve seen in recent years were actually filmed by Western directors. Welsh born director Gareth Evans is well-known for his action films The Raid and The Raid 2, and he’s also worked in Indonesia on the martial arts film Merantau and his fantastic short Safe Haven from the horror anthology V/H/S/2. The documentaries of American director Joshua Oppenheimer are also widely seen and highly praised, telling the chilling story of Indonesia’s political killings during the 1960s in the films The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence. The Golden Cane Warrior might actually be the first Indonesian film I’ve seen that was made by an Indonesian director, in this case Mr. Ifa Isfansyah (The Dancer).
The Golden Cane Warrior is an old-fashioned martial arts tale given new flavor by a country and a fighting style largely unfamiliar to genre fans in the West. The film is about a martial arts master named Cempaka (Christine Hakim, Merantau), who has grown weary of the inevitability of death that comes with the life of a martial artist. In one of her lessons to her students, Cempaka reiterates, “The greater a fighter’s skill, the more likely he will be attacked from behind,” a line which helps set up the central conflict of the story. Three of her four students are the orphans of rivals she has killed in fights. As she grows old, Cempaka knows she must pass on her knowledge and the famed weapon the golden cane to one of her students. Cempaka makes the unexpected choice of giving the cane to young Dara (Eva Celia), perhaps the weakest martial artist of her four students. As you might expect, this decision is met with resentment from Cempaka’s older and more gifted martial artists, who plot to murder their master and fellow students in order to take the golden cane for themselves.
The plot feels familiar, playing a bit like a classic Shaw Bros. film with betrayal, training montages, and the journey of the warrior. And while the film yields few new surprises to genre fans, there’s still some enjoyment to be found in watching a familiar tale well told by a cast and crew with good intentions.
The cast does admirable work, with some of the most entertaining performances coming from the youngest actors. The female lead Eva Celia manages to play her character as both a strong warrior and a frightened child, someone thrust into the world of life and death long before she is ready. Perhaps the most noteworthy performance comes from newcomer Aria Kusumah, a young boy who makes his mark as the film’s most badass character, Angin. The boy barely speaks a word, preferring to make his intentions known with action instead of dialogue. The ‘strong silent type’ sort of tough guy is a role usually reserved for someone much older but the kid really impresses in the part, making him easily my favorite character in the film.
Director Ifa Isfansyah finds unexpected grace and beauty in the dramatic scenes, making good use of Indonesia’s beautiful outdoors. In these moments the film is reminiscent of a Zhang Yimou picture, and Insfansyah shows he has a good eye for color. Sadly this grace does not follow over to the action scenes, which are poorly edited and filmed too close-up for my liking. The martial arts choreography looks fine, but thanks to the filming style I wasn’t always sure what was happening in certain moments of the film’s various fight scenes. Thankfully the film saves the best for last and the final fight scene is considerably more entertaining than those that came before it.
The film utilizes a fighting style that’s rarely showcased in such detail: silambam, or stick-fighting. Using a long stick or the film’s golden cane, the fighters are able to dispatch multiple opponents at the same time. In the film’s climax, four fighters square off using the same style, giving viewers the best chance to admire the martial art. As mentioned earlier, sometimes the film’s choice to film the fights up close hurts the entertainment value. This stylistic choice is especially strange when considering the fact that the golden cane is a long weapon, and it seems like it would’ve been wiser to step back a bit and give the weapon and fighting style a chance to dominate the screen.
Despite some nagging issues, The Golden Cane Warrior is an entertaining film. It feels familiar and yet somehow new, an old-fashioned story played out in an unfamiliar land. Apparently this was one of Indonesia’s most expensive productions. The money spent makes for a handsome picture, one with breathtaking natural beauty and solid production design. I wish that the film had filmed its fights with a calmer hand but overall it’s an enjoyable film, especially if you’re a fan of old-school martial arts movies. The setting and the silambam fighting style should help The Golden Cane Warrior stand out from the crowd, making it a noteworthy entry in today’s martial arts cinema.
Kyle Warner’s Rating: 7/10