Though the highest grossing films in Malaysia mostly come from the international market, one shouldn’t discount the country for its own cinematic successes. There’s docudrama The Big Durian (2003), the first Malaysian film to screen at the Sundance Film Festival, as well as supernatural horror film Munafik 2 (2018), the highest grossing local release to date. They’ve released dramas, comedies, animated family stories, and action films. The latest to crossover from Malaysia to the States is first-time director Areel Abu Bakar’s 2019 martial arts drama Geran, now titled Silat Warriors: Deed of Death. After a brief exclusivity period on streaming service Hi-YAH!, Silat Warriors is coming available to own on Blu-ray and DVD via distributor Well Go USA. Whether it’s a failure to translate significance from one culture to another or just an inability to bring to life the ideas within Bakar’s mind, Silat Warriors frustrates as audiences can see almost all of Bakar’s ideas on screen despite a lack of flow bringing it all together.
Mat Arip (Fad Anuar) is a gambling addict whose thoughtless provides an opportunity for the local loan shark to take his father’s land. Each attempt, though, to ensure it doesn’t happen is either sabotaged via double-cross or via subterfuge. Meanwhile, his sister Fatimah (Feiyna Tajudin) attempts to get their father, Pak Nayan (Nam Ron), to refuse help to Mat Arip, while brother Ali (Khoharullah Majid) struggles with what’s right. But as the loan shark tries to tighten the noose, moving ever closer to taking the land for his boss, Haji Daud (Faizal Hussein), Ali, Fatimah, and Mat Arip are forced to take a stand and none on either side may be ready for that.
As presented via the trailer, Silat Warriors is a family drama featuring martial arts components. A brother and son puts his family’s home on the line, making them all vulnerable to a landowner who’s been trying to take the land for ages. In so doing, each member of the family is challenged leading to a physical confrontation against those who would force them from their home. It’s an intriguing concept, especially given the sequences the audience is teased with featuring Tajudin, except what is put together is far less focused and direct in execution. As an initial feature, it’s hard to decipher if this is Baker’s approach to Malaysian cinema or his own view, but much of the tension is undercut by editing practices. Sometimes it takes the form of an apparent flashback in the middle of a fight, implied by the sudden shift to black-and-white, which is given no context or significance to the moment during which it’s happening. These flashbacks occur throughout the film, sometimes clearly going with the flow of the narrative to enlighten the audience about the Nayan family, whereas others desire to provide context but confuse instead. 2003’s Once Upon a Time in Mexico is often described by writer/director Robert Rodriguez as being both the 3rd and 4th films in his El Mariachi series because of the flashbacks within the film, elucidating the narrative stakes as the each one presents itself. Within Silat Warriors, this is not always true. While the flashbacks do help in offering some backstory as to why the Nayan children are the skilled fighters they are and make clear the differences among the children, flashbacks of other moments of physical encounters, or other matters, just don’t land as intended. Instead, the flashbacks deter the narrative momentum, grinding it almost to a halt. This issue also occurs frequently as Bakar shifts attempts to overlap moments happening in one location versus another. Usually this kind of cross-editing is to use the energy of both scenes to ramp tension or intrigue, to raise stakes in one moment by offering up something in another. With the exception of the sequence in which all three Nayan children are forced to defend themselves simultaneously, the cross-cutting doesn’t amplify or enhance any other moment. More often than not, it detracts from or derails the energy of the scene altogether. What makes this frustrating is that it’s plain what Bakar is attempting to do. All of Bakar’s shots and staging possess intention, so the cross-editing isn’t flourish for the sake of flourish, it has a purpose.
In a lot of ways, Silat Warriors reminds me of The Raid: Berandal (2014). There are more social politics than action and old rivalries fuel the current drama which our protagonists must contend with. Except where Berandal featured an undercover cop infiltrating a crime organization to take them down from within while also trying to find out who murdered his brother, Silat Warriors is a lot less clear in its focus. At least, it appears that way. This may be where the cultural differences come in, as the film keeps playing up who Pak Nayan is as though leaning on foreknowledge. Same with the reverence and fear people speak about Haji Daud. One can understand familial discord, even grasp the tendrils of conflict between the two houses teased within, but Bakar clearly intends for there to be some kind of additional weight at the knowledge of Nayan vs. Daud that just doesn’t carry over. For instance, Daud himself is only mentioned, never seen, except at a critical moment where he’s kept in shadow. There’s no reason for this at all, nor is the finale truly conclusive on the issue that kicks everything off in the film, resulting in far more confusion than satisfaction.
Where you may find some, though, are in the stunt sequences. Admittedly, the opening one doesn’t impress due to action that appears heavily choreographed to the point of appearing stilted in execution. This shifts a little while later when Tajudin’s Fatimah executes a resounding beatdown on Daud’s men. It uses space well, crackles with energy, and is a pure joy to watch. Later, in the cross-editing sequence of the siblings in combat, her portion is the highlight of the entire portion for the way it utilizes space, inventiveness of hand-to-hand combat, and general execution. In contrast, Mat Arip ends up on a bus engaged in close-quarters combat and it’s just dull. The recent bus sequence in Nobody (2021), coordinated by stunt coordinator and actor Daniel Bernhardt, contains imagination, flow, and impact. It’s a fun, yet uncomfortable watch as Bob Odenkirk’s Hutch attacks and defends using whatever’s within his grasp. Granted there’s more space for movement in Nobody than in Silat Warriors, the staging and execution of the sequence lacks the same flourish of Fatimah’s, falling back on the same rote and robotic implementation of the opening. For a film that builds toward a lengthy and mostly impressive set piece in which Majid’s Ali goes for broke, the action, overall, is a strange mix of obviously choreographed and entirely natural.
For a first-time feature, Silat Warriors isn’t without its promise. You can see the talent within the ideas and the concepts that push Silat Warriors beyond a mere thoughtless marital arts genre picture you find in the bargain bin and toward a drama with depth. Anuar is the only actor among the “siblings” with prior acting experience suggesting that the other two can truly only get better from here as they add to their filmography. Out of them all, Tajudin is the one to watch. She’s got the kind of physical presence that reminds of recent action star Veronica Ngo (Furie) or, going back a bit, Cynthia Rothrock (Never Say Die). There’s a suggestion within at the end that while the film may be over, the story is not. Considering what Bakar is able to accomplish here, more time and a second chance might unveil what he’s truly capable of as a filmmaker.
Streaming exclusively on Hi-YAH! beginning June 4th, 2021.
Available on Blu-ray, DVD, and digital July 6th, 2021.
For more information, head to Well Go USA’s Silat Warriors: Deed of Death website.
Final Score: 2 out of 5.