The fascinating history of Indonesian action cinema is examined in “Garuda Power: The Spirit Within.” Tapping into subject matter that’s received little prior attention and framing it within the bigger picture of Indonesian culture and politics from the 1920s to the present day, first-time documaker Bastian Meiresonne has delivered an entertaining and illuminating essay that ought to delight geeks and satisfy general viewers. This self-funded labor of love should enjoy a respectable fest run and popularity as an on-demand item following its world premiere at Busan.
A worthy addition to the growing number of docus about exploitation movies from exotic places, such as “Machete Maidens Unleashed!” and “Not Quite Hollywood: The Wild Untold Story of Ozploitation,” “Garuda Power” is hosted by an onscreen narrator (Rudolf Puspa) who is presented as the living spirit of Indonesian action cinema. Appearing at well-timed intervals, the character works effectively as a candid commentator on highs and lows over the years.
Opening with the sobering news that half of all Indonesian feature films no longer exist, the documentary launches its chronological overview of action pics with footage from the mostly Dutch- and Chinese-financed films produced in the 1930s in what was then known as the Dutch East Indies. The dominant figure at this time was producer-director The Teng Chun, whose Cino Motion Pictures and Java Industrial Film companies cranked out a series of highly profitable Tarzan-inspired jungle adventures and fantasies based on Chinese mythology.
Early archival highlights include clips from “Srigala Item” (“Black Wolf”), a local version of “The Mask of Zorro,” and “Tengkorak Hidoep” (“Living Skull”), regarded as the industry’s first genuine local horror movie. Both were helmed in 1941 by Tan Tjoei Hock, a discovery of The’s who directed no fewer than seven other features in the same year. Unsurprisingly, production ground to a virtual halt from 1942 to 1949, while Indonesia was under Japanese occupation and ousting returning Dutch colonial rulers before becoming a formally recognized republic.
Interviewees ranging from film historians and cultural commentators to veteran filmmakers and actors role bring the role of action and escapist films from 1950 into intelligent focus. Interestingly, some do not regard films made before 1950 as being part of Indonesian cinema. Without getting bogged down in too much heavy theorizing, these discussions paint an engaging picture of how the patriotic war movies made by Usmar Ismail in the 1950s and the rise of Bond-style adventures (“Djakarta-Hong Kong-Macao,” 1968), comicbook-inspired superhero movies (“Rama Superman Indonesia,” 1974) and countless martial-arts epics in the ’60s and ’70s related to Indonesia’s emerging national identity, and its turbulent 1965 transition from the anti-imperialist era of founding leader Sukarno to the 31-year authoritarian rule of president Suharto. One of the fascinating angles here is the importance of comicbooks in Indonesian popular culture and how home-grown comic heroes made the transition to the bigscreen.
The most visually vibrant segments chart the boom of the 1980s and early ’90s, when productions such as “Jaka Sembung” (“The Warrior,” 1980) hit the jackpot with domestic auds, and homevid stores around the world were stocked with Indonesia-filmed actioners including the Cynthia Rothrock starrers “Lady Dragon” (1992) and “Angel of Fury” (1992). Scattered through dozens of clips are entertaining stories from key figures including actor George Rudy, helmer Ackyl Anwari, Rapi Films honcho Gope T. Samtani and veteran stuntman Jerry Yess, who has some funny tales to tell about filming in the days when on-set safety wasn’t much of an issue. Pic also boasts a rare appearance by Barry Prima, the famously publicity-shy actor who became one of Indonesia’s biggest stars of the era. When Prima is asked about the reason for his enormous popularity in films where he was typically cast as a brave fighter who helps downtrodden peasants, his deadpan response is “People liked me because I was a nice chap.” Additional interviews with moviegoers recalling their favorite films are of variable quality.
Docu strikes a neat balance between the creative side of the business and economic realities that forced a severe downturn in production from the mid-1990s. It ends on a bittersweet note with analysis of the 2011 international hit “The Raid” and images of some of the 1,500 cinemas that have shut down across Indonesia since the 1980s heyday. Production values are modest but effective.