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October 29, 2015

The Golden Cane Warrior

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Pendekar Tongkat Emas
Ifa Isfansyah - 2014
Well Go USA Entertainment BD Region A

I'm glad to see that Well Go USA has made available a film from Indonesia. With the limited availability of films with English subtitles, it's good to see something from a country that is usually overlooked in discussions of Asian cinema. Sure, it's a martial arts film, the most exportable genre available, other than horror movies. Though some of the blurbs compare The Golden Cane Warrior to Gareth Evans' The Raid, it is only the country of origin and the genre that these films have in common.

Ifa Isfansyah's film mostly takes place in the open country. The narrative is closer to that of a classic western, unlike The Raid and its sequel which take place largely within the confines of a single building, and have narratives that are similar to a video game, with the protagonist ascending higher and more difficult levels. That The Golden Cane Warrior is similar to a western can be seen in the various panoramic shots of the hilly countryside, some of the narrative elements, some bits of the music score which reveal the influence of Ennio Morricone, and even a scene with a group of exiled villagers living in shelters similar to the Native American tipis.

I don't know the time period when the story takes place, other than in some past era. We are introduced to an older martial arts teacher, Cempaka, who acts as a surrogate mother to three grown children of adversaries she has killed, plus a young boy abandoned by his family. Sensing that she is near death, Cempaka bestows a weapon she keeps wrapped, a golden cane, to the younger of her two "daughters", Dara. The older Biru and Gerhana try to hide their jealousy. Not quite Shakespeare, but we have a rivalry between this group of adopted siblings, with Biru and Gerhana framing Dara, and the young boy, Angin, for the death of Cempaka. At stake is not only possession of the cane, but the special knowledge of the cane's power.

Some of the same themes found in other martial arts films are here - family loyalty, the corrupting influence of power, and the use of martial arts on behalf of the community rather than personal gain. Isfansyah is clearly interested in making a film that approaches the epic, cinematic myth making like that of the classic Western. Even with a Chinese action director on hand, it is the depiction of the cane fighting that is the weakest part of the film. Too many choppy close-ups and medium shots, and not enough full screen shots make the fighting less than engaging. There are a couple of nice moments of martial arts practice filmed against a sunset, or two warriors leaping out of water. Isfansyah is much better with shots of his characters running through the open fields and forests, with close-ups of flowers and spider webs. Isfansyah made The Golden Cane Warrior in an attempt to revive what was a moribund genre in Indonesia. For the most part, Isfansyah is successful, and the ambiguous ending makes me interested in a possible sequel.

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Posted by peter at October 29, 2015 06:35 AM