A non-traditional action film
Go ahead and get The Raid out of your head right now.
While it’s an Indonesian action film, Preman’s similarities to The Raid end right there. And there’s really nothing wrong with that. While I’ll admit that its genre is what got me to check the film out, I’m more than happy for Indonesian filmmakers like Preman writer/director Randolph Zaini to push beyond any boundaries western fans of The Raid might try to impose upon their work. And to mixed results, that feels like what Zaini had in mind.
The plot template feels right in line with countless international action showcases, with a father on the run from gangsters with his son in tow. Variations from that template this time out include our protagonist Sandi (Khiva Iskak) being deaf, and also not being a particularly great fighter or father. This is where it becomes clear that Preman will be a departure from the average action film. It’s a time honored tradition for audiences to root for their hero to kill all the bad guys and save the innocent child. Preman isn’t as interested in that as in exploring such heavy ideas as generational trauma, bullying, homophobia, and more. Sandi is a Preman, which the film defines for us as a particular kind of gangster that masks their violence under the guise of embracing some kind of political philosophy, but which is generally regarded by the average citizen as a nuisance (or worse). And, as such, Sandi isn’t exactly well regarded in the community. He’s also personally haunted by his own demons, in the form of nightmares personified by foxes portrayed as cartoonishly oversized mascot-costumed people. It gets a little bit weird, this one.
And so, while on its face Preman has the structure of a fairly traditional action film, Zaini clearly has more on his mind. This results in a film that’s less satisfying than the average action film, which I’ll admit is a struggle for me as an action fan. But far be it from me to fault a filmmaker who wants to explore the effects of toxic masculinity, bullying, and homophobia on their country’s culture.
Sandi isn’t without his charms as a protagonist trying desperately to save his son from gangsters who wish them dead after they witness said gang murder a community leader so they can take his land for a real estate developer. My favorite component of the film from an action perspective is Sandi’s signature weapon, which the filmmakers called a “monkey paw”. It’s this heavy ball on the end of a rope which Sandi uses to lay waste to his attackers. I’d never seen it before and Zaini explained to me in the film’s Q&A that it’s kind of a messy weapon used by drunken sailors in barroom brawls. So Sandi’s use of the monkey paw isn’t the same as a masterful Bruce Lee pulling out his signature nunchucks and displaying his supremacy. Rather, the monkey paw is considered a sloppy weapon to give you a slight advantage over your down and dirty competitors. I’d say it’s a pretty iconic weapon in the film, and this background helped me to better understand that Zaini and Iskak know their character quite well… and they know he isn’t a hero.
Sandi’s actions throughout the film result in a whole lot of negative consequences. Or, rather, his inactions. By not breaking with his corrupt gang, and standing up for what is right, some very traumatic and irreparable things happen. From an audience perspective, it makes it hard to root for Sandi. He’s not decisive. He’s not courageous. But he’s on the path to redemption and really it’s his son Pandu (Muzakki Ramdhan) who will do the saving as he models a more just lifestyle for his father to emulate.
Preman isn’t perfect, as its dramatic ambitions and its action film trappings don’t always seem to mesh in an airtight way. One almost gets the sense that for Indonesian filmmakers to be noticed internationally these days, it’s best to at least have some level of connection point to The Raid. And as I’ve already admitted, it’s the action that got me in the door. But Preman almost doesn’t really want to be an action movie. And even though it’s taking an opportunity to be critical of shortcomings in Indonesian inclusion, this westerner ended up needing some of the context provided in the post-film Q&A to really make sense of some of it. So while it’s just my perspective, I could see general audiences struggling to make some of the connections that Zaini intended.
But in the end there’s plenty to enjoy here, not least of which is a pretty iconic villain, The Barber, who will make you think differently about both scissors and the myth of Medusa. And that monkey paw really is a good bit of fun as our scrappy protagonist stays one step ahead of death until he finally gets his shit together. The further you throw away any expectations of The Raid, the better you’ll be setting yourself up to enjoy Preman.
And I’m Out.