The execution gives this film a decidedly offbeat feel
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There’s something curious in the subjective appeal of Randolph Zaini’s gritty martial arts thriller Preman: Silent Fury. It’s not the most original film, and its fight scenes, while relatively unique, don’t exactly jump off the screen. And yet, there’s something here, even if it’s difficult to put into words.
Then again, perhaps here is a good start: It is a truth universally acknowledged that your humble writer is a sucker for a movie that starts with a Dictionary definition of its title, and Preman: Silent Fury is no exception.
(n) Gangsters who claim to be motivated by a deep sense of justice but are despised by society for their bullying and violent behavior.
Mind you, there’s not a trace of that motivation evident in the Premen (Premans?) we are introduced to as the film begins; led by the buff, preening Bang Bang (a scene stealing Emil Kusomo), they are first spotted forcibly evicting the residents of a small town as part of a real estate scam engineered by clearly criminal political candidate Hanoeng (David Saragih, giving us “Serious Kingpin”).
Only one among them has the presence of mind to look anything but delighted by the power they’re wielding over the poor townspeople: this would be our hero, Sandi.
This would be to the extent that he could be considered a hero. Which is to say, basically not at all.
A sad-eyed deaf mute who is less harmless than he looks and seems to treat the task as reluctant obligation more than anything, Sandi attempts to peaceably convince stubborn old Haji (Egi Fedly) to vacate his home, which he steadfastly refuses to do. But no is not an option for Sandi’s boss Guru (Kiki Narenda), who decides to try and convince Haji himself, in a meeting that… does not go well at all. Things only get worse when it turns out there’s a witness to the proceedings, and that witness just happens to be Sandi’s son.
You can probably imagine how things go from there.
Or can you…?
When it comes to story, Preman: Silent Fury certainly won’t be winning any awards for originality anytime soon. But it’s not the story so much as the execution that gives the film its decidedly offbeat feel. The strangeness starts at the top, with Khiva Iskak as our hero Sandi, though referring to him in those terms seems disingenuous at best. Shortly before things go bad, Haji tells Sandi’s son Pandu (Muzakki Ramdhan) that Sandi has a good heart, but is mixed up with a bad crowd, but the film is refreshingly unclear on whether or not that’s the case. The film is at pains to point out the toll his failures as a father, as a husband, or as a friend, have had on the people around him.
Whatever guilt he carries over his past actions and current lot in life (and Iskak, deprived of speech, conveys an almost tangible sense of regret and sadness with just his eyes and physical presence), it’s notable that it’s never quite enough to spur him towards taking responsibility.
But then, with very little exception, this is not a world of people who do the right thing (whatever that means) without extraordinary coercion. ‘Things are not always black and white’, Guru counsels Pandu after saving him from the wrath of some kids who have targeted him as payback for his fathers’ relocation enforcement activities. And it’s a corrupt world, all the way down, a world that rewards graft and complicity… until it doesn’t.
Perhaps what I find truly disorienting about the whole thing, and what lends the offbeat appeal that I keep referring to, is the ugliness and corruption of the world, and how it both clashes with and compliments the quirky characters that populate it.
For a movie that goes to some very dark places, there’s a lot of shit in here that’s just plain goofy.
A (thankfully offscreen) sexual assault is immediately followed by a comical back-and-forth where one of the bad guys poses a not-so hypothetical question about impotence to his fellow henchman. Ramon (Reynaldo, hilarious), an effeminate assassin/hairdresser straight out of a 90s Tarantino rip off prances around chewing the scenery, then murders an entire family. And while I’d love to get into the nature of Sandi’s recurring nightmares, I would also like to be the only reviewer who doesn’t even mention it.
I will say no more.
And right in the middle of it all are Sandi and Pandu, the sad little man and his angry little boy (another interesting character choice: the kid is kind of just a truculent little shit), fighting for survival.
Ahhh, yes…. the fighting.
In an interesting twist on things, there’s very little in the way of hand-to-hand combat; Sandi’s weapon of choice is a flail that looks to all the world like a tennis ball in a kneesock, but hits with considerably more impact. (A nice touch; the first time he’s spurred to violence, the camera placement and the editing keep his attack tantalizingly obscured; we don’t see exactly what it is he did, but we know it fucked those dudes up). Stunt coordinator siblings Daniel and Jonathan Ozoh get a surprising amount of mileage out of a weapon with an admittedly limited variation in terms of possible moves; his showdown with Ramon, a bloody battle between flail and hair shear, is a highlight.
Inevitably, it all leads to a final showdown that cleverly makes use of Sandi’s disability as strategy.
Only… turns out that’s not the end after all.
Without giving too much away, the final fifteen minutes of the movie go to some dark, sad, truly bizarre places. It’s a biiiiiig swing, a series of choices that will either have you staring at the screen in utter bafflement or bowing in respect to the genuine audacity of it all.
Again… I shall say no more.
Preman: Silent Fury is an interesting case where the rights are almost inextricable from the wrongs; Ramon is a great character steeped in homophobic cliches that may or may not be ironically deployed… even though we don’t see it, the rape of a tertiary character feels ugly and gratuitous; but lends genuine emotional power to a moment late in the film where the violated woman (a barnstorming Salvita Decorte) unleashes hell on both Sandi and the boyfriend who tries to hide behind her trauma to justify actions made out of cowardice. (There’s almost no female presence in the film, which could understandably be considered a demerit; but credit where credit is due, both Decorte and Putri Ayudya as Sandi’s justifiably upset ex-wife are given an autonomy and a moral force that brings to bear the sheer wrongness of the world the men around them have created).
In its shortcomings and its ambitions, whether it works overall or not, in the end it is precisely the kind of movie that film festivals and cult followings are made for.