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TIFF 2019: Gundala Review

Thanks to Highball.TV for sponsoring ThatShelf’s 2019 TIFF Coverage!

Gundala takes place on the mean streets of Jakarta, a wretched hive of villainy with Gotham City-like levels of corruption and neglect. Crime is out of control, gangs run the streets, and a sadistic crime boss named Pengkor (Bront Palarae) controls the political system. But before Pengkor pulls off his plan, a new hero will rise to stop him.

Writer/director Joko Anwar crafts an electrifying superhero origin story about one of Indonesia’s most prominent characters. The plot centers on Sancaka (Muzakki Ramdhan), a young boy with a fear of lightning – he believes the lightning is coming for him. And much like other future heroes, the poor kid can’t catch a break. His father gets assassinated while leading a worker’s rights movement against his tyrannical employer. And Sancaka’s mother eventually leaves to find work, never to return. Sad as they may be, these tragic events help set the stage for an epic superhero origin story.

Sancaka becomes a child of the streets, where he meets an older kid named Awang (Faris Fadjar Munggaran), who teaches him how to defend himself with martial arts. Awang also shares the number one rule of the streets: mind your own business. It’s a selfish lesson that Sancaka must overcome to become the hero his city needs.

Flash forward a couple decades and Sancaka (Abimana Aryasatya) is all grown up and works as a security guard at a printing factory. Life in the city has only gotten worse. Pengkor has planted sleeper agents in influential positions, and now he’s using them to spread chaos and panic throughout the country. Sancaka gets thrust into the action after defending his neighbour (Tara Basro) from a gang of thugs. But even his considerable fighting skills aren’t enough to save him from taking a horrible beating and getting tossed off a roof. But something miraculous happens…

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A bolt of lightning surges down from the sky and strikes Sancaka’s motionless body. The electrical charge not only heals his body, but it also imbues him with superhuman abilities. Sancaka becomes stronger, more resilient, and gains the ability to discharge bolts of electricity. Now possessing the power to fight back, he creates a costume, and sets out to save the city.

You watch a movie like Gundala for the action. And action is what this movie delivers, and then some. Gundala features a tonne of fast-paced martial arts battles which go down in stylish-looking locations. Cinematographer Ical Tanjung outdoes himself with each new setting. The moody onset lighting sets the tone for gorgeous martial arts onslaughts. The action breaks out in tight alleys, on abandoned trains, moonlit rooftops, parking lots, industrial warehouses; I can keep going. During a Q&A after my screening, Anwar said he filmed in 70 locations over just 50 days.

Considering their tight schedule and lack of prep time, the stunt coordinators pulled off a bloody miracle. From beginning to end, Gundala delivers fast and furious action and rarely stops to take its foot off the gas. It’s the type of film where one man kicks 30 henchmens’ asses in less than five minutes. Aside from the occasional lightning strike, the film employs a gritty, grounded combat style (by comic book movie standards). Gundala is more Kill Bill than Black Panther.

I do have a few quibbles. The first is a heavy reliance on tracking the action with shaky cams. There is some remarkable fight choreography going on, and the jittery camerawork can make following it all difficult. I get why. The stunt team had little to no prep-time – Anwar captured much of the film in a single take. The shaky-cam style helps hide mistakes and mask cuts. One can only imagine what a filmmaker as resourceful as Anwar could achieve with a large budget and more prep time with his stunt team.

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My other quibble; there are too many fights in the film – which is a great problem to have in a movie as fun as Gundala. The problem is that the action happens so often it starts blurring together. I’ll take one memorable setpiece over five quick fistfights. And some of the fights don’t feel in service of the plot. Certain action beats come across as though they were placed in the story for the sake of adding more eye-candy, not because some dramatic tension reached its boiling point.

Nitpicks aside, the action is excellent. It’s full of creative choreography and performed by talented martial artists, which is precisely what you want from an Indonesian action flick.

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Gundala is the first entry into an MCU-style shared universe known as the Bumilangit Cinematic Universe. The BCU has over 1000 characters to draw from, and some of them date all the way back to the ‘50s. Anwar already plotted out a series of BCU films. And in a holy shit moment, Anwar announced that one of these pictures will be helmed by The Night Comes for Us director, Timo Tjahjanto.

Gundala is a perfect jumping-off point that is more Batman v Superman than Justice League. Much like Captain America, Gundala is known for uniting other heroes, and a few prominent BCU characters show up before the story’s end.

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This movie is at its best during the opening 20-minutes, with young Sancaka adjusting to life on the streets. The movie loses a bit of its mojo once he grows up. Adult Sancaka isn’t the most fleshed-out hero we’ve seen in a comic book film. I’m more interested in Sancaka’s circumstances than his personal life. Fortunately, his potential love interest Merpati brings some much-needed swagger to the screen.

Palarae is forgettable as the story’s villain. With his horribly scarred face, crumpled posture, and husky voice, he looks as though he just passed super-villainy 101. I would have preferred the film spiced up his brand of arch-villainy with an even bolder performance. And yet, I am intrigued by a couple of other mysterious figures who show up before the end of the movie.

As a kid, I collected comic book trading cards and learned the mythologies of characters from series I never read. At this point, I have bits of Marvel and DC lore ingrained in my DNA. So, I found sitting through an origin story I didn’t know about exhilarating.

Gundala makes a fine choice for TIFF’s Midnight Madness slate. It’s an audacious comic book movie with a rich mythology, striking visuals, and jam-packed with first-class fight sequences. Most importantly, Gundala makes me excited about watching future titles from cinema’s newest shared universe.

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Thanks to Highball.TV for sponsoring ThatShelf’s 2019 TIFF Coverage

 

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