The Indonesian film industry has long been a fertile ground for action cinema. Most cinephiles know of The Raid films and The Night Comes For Us, of course, but the tradition goes back much further, to the works of Barry Prima, to high concept fantasy films such as The Devil’s Sword, or to more grounded offerings that embraced the Hong Kong influence (Deadly Kick) or rejected it in favour of traditional Indonesian martial arts (Saur Sepuh 1). Randolph Zaini’s Preman: Silent Fury is none of that. To forge one’s own path independently in a country with such a rich action heritage is no small feat, but that’s exactly what this film attempts to do. Exit the highly technical, bone-breaking rampages orchestrated by the likes of Tjahjanto or Evans; forget the mythological takes of the 1980s: Preman is an action drama that wants to speak to you and me on equal footing. An action film deeply rooted in today’s social scourges.
This is the story of Sandi, a deaf man who hangs out with a group of “premen”, who are defined in the film itself as “Indonesian gangsters who claim to be motivated by a deep sense of justice but are despised by society for their bullying and violent behaviour”. The word preman comes from a local mispronunciation of the Dutch word vrijman (meaning “free man”), a title bestowed by the European colonizers to Indonesian thugs who were employed to enforce control over the rest of the natives. If Indonesia is now free of the Dutch rule, it is not free of premanism.
One day, Sandi’s son witnesses a murder, and the premen decide he must be eliminated. Sandi goes on the run to try and protect his child from his former peers and a contract killer sent after him.
Although this might sound like the ideal pitch for a non-stop, all-out war brawler, it is not what Preman is. The film contains relatively little action compared to its dramatic ambitions. First-time director Randolph Zaini makes it abundantly clear that his main goal is to highlight problems that are plaguing contemporary Indonesian society, mainly bullying, poor living conditions, unlawful evictions, and homophobic behaviours. The main character is hearing-impaired, which brings sign language to the forefront of the narrative.
These objectives are reached in a mostly efficient and convincing manner, but none of them are hammered home outrageously. On the contrary, the film never turns into a full-blown lecture, but organically embeds its discursive material into its narrative. This is, first and foremost, the story of Sandi, played by Khiva Iskak. Action films rarely pick people with a disability as heroes, and Sandi’s portrayal here is quite refreshing. Neither virtuous nor morally bankrupt, the protagonist mostly goes through the motions until he is forced to take control of the narrative.
Sandi is someone who is torn between the status of prey and predator. His former gang have adopted the fox as their totem, and they all exclusively wear clothes that are orange or within similar hues. Ramon, the lone assassin, is associated with the snake and the colour green, while the police (defined primarily by their apathy) are shown in purple. Ramon goes from a yellow dress-code to a blue one in the final act, translating his changed mind set. This might all sound a bit cartoonish, and in a way, it is – but not in a bad way. Preman is a film that relies on archetypal devices to tell its story, but it never draws attention to them per se.
For instance, in the second act, the film quietly takes advantage of its colour-coding when Sandi leaves his son in his ex-wife’s house while Ramon has managed to be let in by pretending to be a harmless travelling hairdresser. While outside, he hesitates to leave for a few moments. Sandi is wearing his yellow t-shirt. Ramon’s vehicle is green. In the background, one can see that the light emanating from indoors is now orange, the colour of Sandi’s new enemies. He leaves, but when he returns a few minutes later just on time to prevent the worst from happening, no explanation is given besides intuition. Intuition, and a correct reading of the colour coding.
The Sandi vs Ramon fight happens about two-thirds of the runtime in, and is the first traditionally-shot action scene. There is action before that, but its aesthetic treatment is different, elliptic. It begs the question of how do we want to see violence depicted onscreen. In the first act, the decisive moments of violence are off-camera, and their manifestation is purely deductive. The Kuleshov effect is used to make the audience understand that a brutal event just occurred, but it never actually shows it, never revels in its pictorial representation.
Some time later, hired killer Ramon arrives in Sandi’s house to investigate. He mentally recreates a scene the film hadn’t actually shown us (it had only hinted that it might have taken place), where Sandi takes down a couple of premen who had come to take him and his son. The movie therefore slides from deductive to imagined violence, thus implying that cinematographic moments of brutality must first be conceived in one’s mind before being brought to life on film. It offers the viewer a chance to think about what they expect from a revenge story such as Preman: must violence be graphic to be successful?
As I said before, the film is not a lecture. It asks questions but doesn’t necessarily pretend to have answers, and sure enough, it eventually reverts back to more conventional action filmmaking for its third act. The action design itself stands out since the characters use unusual weapons such as scissors (Ramon) or a monkey’s fist (Sandi), in a variety of environments – duel in tights spaces, One vs Many brawl in an abandoned house, abstract mindscape – that keep the audience guessing. One fight also makes good use of Sandi’s hearing loss by turning it into an advantage. The climatic fight leans toward a more cartoonish imagery that smartly resonates with the themes explored throughout the film, cementing the impression that Preman’s action sequences have been designed as storytelling tools first, and spectacle second.
This is director Randolph Zaini’s first feature film, and the result is quite impressive. Although the film sometimes lacks breadth in that it can feel like the world depicted onscreen stops at the edge of the frame (a feeling no doubt attributable to the limited budget), it proves narratively dynamic, propelled by various directing ideas that stimulate the viewer.
One of those ideas has to do with an unexpected use of split-screens that focus on a same action from different angles; another, with the way the director plays with image format, shrinking then expanding his aspect ratio in a handful of key scenes to single out characters or props. In one scene, the format goes beyond widescreen, crushing the picture between two massive black bars to focus the viewer’s eye on Ramon’s scissor pouch, as if the film were about to become a western. This approach gives the movie a heightened aesthetic identity.
But most importantly, it allows Zaini to film some sequences in an obviously discursive way. In a rather funny scene, Ramon interrupts two premen standing guard in Sandi’s house. One of them is portrayed as a typical macho thug. Although he is complaining to his friend about his impotence, he is still spouting clichéd nonsense about sexual prowess, peppered with homophobic insults directed at Ramon. The assassin is in the foreground, filling the left of the screen with his trunk and upper legs, while the preman is on the right, in the background. Sporting an 80s haircut that horrifies Ramon, the preman is made fun of by the camera composition; he is visually eclipsed, dwarfed by a more modern, less archaic version of the cinematic killer in obvious control of his power, and whose sexuality is never defined nor given importance to.
The third act contains a long flashback that reveals key elements from Sandi’s childhood, but its inclusion doesn’t exactly fit the film’s rhythm. This is perhaps the only time the feature becomes too didactic and melodramatic, as it explains something the audience had most likely already understood in a heavy-handed manner, but it is a minor gripe.
Despite its limited resources, Preman: Silent Fury is a compelling action drama that twists the hero formula just enough to make it fresh. Interested in shining a light on players too often ostracized by the film industry, but not in lecturing the audience, it proves once again that action can be at its most relevant and interesting in low-budget indie productions. We’ll keep our eyes peeled for Randolph Zaini’s next projects.
Special thanks to Sarah Clinton from WellGo USA for making this review possible.
Preman: Silent Fury
Directed by Randolph Zaini
With Khiva Iskak, Muzakki Ramdhan, Kiki Narendra, Revaldo