Golden Cane Warrior, TheReviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 09/11/15 11:44:02
SCREENED AT THE 2015 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: I talked to folks who passed on "The Golden Cane Warrior" because the martial arts looked unimpressive in the trailer, which I suspect may be kind of unfair; they were probably cut to ribbons, and even if I am not quite knowledgeable enough to always tell okay from good from great, this movie looked pretty good and had Xiong Xin Xin doing action direction. It suffers more from some of the story around those fight scenes, honestly.Not all of it; there's a simplicity to it that's actually quite appealing: World-weary "Golden Cane Warrior" Cempaka (Christine Hakim) intends to step down as the head of her school and must pass leadership, the eponymous weapon, and the knowledge of the ultimate "Golden Cane Encircles the Earth" move to one of her four students. Three of them - Dara (Eva Celia Latjuba), Gerhana (Tara Basro), and Biru (Reza Rahadian) - are children of vanquished opponents she brought in; the fourth is but a child (though Angin is a prodigy). She chooses Dara, probably the least talented of the group, which incenses Biru and Gerhana, setting them on a path of betrayal and retribution. Not knowing the ultimate technique, Dara and Angin must go on the run, looking for a hidden teacher who can help them even the odds.
It works, mostly, although the story soon becomes dangerously lopsided: While Biru & Gerhana are consolidating power and doing terrible things, Dara spends a lot of time looking kind of useless, not training until later in the game and only becoming anguished at what her former "brother" and "sister" are doing because she herself manages to bring bad attention to innocent people. In a classic kung fu movie, the audience feels the heroine's frustration that perfecting her technique well enough to fight oppressors or take her revenge takes so much time, even as her spirit matures, but co-writer/director Ifa Isfansyah delays that too much here, even detouring into a long, unnecessary flashback rather than doing the work with Dara.
This leaves actress Eva Celia Latjuba in a bit of a lousy position; the script requires her to be impulsive and overmatched, and she never manages to give audiences the impression that there's a master or a leader behind the the pretty girl out of her league. Dara is constantly being rescued by a seven-year-old. She never really gets to assert herself, as she's eventually paired with a man who trains her and takes the lead in her mission. Nicholas Saputra plays this Elang, and there's nothing really wrong with the character or the actor; he's pretty capable and not a bad. It seems a bit odd and retrograde that a story that started with a female guru reaching retirement after decades as an undisputed master who chose peace by raising the children of her sworn enemies as a family - with Christine Hakim commanding authority in the role - winds up with the heroine needing a man to succeed.
That's not necessarily a problem itself - ignore the sexes of the characters and it's a student trusted more for her honesty than her skill finding a partner whose skills complement her own, albeit one where the filmmakers stumble making it an equal partnership. It's just that on the other side of the film, things are a bit better, with Tara Basro getting to at least hint at being Lady MacBeth as Gerhana rather than being entirely secondary to Reza Rahadian's Biru. Rahadian, at least, gets to play the villain without quarter - he's petty, ambitious, and cruel, and doesn't give the guy needless nuance.
On the plus side, when Dara and Elang are ready to go, the movie delivers; the finale is a long mixed-doubles match that lets the stars do their best work after an hour and a half of beating lesser opponents or standing back. Isfansyah and the action team clear the decks, getting everything that could interfere with a fairly decent melee away, building to a fine coup de grace. It goes on long enough to be a little wearing, but it's quite satisfying to see everyone cut loose, enough to make one wish there was more like that all along.It at least does build to a fine finale, and it looks quite nice on the way there. The action turns out to not be a particular problem - none of the actors immediately establish themselves as the next great screen fighters the way their countrymen did in "Merantau" and "The Raid", but they're capable - but a story that's just a bit better around that action would help.
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