Filmmaker Archie Hekagery is currently embedded in television work of late with two dramas, including an adaptation of his 2019 debut, Wedding Arrangement. Somewhere between now and then, he found momentum in working with international action star Yayan Ruhian for a regional production that would inject a little more culture in the contemporary spectacle of martial arts cinema for audiences abroad.
His 2020 sophomore feature, Tarung Sarung is just that kind of film, combining romantic melodrama and comedy with martial arts choreography that offers a worthy and watchable piece of cinema for action fans and curious completists. The good news is that it’s well-shot and edited and looks amazing, and the performances are really up to par with actor Panji Zoni and actress/singer Maizura leading the way.
Picture this: A teenage boy so spoiled rotten and bullish, that when he pays another woman with his own car after a minor accident in the middle of a traffic jam just before walking into a nightclub, with his entourage like he owns the place and beating up the first guy he sees when the wrong man talks to his overindulged girlfriend, he actually thinks he’s doing something noble.
Of course, the boy in question would be Deni Rose (Panji Zoni), a devout athiest and the son of one of Jakarta’s richest families whose mother is a widow and the owner of a very large and influential construction company. She also happens to be wary of her son’s reckless and deluded actions, enough to send him away to the rural port city of Makassar for a journey of introspection, as well as to manage the planned development of an amusement park.
Albeit reluctantly, Rose accepts the task if only to prove to his mother that he isn’t spoiled. Upon his arrival, he meets Tutu (Jarot Superdj) and Gogos (Doyok Superdj), two lowly contract employees hired to aid Rose’s business transactions for the duration of his stay. It’s right then that he meets a young girl named Tenri (Maizura), a local Buginese girl who works as beach clean-up girl. As it turns out though, she also happens to be an environmental activist working against Rose’s family’s efforts to build the amusement park.
Clearly in love, Rose does what he can to keep up the act as he acclimates to life in Makassar, only he does so while under the disdainful eye of Sanrego (Cemal Faruk), a brutish gangster who also happens to be Makassar’s current contender as the region’s top athlete in Sarong Fighting – usually a ritualistic bout between two clashing parties in a one-on-one match to resolve differences – which has long since become assimilated into a commecialized sports competition.
This ultimately falls right into Rose’s purview as Sanrego has already expressed interest in marrying Tenri, and is willing to pay as much as 500 million rupiahs to her family as the bride price, in a deal set in motion by her father. It’s also money that he could very likely win in the next Sarong Fighting tournament, which ultimately means subjecting Tenri to an unwanted marriage with an evil brute, and with the tournament only one month away, Rose has no choice but to accept the terms of his new master, Khalid (Yayan Ruhian), the head of remote mosque with secrets of his own.
Tarung Sarung is well-acted with terrific lead and supporting performances, partly including Surya Saputra who plays Rose’s uncle. Actors Jarot Superdj and Doyok Superdj have a few gags going, with the former instructing people not to pronounce his name like a train horn, and the latter who is constantly cornered by Tenri’s friend, Kanada (Hajra Romessa), who also happens to be his ex-girlfriend following what appears to be a messy breakup.
The film is further driven by a compelling self-discovery element in its romantic unfolding of events. Zoni is perfect as the rich, snobbish-and-yet-totally-unaware fish-out-of-water asshole whose villain arc would have been a definite if he didn’t take this particular side quest in his life. His transformation from invincible rich city prince to someone learning the breaks and getting his ass handed to him without his uncle there to protect or lash out for him, is an all-too-familar one and is really entertaining to observe, in addition to Tenri and her obsession with relics of the 1980s, including but not limited to walkmans, view masters, and posters of her favorite movies like John G. Avildsen’s The Karate Kid.
You also get to see Ruhian in a seldom, poignant appearance as a supporting character. It’s known that Ruhian enjoys playing screen villains more than anything, but there’s certainly a tenderness he exhibits when he plays the rare good guy in a mostly dramatic capacity, and for a role that echoes its own spirited incarnation of Pat Morita’s Mr. Miyagi, he plays the part pretty damn well.
The action sequences were designed and coordinated by a team led by stunt coordinator Udeh Nans (212 Warrior, “Grisse”, Ashiap Man), along with fight choreographers Adjat Sudradjat (V/H/S2) and Ali Sukarno (212 Warrior, The Assistant). The opening fight intro was performed by Ruhian opposite Sudradjat, and recurs at least once more in a flashback sequence later on in the film as we learn more about Khalid’s past. It’s an explosive display that kicks things off enough to get our attention going forward, only it takes a much longer while for the fight action to pick up, although it does help to know that this is all apart of the film’s character development, which is necessary for a film of this caliber.
When the action finally does take off, we eventually see Zoni invoking a little more sharpness and assertiveness in his technique. In one scene, he’s forced to defend a customer at a restaurant against some of Sanrego’s goons, and fortuntely prevails against them all, save for Sanrego who is still very much the Alpha as he’s been training for years. The fight choreography does look a little rigid at times but does bear some impressive moments, including in the fight finale just before Sanrego cranks things up to eleven, ultimately seizing the tournament at arrow-point with his goon squad and challenging Rose to a “Sigajang Laleng Lipa”, a Sarong match using badik daggers.
Ultimately, underneath the film’s heavily dramatic and light-on-action veneer is a story of redemption, a plot tool that’s used right down the wire as the fight finale things go a bit more surreal than preferred. More than anything, Tarung Sarung is a love letter to the self, and while it doesn’t go as hard as the average raging Gareth and Timo-inspired bone-breaking bloodbath, the film at its core is a martial arts drama with a spiritual lesson – one with a lot of pointed questions about faith and religion, but also one invoked by a director who’s clearly seen some pretty cool movies growing up.
Watch Tarung Sarung on Netflix.