Welcome to Cheat Sheet, our compilation of festival films, VR previews and other special event releases. This review is from the Toronto International Film Festival 2019.
Anyone working in genre films these days wants their own, long-term franchise. The financial success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which has brought billions to Disney and Marvel Studios worldwide, has become a holy grail to other film studios who continue to try to design their own series of interlinked films, mostly with limited success.
The latest arrival in the scene comes from an unexpected source: Indonesia, where the studio Bumilangit openly wants to create a "Bumilangit Cinematic Universe" based on a library of more than a thousand cartoon characters to create a networked superhero world. The first episode of the planned series, Gundala reveals the intentions of the company: It is a mass action movie full of martial arts and special effects and full of bizarre acts that reach to the very edge of the comedy. As a prelude it is a profitable effort.
WHAT IS THE GENRE?
superhero origin story. It takes almost the entire length of the movie to actually name the title character, the lightning-fast martial artist hero Gundala. But that's because the name is involved in a bigger story and a bigger narrative. Even at the end of the story, he is not fully aware of it. After all, in a world that seems to lack superheroes until it arrives, it has only come to power.
WHAT IS IT?
The young Indonesian slum dweller Sancaka learns early in life that attempts at heroism kill and kill people that it is best to suppress his urge to help the helpless. His father, a union organizer, is murdered as part of a brutal crackdown on factory workers demanding fair wages. His mother disappears and apparently leaves him. He lands homeless on the streets of Jakarta, where attempts to defend people weaker than himself beat him almost to death. He learns martial arts and self-defense from another young street dweller, but he also learns a few indelible moral lessons. His idealistic father had a saying, "If we see injustice and do nothing, then we are no longer human." But as Sancaka grows up, he welcomes a new mantra: "Take care of your own affairs."
At the same time It is difficult to avoid the violence in Jakarta, where corruption is paramount, and the population seems to consist largely of roving thugs armed with sticks. (As a prepubescent boy, Sancaka fights against gang-raped gangs of children, and in adulthood, the sticks get bigger, the antagonists get bigger, and the fighting gets more sophisticated.) Most local politicians are under the control of the unscrupulous mob boss Pengkor, who brutally murders anyone who opposes him openly.
But eventually Sancaka gets involved in a community fight involving his handsome neighbor Wulan and her younger brother. This becomes a bigger fight, inevitably involving gangs of thugs who have to be sent with more and more creative martial arts techniques and Sancaka's newly discovered lightning. From there, Sancaka encounters Pengkor's plans, and the two men set off for a final duel. REALLY ABOUT
Like so many budding franchise founders, too, put about pieces on the board. In a Q & A after screening at TIFF, author-director Joko Anwar said Gundala is the first movie in a planned opening cycle of eight films to be shot until 2025. The eighth of these films, Patriots is planned as a crossover in the style of Avengers which brings together the heroes. He says that Bumilangit Studios has the rights to more than 1,100 Indonesian comic characters used to build a vast coherent universe.
Gundala reveals these intentions in the usual franchise way: by stuffing the story with setups it can not pay off for years. In a subplot that has little to do with the main story, one of Pengkor's allies sets out to revive an ancient evil familiar to Gundala, pointing to the imminent "great war." A secret superhero called Sri Asih appears at a crucial moment, much like Wonder Woman in Batman vs. Superman . A series of loose ends approaching the end of the film seem potentially destined to provide more heroes or villains. As Anwar explained during the Q & A, Gundala's strength lies in his charisma and his ability to unite people. Its history is convincing, but it is also used as a rallying point to bring together a future gang of heroes.
IS IT GOOD?
It is certainly stylish. During the questions and answers, Anwar discussed how the film was filmed in five cities and 70 locations within 50 days – such a tight schedule that he had to occasionally ride motorcycles from one set to the next because he had to do several sets simultaneously monitor. As a result, the martial arts were usually rehearsed once and then shot in one shot, usually in about two hours per combat scene. The onslaught, however, is not visible on the screen: the combat scenes are smooth and intense, with an escalating sense of danger and a bit of variety. The camera of Anwar gives the fighters just enough distance to follow the fights. There's a minimum of camera ticks and a lot of amazingly skilful, ballet-like physical actions.
The cast is sympathetic and understandable. Muzakki Ramdhan, the little boy who plays Sancaka in his childhood, is particularly effective both as an actor and as a budding martial artist. Abimana Aryasatya, who plays him in adulthood, is alternately soulful and hard, and is as adept at physical activity and the few forays into Stephen Chow-type martial arts comedy – especially as Sancaka's friends start testing his superpowers by: They mainly hurt him to see if he shakes off the head or heals afterwards. The movie could use a little more of that humor. It is, for the most part, relentless, with a clear message about the desperate situation of honest workers in Jakarta. It keeps up the stakes, but it's still a surprise and relief when the movie shows a crooked smile for a second.
For the American public trained on Marvel films, the biggest stumbling-block with Gundala will inevitably be the tempo. There is a lot of emphasis on essentially unimportant secondary characters, and a whole range of different groups quietly and extensively reflect on authority, morals, corruption and responsibility. There are also an astonishing number of subplots ranging from a secret society of orphans to a serum that selectively destroys fetal brain tissue and ensures that affected infants are born without a moral center. There is a murderous violinist, a Javanese wizard, a severed head kept in a glass block, and a provocative hot-blooded lawmaker who wants to defend himself against Pengkor. All this business may sound weird and bizarre, and it does, but it inevitably diverts the focus from Sancaka's story, which sometimes seems secondary to the political harassment and overall picture of the franchise's intentions.
WHAT SHOULD IT BE VALUED?
There's a lot of violence against kids in this movie and a lot of death, but it's not particularly bloody or intense. It is primarily a martial arts action adventure. PG-13 will do well.
HOW CAN I REALLY SEE IT?
Gundala celebrated its Indonesian premiere in August. The producers are currently working on international release deals.