Wiro Sableng: a revival of Indonesian martial arts genre?

Characters in Wiro Sableng (from left to right) : Anggini (Sherina Munaf), Bujang Gila Tapak Sakti (Fariz Alfarazi), Wiro Sableng (Vino G. Bastian), the Prince (Yusuf Mahardhika) and Rara Murni (Aghniny Haque) Eriek Juragan

Wiro Sableng: a revival of Indonesian martial arts genre?

After being wowed by western superheroes from Marvel and DC universes, Indonesia finally gets its own hero on the big screen.

A film about a local hero clad in all white costume from the 16th century, Wiro Sableng (Crazy Wiro), hit Indonesian theatres on August 30. It will be released in Singapore on October 11 following Malaysia’s release on September 27.

The film mostly received positive reviews from media and audience. Reputable US magazine Variety called the film a breakthrough in Indonesia’s film industry for being the first film backed by Hollywood’s 20th Century Fox.

Despite the hype, Wiro Sableng has left a big question about genre filmmaking in the local cinema industry. Many consider Wiro to be a superhero movie, but from its cinematic elements and style, Wiro Sableng is closer to martial arts or silat genre.

What is genre?

Genre is a reference tool for filmmakers and audiences alike. Film professor Barry Keith Grant explains that genre classify commercial feature films that “tell familiar stories with familiar characters in familiar situations”. These references are useful for both filmmakers and audience to provide a pool of cinematic elements that they can work on as points of departure for film consumption, as well as for promotional purposes, so both sides know what to expect from a film.

The genre convention also refers to culture and social contexts surrounding the movies. It is very common that a genre can disappear or getting significant revisions in its elements when the culture supporting it is no longer dominant. One example is western genre. Once this genre dominated the screen worldwide from the 1950s to the 1970s, but now it has been revised to cope with new society’s values.

Wiro Sableng’s case

Since its production, many consider that Wiro Sableng is a superhero movie. Some websites even speculate that Wiro will join the Avengers, a franchise from Marvel Cinematic Universe, whose parent company, Disney, owns 20th Century Fox. The appearance of Wiro in Deadpool 2 trailer, one of Marvel Studio’s films, also strengthens this speculation.

Wiro Sableng’ in ‘Deadpool 2’ trailer.

The assumption that Wiro Sableng is similar to Hollywood superhero movie is inevitable. This is because there have been no reference in Indonesian films whose main characters have superhuman abilities.

Local martial arts genre

From its cinematic elements and style, Wiro Sableng is closer to martial arts or silat genre. Indonesian silat genre is akin to wuxia genre in Hong Kong cinema. Both genres have historical settings with corresponding costumes, properties and architecture. Important elements in this genre are the characters’ ability to do choreographed fighting with “high-kicks” and “flying swords”. Sometimes superhuman abilities are featured to add entertainment values.

Indonesian silat genre dominated the screen in the 1980s. Jaka Sembung series (The Warrior) – the third top earner film in 1982 according to Film Indonesia website – and Si Buta dari Gua Hantu series (The Blind Swordsman) are among the successful ones. After that, the genre fell into obscurity. The Jaka Sembung and Si Buta series are now circulated in low quality VCD format, and have lost their appeal to a new generation of filmgoers.

Attempts to revive silat genre occurred in 2014 with the production of Pendekar Tongkat Emas (Golden Cane Warrior, but to no avail. The film flopped and received bad reviews, with one saying the film lacked fresh ideas.

The superhero genre has not been produced for a while in Indonesia while the martial arts genre, which once dominated the screen, has also all but disappeared. No wonder, then, that people associate Wiro Sableng with the Hollywood superhero genre, which has dominated the global film industry.

Technology for silat genre revival

Technological development in moviemaking has opened many possibilities for featuring superhuman abilities on screen. This has become a new standard in the film industry. Any films laden with special effects to portray superhuman abilities always bring with them the expectation of an enjoyable watching experience.

Chinese films in the Wuxia genre have undergone an upgrade. We can see how visual effects play its magic in Ang Lee’s films such as Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon (2000) or Hero (2002). The special effects has helped these films create better film narratives for audiences in the new century.

Indonesia’s success story with visual effects can be found in the remake of a classic horror film, Pengabdi Setan (Satan’s Slave, 1982) into the 2017 version.

Film critic Hikmat Darmawan has praised Wiro Sableng for its “luxury special effects against the benchmark of Indonesian fantasy pictures”. He also says Wiro Sableng belongs to the silat genre, hinting at the possibility of the genre’s revival in the local film industry. But again, the revival of silat genre will depend on creating convincing special effects that can woo millennials who have grown up on the slick special effects of Hollywood superhero movies.

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