Kaiju Shakedown: Indonesian Exploitation
Indonesian exploitation cinema is unmapped territory, but rising above it all like a mighty mountain of machismo is Jaka Sembung aka The Warrior (81). Directed by Sisworo Gautama Putra, this story of a normal guy fighting the colonial Dutch in 19th-century Indonesia features fire-breathing martial artists, wizards whose bodies keep fighting even after they’ve been chopped to bits, and psychedelic black magic.
“For me, it all started with Jaka Sembung,” Bastian Meiresonne, the director of Garuda Power: The Spirit Within, a 2014 documentary on Indonesian action cinema, said. “It’s the very first Indonesian action movie that could be called an Indonesian action movie, because Sisworo Gautama Putra got his inspiration from an Indonesian comic book, he created an Indonesian action hero, and it was all funded by Indonesian money.”
The Warrior launched a trend and two sequels, put its production company (Rapi Films) on the map, transformed its star, Barry Prima, into an icon, and made a lot of money. You might expect a pioneering movie like this to look cobbled together and a little threadbeare, missing the freakery on display in later installments that were looking to give the audience something new. But seen today,The Warrior is instantly recognizable as a classic. It moves fast, it’s coherent, its special effects have panache, and the production values are downright glossy.
“The Warrior wouldn’t have existed if Bruce Lee didn’t exist,” Pete Tombs, the head of Mondo Macabro, the UK DVD label which released The Warrior on DVD, said. “But you could see it was coming from a different place and had different cultural inputs. There’s a level of technical excellence, like its widescreen cinematography, that lifted it above the rut.”
The centerpiece of the movie is a plot twist that sees him captured by the evil Dutch, crucified, and gruesomely blinded in a scene that could keep semioticians busy for years writing about colonialism being written on the bodies of the colonized. But The Warrior is all about Barry Prima, who plays Jaka Sembung. Prima’s performance leans heavily on glowering, but his glowers are things of beauty, and his thick flowing mane, fondness for bandanas, smoldering arrogance, and “bang you in the back of my van” sex appeal make him look like the lost Indonesian member of KISS.
The Warrior makes you hungry for more, but while there’s a whole lot more Indonesian exploitation cinema to be hungry for, almost none of it is available. Describing Indonesian exploitation cinema as unmapped territory isn’t a lazy metaphor using the language of colonialization and exploration to turn a film industry into an Other. Indonesian exploitation filmmaking is, without exaggeration, an entire branch of world cinema that has become almost completely lost, and its history is one of the saddest stories around.
The first Indonesian sound film, Rice, came out in 1936, and all through the Forties, the industry released films inspired by Western culture: Zorro (The Black Jackal), Tarzan (The Tall Grass), and Phantom of the Opera (The Laughing Mask). There were martial arts-movies, war films, a whole slew of genres. Then came independence in 1949.
“Nowadays, movie historians refuse to think about cinema in Indonesia before 1950,” Meiresonne said. “Usmar Ismail and The Long March  was for them the beginning of cinema in Indonesia. It’s the first movie made by Indonesian people, with Indonesian money. All the movies before 1950 had Dutch or Chinese money, and they regard it as foreign cinema made in Indonesia, not Indonesian cinema. I’m one of the very few people to say that what was shot before 1950 is a part of Indonesian cinema history.”
Sukarno was running Indonesia in the Fifties, and he clamped down hard on content and rejected degenerate Western films. By 1965, when he was deposed in a military coup, the entire country of about 76 million people only had 292 cinemas left. Enter Suharto. By dropping censorship restrictions, imposing heavy taxes on imported movies, paying government subsidies to local productions, and later requiring production companies to make one local movie for every three they imported, he kicked the film industry into high gear. In 1969, 10 local films were produced. In 1979, Indonesia produced about 134. That same year, records show there were a staggering 1,500 cinema screens running films.
