Indonesian action stars make waves in Hollywood

Indonesian actor and martial artist Joe Taslim may not yet be a household name in global cinema, but he and his countrymen are fast leaving their mark on Hollywood.

Landing roles in franchise blockbusters like “The Fast and the Furious”, “Star Wars”, “Star Trek” and others, a crop of Indonesian action-film stars has steadily climbed the ranks since the 2011 breakthrough of Indonesia-produced film “The Raid: Redemption”.

That film, which cost only about 1 million dollars to produce, introduced the country’s once-little-known traditional martial arts form pencak silat to international audiences.

“Americans had probably never heard of any Indonesian films before, and then suddenly came “The Raid” in all its glory,” says Taslim, wiping off sweat after a recent hard training day at a gym in central Jakarta.

“We were offered roles in Hollywood films simply because of that achievement, and it’s something we’re very proud of,” says Taslim, who won a silver medal in judo at the 2007 South-East Asian Games.

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Yayan Ruhiyan

The movie, which follows a group of 20 police commandos as they raid a rundown apartment in Jakarta to capture a drug boss, grossed 9.1 million dollars worldwide, a record for an Indonesian production. A Hollywood remake is on the way.

Iko Uwais – the main protagonist in “The Raid” – along with Yayan Ruhiyan and Cecep Rahman also played roles in the latest “Star Wars” instalment, “The Force Awakens”.

Ruhiyan, who plays street fighter Tasu Leech, the leader of the Kanjiclub gang, was previously a pencak silat fight choreographer for the Indonesian movie “Merantau”.

“I never dreamed of being an actor, let alone appearing in a Star Wars movie,” says Ruhiyan. His success as Tasu Leech even spawned miniature figurines. “It feels surreal that they created an action figure modelled after me.”

Uwais more prominently stars alongside Frank Grillo in an upcoming science-fiction action thriller “Beyond Skyline”, the sequel to the US box office hit “Skyline”.

He was also signed to star alongside Thai martial artist Tony Jaa (“Ong Bak”) and Chinese martial artist Tiger Chen (“Man of Tai Chi”) in the upcoming “Triple Threat”, The Hollywood Reporter said in March.

Uwais also takes top billing in “Headshot”, a martial arts action film directed by the Indonesian duo Mo Brothers that was released in the US, Britain, Australia and Russia in March.

Taslim says he believes that Indonesian actors securing roles in major Hollywood productions is no mean feat.

“It’s a humbling experience working with more senior actors in Hollywood,” says Taslim, who plays Jah in “Fast and Furious 6” and Manas in “Star Trek Beyond”.

“The Raid: Berandal”, a sequel to the 2011 blockbuster that set Indonesia’s film industry abuzz, was equally successful, and fans are clamouring for a third installment.

“’The Raid’ introduced pencak silat in a similar way Bruce Lee’s “Fist of Fury” introduced kung fu to the United States,” says Salman Aristo, an Indonesian screenplay writer and director.

Ever since its release, the country has experienced a renaissance in its film industry along with the emergence of young, talented filmmakers, Aristo says.

“Since 2013, Indonesian films have been screened in every major international film festival, some of them winning awards,” he says. “And it’s not easy to crack the prestigious festival circuit.”

The surge of global exposure has translated into a boon for local box office sales in Indonesia.

In 2016, tickets sold for Indonesian films screened in local cinemas doubled to more than 30 million from 15 million the previous year, Aristo says.

“For a film to be appreciated overseas, it must make an impact at home,” he says.

For years, the Indonesian film industry was dominated by cheap, sex-laden horror movies, with titles like “The Moaning of Virgin Ghost”, “Raped by Satan” and “The Menstruating Ghost of Puncak”.

But those days appear to be over, with viewers growing more demanding and more sophisticated, says Aristo, who has written scripts for some of the most successful Indonesian films of late, including “Rainbow Troops” and “Verses of Love”.

“Now we have better films, with varied themes and better production value.”

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