"He is very kind and very polite. We are known as a polite people. But Gareth Evans is more Indonesian than most Indonesian people." So says film-maker Joko Anwar, speaking of the current flagbearer for Bahasa cinema. Since he moved to Jakarta four years ago, Evans, a softly-spoken scion of the Brecon Beacons, has resurrected the Indo martial-arts film. His latest, a careening piece of John Woo-esque ultraviolence called The Raid, is winning the country some overdue global exposure, thanks to its Sony Pictures Classic deal. He chuckles when he hears Anwar's comment: "He would say that!" What does he mean? "Oh – it's a private joke."
It sounds as if Evans, who lives in the capital with his Indonesian-Japanese producer wife and their toddler daughter, is an insider on the cinema scene now. "We had the occasional moments when people would say: why is this white guy coming in to make a film? But 99% of the responses have been positive." After struggling to break into the UK film industry, he went to Indonesia to make a documentary on pencak silat, the indigenous martial art. Through his research, he unearthed Iko Uwais, the floppy-haired, diminutive young silat dervish who starred in his first feature, Merantau, and now in The Raid.
With his instinctive grasp of action dynamics, Evans found himself welcomed into a group of Indonesian film-makers – including Anwar, horror aficionados the Mo brothers, and producers Mira Lesmana and Sheila Timothy – who are spearheading what they hope will be a breakthrough year. Indonesian cinema definitely has great commercial potential, with a target market of 238 million (including the world's largest Muslim population), ticking over at 80-90 films a year, even in its current, disorganised, state.
The Raid, and Anwar's skilfully measured 2007 film noir Kala, show the consolidations the new brigade have made: sharp genre literacy and slick presentability. In the past, Indonesian film often relied more on cheap'n'choppy charms; in the 80s, it had a reputation for mondo-tinted exploitation films such as Mystics in Bali – the queasy thrills of which carried over into its horror cottage-industry of the 90s and noughties. American porn stars such as Tera Patrick and Sasha Grey, have occasionally featured in (non-flesh-baring) parts to up the titillation factor.
Anwar is unsparing about most of these films: "People think they can make quick cash by making a crappy horror movie." Three local bogeymen were on rotation in many of them: the kuntilanak, the spirit of a raped woman; the pocong, a living corpse wrapped in a Muslim burial shroud; and a kind of zombie nurse. "It's like vampires, zombies and werewolves with American audiences," says Anwar, "It's OK to use them over and over again, but because the quality of the films was so bad, people don't want to see them any more."
According to Anwar, many of these masterworks only got into cinemas through nepotistic connections; Indonesia doesn't have any distribution companies, and producers go straight to cinema owners. But the low quality control could be tainting the whole supply chain. Attendance figures have been poor over the last year – partly dragged down by the absence of most Hollywood films from the country's cinemas from February to July last year. "That's past now," Evans says, "But there's still something wrong in why the audience haven't been going to local films. We're all scratching our heads, and figuring out what we need to do."
There's that Welsh-Indonesian humility again. Anwar is less restrained. He directs much of the blame for the industry's woes towards the country's politicians, who largely see film as a cash cow to be milked; the lack of financial support for film schools and festivals is stunting its development. He sees the exploitative attitude as part of the fabric of public corruption in the country that runs "from root to top". "There is no other way than killing the politicians off," he says, deadpan. "All of them." (This is apparently the plotline for his next film.)
Beneath the clipped, courteous tones many English-speaking Indonesians share, you suspect 36-year-old Anwar is a man of steely convictions. His father was a metal-worker, his mother sold fabrics; he grew up in the slums of Medan, North Sumatra, watching movies on the sly through the ventilation window of his local fleapit; he is self-trained. In 2009, his Twitter follower count mushroomed after he offered to run naked through Circle K [a supermarket chain]. Calculated self-promotion, yes, but he didn't forget to staplegun a message on: the tweet that accompanied the incriminating photograph read, "A promise is a promise, Mr Politicians."
Evans doesn't go in for that kind of stunt, but perhaps it's such reckless dynamism in the air around him that has allowed him to break out, where perhaps in the UK he wouldn't have made it. "Indonesia's been good to me," he says. "It's given me my career."
And he's keen to give back. He says he demands high cine-literacy from everyone working for him, and screens appropriate material for whatever project he is working on: Romain Gavras's video for MIA's Born Free was one visual touchstone for The Raid. So if Indonesia is lacking in film schools, there's always Evans's global-media mobile library in the meantime. Not that he sees his role as didactic, or, heaven forbid, political. "I'm an outsider in this country. I have to say, there are people like Joko and other film-makers who are much smarter than me when it comes to making films with a political subplot. If I was ever to do a film like that, I'd have to be 100% confident that I knew what I was talking about."
Evans and Anwar were the Indonesian delegation at SXSW this year; The Raid was greeted by a predictably rabid fanboy howl, while Anwar's cabin-in-the-woods slasher Modus Anomali, his first English-language feature, seemed to elicit a full-on Twitter brainfart after its midnight slot: incredulity, anger, revulsion and swoons all at once.
That seems to be very much in the WTF tradition of the Indonesian commercial scene of years gone by, but Anwar is also hoping that international acclaim will result in his government finally taking its film-makers seriously (a realisation many other young nations, such as the United Arab Emirates, are acting upon). "We are still very simple-minded in the sense that if foreigners love our stuff, we think we should love it, too," he says. But it must already have something special for foreigners to be interested in the first place. The Welshman could tell him that.
• The Raid is out on 18 May.
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