“Comic books really became trendy at the end of the Sixties,” Meiresonne said. “They developed some really good creators in ’71, ’72, and ’73 who referenced Indonesian mythology, not just American or Chinese influences. They dug into their own history. These comics started to get adapted in the second half of the Seventies, so it went from comic books developing a local flavor and then, five or six years later, cinema got that local flavor, and started incorporating local myths, black magic, local legends like the garuda.”
Queen of Black Magic
Around 1980, it all kicked off. There was The Warrior (81), Mystics in Bali (81), and Queen of Black Magic (83), and each of them generated its own slew of rip-offs. “If 120 movies came out, 50 or 60 of them were action movies, produced very quickly and cheaply, and all very similar,” Meiresonne said. “If you had one The Warrior that was a huge success, soon you had dozens of Warriors.”
This fresh outpouring of movies had a totally unique flavor. Case in point, The Devil’s Sword (84), a martial-arts fantasy also starring Barry Prima, and featuring a lot more sex than The Warrior. By this point, Prima was a huge star, and unlike The Warrior, whose ending had him stumbling across a corpse-strewn battlefield with a dead woman in his arms, The Devil’s Sword is a candy-colored confection that ends with him riding off into the sunset. What makes it come alive is what added that local flavor to a lot of Indonesian movies: magic.
“The Indonesian films have the dukun, the black magic man, and people’s heads being cut off, and buried, and coming back to life, and this was taken more seriously when these films were made,” Tombs said. “I don’t mean that the people who made them took them seriously, but they were aiming at an audience that still believed in magic in a broader sense of the word, and so there’s a logic that runs underneath them that would be understood by that audience.”
The Devil’s Sword
“The Devil’s Sword is one of my favorites because there’s a feeling that there’s a logical world this all fits into—the Queen who lives under the sea, the crocodile men—they seem as though they’re reporting something that already existed rather than making something up ad hoc.”
But as early as The Devil’s Sword, things were changing.
“The Warrior was a huge hit,” Meiresonne said. “But it’s all about a guy rising up against the power and fighting for the little people. In the movie, the power he rises up against is the Dutch, but for the people in the audience it was a metaphor because dictatorship in the Eighties was really harsh, and many of them told me they saw Jaka Sembung as their savior. They dreamed that in real life someone would rise up against the establishment, go against Suharto, and kick his ass. But the State only saw it as a nationalist symbol, and Jaka Sembung as a national hero.
“But as dozens of copies multiplied, at some point someone in government said, ‘Wait, this guy’s fighting the power. We are the power. This is not good. People shouldn’t rise up and fight.’ Of course they couldn’t stop it right away, but what happened is that they went to see the producers and said, ‘Could you please stop making historical movies and fantasy movies like The Warrior? Make contemporary movies instead.’ They told producers they wanted to see action movies with nice policemen fighting drugs, and prostitution, meaning that the heroes would have to be the incarnation of power.”
Around that time, the government also banned comic books, a huge source of material for filmmakers. Fantasy and period films were slowly choked off, and movies were given contemporary settings and featured more cops. Producers stopped copying The Warrior and started copying COBRA (86). The most notorious product from this period is Lady Terminator (89), directed by the man behind Mystics from Bali, H. Tjut Djalil. In it, a lady anthropologist goes skin-diving and is captured by the legendary Queen of the South Seas, a sort of creator/destroyer goddess/demon who shoots an electric eel up her vagina. Possessed, the anthropologist dons black leather and stalks the shopping malls and nightclubs of downtown Jakarta, castrating men and, at one point, invading a police station à la The Terminator. However, Arnold didn’t shoot quite so many men in the crotch with his machine gun as she does.
The movie is a deliriously ripe exploitation classic, shot in dubbed English with plenty of Westerners in the cast because, by now, Indonesian producers had realized that they could make a lot of money exporting their films.
“The government gave producers money to go to Cannes and other foreign film markets,” Tombs said. “They would wander the sales floor and look at the posters and displays, as you do, and think ‘Jesus, people are buying this?’ They started to figure out that overseas audiences wanted horror films, women-in-prison films, and they thought: ‘We can do that, only cheaper.’”
