Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Let the Magic Powers and Severed Limbs Fly in THE WARRIOR

The Warrior (1981)
aka Jaka Sembung
Director: Sisworo Gautama Putra
Seen via: Mondo Macabro DVD (R1)
Rating: 6 / 10

One of my new year's resolutions this year is to seek out more Indonesian genre films. After having my brain dissolved by Lady Terminator last year, and stumbling upon a series of posters depicting flying heads trailing organs (known in Balinese mythology as a Leyak), I felt that I was in for a special kind of madness. I mean, look at this poster (from Mystics in Bali):

That's more horrifying than any monster I've seen in years. I was instantly sold.

While Indonesian action experienced a brief spike in popularity last year with Gareth Evans' The Raid, the country's film industry has a rich and lurid past, particularly in genre films that flourished in the 70s and 80s. This era marked the relaxation of government-imposed censorship that had stifled the industry in prior decades. Combined with a government mandate that studios produce one original film for every five imports and additional tax incentives for filmmakers, this ushered forth a golden age of sleaze. Cheap, trashy genre films were easy to churn out and were guaranteed moneymakers. Audiences ate them up, especially when they were based on popular trends in Western films.

1981's The Warrior blends action and martial arts to tell a story adapted from a popular Indonesian comic book. The hero is Jaka Sembung, a mystical 19th century warrior who fights the oppressive Dutch colonialist regime in West Java. Sembung is played by Indo-action hero Barry Prima, and here he acts as sort of a Robin Hood figure to the oppressed Javanese. That makes the Dutch leader Van Schramm his Sheriff of Nottingham. This man boasts some impressive facial hair:

But despite his genial appearance, he's out for Jaka Sembung's blood. When he puts a bounty on Sembung's head, a large fire-blowing wizard walks right into the camp and accepts, despite being shot at by tons of Dutch troops who aren't quite sure why he's there. Oh yeah, bullets don't do much to any of the warriors in this movie - these guys are pretty nearly indestructable. As if that wasn't enough for the Dutch leaders, they make this guy wrestle a bull in order to prove himself. No problem - he just snaps its neck with his super strength.

Another wizard is resurrected from the dead to fight Sembung. He's been decapitated, but that's not a big deal. His head is just happy to be reunited with his body. Nothing phases this guy either - losing a head, arms, legs. No matter what's chopped off, he just keeps on fighting and reattaches his missing parts. Now the only problem is finding Jaka Sembung. Off to the village where he was last seen! Just in case you weren't convinced that the Dutch troops were evil, one of them threatens a local village kid with a gun unless the villagers 'fess up.

Rather than allow an innocent to come to harm, Jaka Sembung  surrenders himself, but not without a fight. The regenerating wizard is just too much for him though, so he's captured, jailed, nailed to a wall, blinded...

 AND turned into a pig.

How's he ever going to get out of this one?

With the power of Allah, of course. I'm not at all up to speed with the source material in this story, but from what I can gather, Sembung's power comes from an amulet that he wears which imbues him with superpowers when he prays. It's sort of a funny idea actually - can you imagine a superhero who prays to Jesus for his powers?

...oh. Never mind.

There are a lot of things to enjoy about The Warrior, many of which are the fight scenes. They're not always slickly choreographed, but filling them with magic, flying limbs, and blood keeps them engaging. The evil wizards are also a blast, simply due to how much they enjoy being evil. I always enjoy villains who clearly relish being bad, and these guys are great examples. They're always laughing and taunting Jaka Sembung, especially after pulling tricks like kicking him with a severed leg. "How many appendages come back to you? You are going to lose!"

It's also pretty interesting that most of the downtime between battles in the film focuses on the villains rather than Jaka Sembung. This gives us lots of time to revel in their villainry, as opposed to watching Sembung be sort of a goody-two-shoes.

If you're looking for some martial arts fights infused with mysticism and tons of blood, The Warrior might be right up your alley. There's enough Indonesian flavor in its mythology and magic that it stays interesting, and never feels too derivative.

Also, there's this.

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