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People Behind Pendekar Tongkat Emas Could Have Fought Better

There was a time when martial arts movies or television series were very popular in Indonesia.

At such time, I really loved watching Saur Sepuh movies on local television. I also really enjoyed watching popular TV series such as Si Buta dari Goa Hantu, Wiro Sableng or Misteri dari Gunung Merapi.

Therefore, I was very excited when I heard that Mira Lesmana and Riri Reza would produce an Indonesian martial art movie called Pendekar Tongkat Emas (The Golden Cane Warrior). “About time,” I said to myself."Can't wait to see it!"

Since its resurrection in 2000, Indonesian film industries have never paid much attention to martial arts movie. They have mostly produced crappy horror movies, or romantic comedy, which frankly deserved no place on the big screen. Thus, I thought that PTE could rekindle my lost joy of watching martial arts movie.

I became more excited when I learned that Ifa Isfansyah, the man behind an acclaimed movie, Sang Penari, would direct PTE. My expectations further rocketed when learning about top Indonesian actors and actresses casted for PTE.

Finally, Pendekar Tongkat Emas was released on December 18, 2014. Alas! Due to my hectic schedule, I could not watch it in a movie theater. Interestingly, I did not hear any news about the movie being a hit. Mira and Riri targeted that some 1.7 million people would watch it. However, until January 2015, only 230 thousand people watched it. I wondered what went wrong.

I answered the question myself when I watched PTE last week: Pendekar Tongkat Emas unfortunately did not quite meet my (and probably others') expectations as a colossal martial arts movie.

The movie tells a story of legendary martial arts master Cempaka (Christine Hakim), who is trying to find a worthy successor of her Golden Cane. She has four students: Biru (Reza Rahardian), Gerhana (Tara Basro), Dara (Eva Celia) and Angin (Aria Kusumah). Biru, being the strongest among the four, expects that his master will hand the legendary cane to him. However, he is devastated after learning that he is not the chosen successor. PTE then explores devastation, betrayal, friendship, love and solidarity among Cempaka’s students as its plot and storyline.

PTE has a standard action movie plot, which is easy to follow. You can easily divide the plot into set up, confrontation and resolution, with some flashback scenes as inserts. However, contrary to action movies which usually have quick pace, PTE has a slow pace so that it failed to engage me. In fact, I spent several minutes playing my cellphone, waiting the characters’ to finish their sophisticated dialogue in formal Bahasa Indonesia.

As an action movie, PTE also lacks memorable fighting scenes. If I recalled correctly, there were only three memorable fighting scenes i.e. the beginning, middle and ending. The fighting scene in the beginning excited me the most, despite poor visual effects (which I understand considering this is an Indonesian not a Hollywood movie). I loved the fighting the ending, although I expected it to be better constructed or presented considering it was the “bomb” scene.

Biru vs Elang fighting scene was dominated by medium shot
What made the fighting scenes less memorable was partially due to the overly used medium shots in the film. The medium shots only captured half of the characters' body, thus limiting viewers' eye on the screen. The medium shots are excellent to portray dialogue scenes, but do not really work well to present fighting. In my opinion, a mixture of medium and long shots is best to portray fighting scenes because they can better showcase the characters' fighting mastery and also their interaction to the environment when the fight occurs.

Take Crouching Tiger Hidden Tiger, for instance. Its audience must still have remembered the memorable fighting scene in the woods. If you watch it back, the scenes mix long and medium shots. Such shots not only showcase the characters’ mastery on martial arts but also showcase interaction to the environment. It shows how the characters can make use of the environment as an element of their battle.

In the ending fighting scene of PTE, long shots are mainly used as a transition between two concurrent battles. Other than that, the cinematographer mostly used medium shots to package the battles that, in my opinion, only make the scenes boring. Besides, the extensive use of medium shots in PTE has also concealed the fighting choreography, which actually is pretty fantastic.

PTE hires Xio Xin Xin, a martial arts master from China, as the action director. Xin Xin is not a stranger in a film industry since he was involved in Once Upon A Time in China movie franchise. Xin Xin’s kung fu influence is rich in PTE, thereby creating the fighting style in the movie to be more of kung fu, instead of pencak silat (Indonesian martial arts).

Some moviegoers criticized this nuance. They said they wanted to see a pencak silat movie, not a wuxia (Mandarin martial arts movie genre). I shared their frustration, at first. But, I came across a PTE review at Cinemapoetica, which stated that PTE maybe pay a tribute to wuxia that indeed influenced Indonesian martial arts movie.

The reviewer may be correct. If looked closely, PTE has actually “promoted” that it will be more of a wuxia movie instead of a pencak silat movie. The stances of PTE characters in the movie poster, for instance, resemble kung fu stances rather pencak silat stances. Gerhana and Darah’s stance in fact is very similar to kung fu stance, as seen in the pictures below. The reasons why Ifa features more Kung Fu style fighting remain unclear until now. Even so, PTE should be recognized because the fighting choreography is indisputably on its own league.

Kung fu stances vs PTE characters stances

PTE should also receive recognition because if compared to other Indonesian action movies, it actually features more female fighters. The female heroes and villains in PTE are also depicted as powerful fighters although still dependent to the male characters. This kind of spectacle is rarely found in Indonesian action movies, which usually portray ultra powerful male characters and helpless female characters.

To conclude this post, I would like to say that PTE is not a bad movie, not at all, if compared to other Indonesian movies. However, after watching it, I did not really feel the excitement that I expected. It could have been made better, considering the budget which according to news was more than Rp 20 billion (one of the most expensive Indonesian movies in 2014). With such budget, I think Pendekar Tongkat Emas could have been made much better considering the big names in Indonesian film industry involved in the movie.

Rating: 3/5


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