Kick up a storm
Gareth Huw Evans, Iko Uwais and Yayan Ruhian are doing what good buddies do: bantering with each other and chuckling at their own jokes.
But what they do is no laughing matter: The Raid: Redemption, directed by Evans and starring Iko and Yayan, is the latest Asian movie sensation to hit North America and Europe. The fast-paced, action-packed thriller - which revolves around the unrelenting fight between an elite Swat team and the violent underlings of a ruthless drug lord in a run-down Jakarta building - won awards in the Toronto and Dublin film festivals, knocked out movie critics, and became a smash hit in the US when it opened in March. It is set to open in Hong Kong on Thursday.
Much of the praise has gone to the intense combat scenes, which feature pencak silat, the indigenous martial arts of Indonesia, and were meticulously choreographed by pencak silat masters Iko and Yayan, and the British-born director.
True, Asian action movies have long enjoyed a strong following in the West. But The Raid is unique in that it's the brainchild of a Welshman. Even Evans admits it wasn't something he had ever dreamed of. 'People from Wales don't tend to make martial arts movies. I never thought of it as part of my future.'
The actors were equally surprised by their cinematic success. 'It's a gift from God,' says the soft-spoken Yayan, 42, who plays sadistic henchman Mad Dog in The Raid. Iko, 29, who worked as a driver of a telecom company before he starred in Evans' films, concurs: 'I never dreamed I'd become an actor. Having been an athlete, I didn't have any experience in front or behind the camera. I also think this is a gift from God, and I thank my parents for their prayers.'
The director, too, partly owed his career to his father, who introduced him to action flicks and, thus, Asian martial arts. 'I grew up watching Jackie Chan, Bruce Lee and Jet Li movies,' the 32-year-old says. 'Every weekend, my dad would rent different videos from video shops. Almost all of them were martial arts movies.'
Evans took up karate and aikido as a boy (he was 'terrible at it', he admits) and later got into Takeshi Kitano and Takashi Miike, directors of some of the most violent films to emerge from Japan in the 1990s. In 2003, while studying scriptwriting at the University of Glamorgan in Cardiff, he wrote and directed - with the help of his Japanese friends - a Japanese-language short film, titled Samurai Monogatari, as a school project.
Also at university, he met and married an exchange student, a woman of Japanese-Indonesian descent. First, they settled in his hometown, Hirwaun, but since his film career went nowhere even after his low-budget directorial debut Footsteps, he tried his luck in Indonesia, where, through his wife, he landed a gig to direct a documentary on pencak silat for a major film production house.
His documentary work changed the course of his career, and life. Evans, who now lives in Indonesia with his wife and their three-year-old daughter, became mesmerised with the versatility of pencak silat, which had lost out in popularity to foreign martial arts such as karate, judo and muay thai.
His research gave Evans the idea of making an action film featuring pencak silat. For Merantau, which means 'sojourn', he recruited Iko, whom he met while shooting the documentary, and Yayan, a pencak silat trainer cum referee, as actors and action choreographers.
Following a young man from a village (Iko) who dreams of teaching pencak silat in the capital, Jakarta, but winds up saving a young girl from a human-trafficking ring, Merantau was a critical success in Indonesia. Nonetheless, Evans had problems raising funds for his next action film so, instead, he moved to a lower-budget project called The Raid.
For this film Evans drew on Asian masters such as Hong Kong's John Woo Yu-sum, Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung Kam-po, and Thailand's Panna Rittikrai. Inspiration also came from American action classics such as Die Hard and Assault on Precinct 13, with the latter becoming his model for shooting a low-budget movie. 'When I looked at these films I was referencing, if I took all the action away, what's left was a survival horror film. It opened a whole new interpretation.'
Having released Merantau in 2009, Evans realised his production company, Merantau Films, could stay afloat only if he reached the international market. So while shooting The Raid last year, he sent rough edited footage to the Cannes festival's film market - and it was picked up by Sony Pictures.
'We struck lucky on this one,' Evans says. 'It's been a bit of luck with Plan B, to be honest.'
Sony was not only interested in distributing the movie worldwide, it also offered to have the score recomposed by Linkin Park musician Mike Shinoda and Tron: Legacy orchestrator Joe Trapanese - a clever strategy to make the film more appealing worldwide, Evans says.
'We're dealing with a martial arts film in the Indonesian language, with lead actors and a director nobody really knew. If you have somebody offering help to do the score, it's really fantastic,' he says.
A diligent and demanding filmmaker - this is, after all, the director who learnt pencak silat before he made Merantau to deepen his understanding of it - Evans sent Iko, who plays a rookie cop, and other actors with Swat team roles to a military boot camp run by the Indonesian Amphibious Force. There, they underwent rigorous training for such skills as handling weapons and building raids. 'I wanted the action to look realistic, and I wanted the actors to bond together,' Evans says.
The Raid wowed audience and critics at the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival, winning the Midnight Madness award.
It reached No 11 in the US box office in April, drawing an audience of more than two million. There is now a plan for a Hollywood remake of The Raid - although Evans says he prefers to work on his next project.
The Raid has also awakened an interest in the Indonesian martial arts. Yayan and Iko have seen more students enrolled in silat schools in Indonesia, and Evans' production company gets queries from people as far away as North America and Europe asking where they could find a silat guru.
Evans promises more pencak silat films for action and martial arts fans. 'I've done two movies so far, and we have barely scratched the surface ... Everything I do in Indonesia would be about pencak silat. I have five other scripts I definitely want to do next on silat.'
The Raid: Redemption opens on Thursday