Djalil would also go on to make Dangerous Seductress (95), a movie clearly aimed at the Western export market. Partially set in Los Angeles (or in Jakarta, which is shot to look like Los Angeles) it feels like a softcore thriller, except for the mind-bending quantities of Indonesian black magic layered on top. A gang of escaping thieves (who communicate by punching each other in the jaw) get into a complicated car wreck and wind up with their severed limbs strewn across a cemetery. One of their amputated fingers hops across the ground, and its blood resurrects an ancient Evil Queen (Amy Weber, Transmorphers), who rips the head off a German shepherd and possesses a domestic-abuse victim (Tonya Lawson), who goes out in search of men to provide her with soft-focus sex and fresh blood. Fortunately, someone gives her model sister (Kristin Anin) an ancient mystical text for her birthday (along with a book about cosmetics), and all she needs to do is perform an exorcism to save her sibling. Piled high with action, love-making, goopy gore effects, beautifully dubbed bad dialogue, and an eruption of black magic every few minutes, Dangerous Seductress is a craptacular masterpiece, but it was also the beginning of the end.
“Like most countries, the Nineties brought a real crisis: the arrival of new TV channels, video, VCD, satellite, and the monopolization of the distribution system,” Meiresonne said. “In the early Nineties, there wound up being only two distribution companies left in the country.”
Meiresonne pointed out that in 10 years, Indonesia went from boasting 4,000 cinema screens to about 600. And while defunct movie houses were allowed to stand for a while, in the last few years almost half of them have been destroyed. Film culture has become so besieged that when Meiresonne shot his documentary, some of the Indonesians on his crew were being exposed to local movies from the Sixties for the first time. They didn’t even know movies from before 1970 existed.
Indonesia had produced hundreds of exploitation movies—so what happened to all that movie history? Mostly, it went in the garbage.
“Producers think they don’t need to bother to keep their movies,” Tombs said. “They’ve got a one-inch videotape or Digibeta, and they throw their negatives away. They’re too heavy, they say, or it’s too big, or it costs too much to store. I’ve heard that from American producers, too, by the way.”
Tombs should know. Mondo has released seven Indonesian movies on DVD, and he’s dealt with most of the distributors in the country. He’s unlikely to find more movies they can release, however. When I asked him if he felt that there were great exploitation films being left on the table, he said:
“There’s loads of stuff from the Seventies, Eighties, and early Nineties that hasn’t been released in the West that’s really interesting and would appeal to people who like exploitation movies,” he said. “There’s a company called Parkit run by Raam Punjabi and they had loads of films that were sold to America in the Eighties, and Troma actually bought a couple like Five Deadly Angels  and a wonderful one called Special Silencers , where someone is tortured with a smelly shoe. That film doesn’t seem to exist anymore. I talked to someone a while back who tried to license this stuff, and he said that there didn’t seem to be any elements left for any of these films except for one-inch full-frame videos. There is definitely exploitation gold in these films, but I’m pretty sure they’ll never be released now because the elements don’t exist.”
And yet Indonesian exploitation cinema lives on. In 2001, a $30,000 digital video horror flick called Jelangkung (The Uninvited) hit screens and became a word-of-mouth blockbuster, beating even Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone at the box office, and sparking a horror boom. Indonesian filmmakers even recently invented a new monster drawing on their own mythology: the Pocong, a hopping shroud with a face poking out of it that occasionally meets up with other Indonesian monsters like the Kuntilanak, in what Tombs describes as an “Aliens vs. Predator situation.”
New exploitation movies are great, but it doesn’t make up for the hundreds and hundreds of films that we’ll never see because Indonesia’s exploitation producers threw them all in the trash.
LINKS! LINKS! LINKS!
… All is not totally lost. Indonesia does have a film archive. Unfortunately, it mostly seems to concentrate on the country’s early film history, not the gems of the Seventies and Eighties.
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