Without a doubt, there has been a significant increase in interest among critics and filmgoers for Indonesian cinema. Thanks in no small part to action-epics like The Raid and its sequel, The Raid Redemption, and critically acclaimed documentaries like The Act of Killing, which explores the horrifying mass executions of accused communists in Indonesia in 1965, it’s always exciting to see what will be released next for international audiences. Thankfully, The Golden Cane Warrior, a mixed-martial arts period-piece and the latest Indonesian film making its debut in the West, delivers not only some impressive fight sequences, but also manages to be one of the most entertaining action movies of the year.
Directed by Ifa Isfansyah (The Dancer), the film follows Cempaka (Christine Hakim) a martial arts master simply known as The Golden Cane Warrior, and her four students Biru (Reza Rahadian), Gerhana (Tara Basro), Dara (Eva Celia) and Angin (Aria Kusumah); all of whom are the last surviving children of her defeated rivals and enemies. With her health deteriorating quickly, Cempaka realizes that she must choose her successor and give to them not only the Golden Cane, a priceless and dangerous weapon, but also the secret knowledge of how of how to unlock the cane’s devastating power. Though she makes the difficult choice, it becomes obvious that not all of her students are as understanding or loyal as they initially appear to be.
Like most martial art films, the focus is always on the fights, and The Golden Cane Warrior doesn’t disappoint in terms of delivering some damn fine fight choreography and stunts. Though there are a few unarmed brawls, the majority of the fights make use of the martial art known as silambam (stick-fighting). A weapon-based martial art originating from Southeast Asia, specifically India, silambam makes use of bamboo canes and staves for personal offense and defense. It’s thrilling, particularly towards the film’s climax, to see the fighting style used so often during the biggest action sequences. Thankfully, the camera remains steady for the most part during these scenes, letting the actors and stunt choreographers showcase their obvious skills. Additionally, there is some occasional wirework at play, giving a few of the fights a more fantastical vibe akin to Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or Zhang Yimou’s House of Flying Daggers.
In terms of the performances, the cast certainly delivers, though some of the characters suffer due to clichéd writing. The good guys are always underdogs and the villains might as well be twirling mustaches. It’s not offensive nor does it take away any sense of enjoyment from the film, but it certainly feels like a missed opportunity, especially when you come to learn that the central protagonists and villains were raised together as children. In the end, it’s hard not to feel invested in the story, especially when Hakim’s Cempaka or Darius Sinathrya’s Elang the White Dragon Warrior are on the screen kicking all sorts of butt.
When it comes right down to it, The Golden Cane Warrior succeeds more than it doesn’t by providing a fun, if somewhat straightforward tale of a hero’s journey. Its choice to make use of a martial art like silambam is an inspired one, making it a unique film within its own genre and serving as yet another reason to pay attention to Indonesia’s output of action movies.