“Sooner or later, you gotta do the right thing” the girlfriend of a complicit policeman tries to explain while he rationalises that in reality there’s little difference between a policeman and a gangster and even he’s too afraid to stand up to a dictatorial local thug deeply tied to an ambitious politician. Like many recent films from Indonesia, Randolph Zaini’s Preman: Silent Fury is a tale of toxic masculinity, societal prejudice, and a bullying culture but also one of fear and complicity in which a marginalised man must face his childhood trauma in order to save his son from suffering the same fate.
Sandi (Khiva Iskak), who lost his hearing in childhood, is a member of a vigilante preman gang, Perkasa. The preman view themselves as defenders of justice, but in reality are feared and despised by the world around them for their intimidating and violent behaviour. Sandi’s gang was once ruled by the wise Haji (Egi Fedly) who had lofty ideals of defending his local community from an oppressive authority but he’s recently been ousted by the authoritarian Guru (Kiki Narendra) who is no better than a thug willing to do the dirty work of a city politician in return for power and influence. His first job is clearing a local slum by force, insisting its residents leave but offering them no safe place to go. When Haji tries to resist, Sandi’s young son Pandan (Muzakki Ramdhan) witnesses his murder and thereby places a target on his back and that of his father as they try to figure out how to survive Guru’s increasing ruthlessness.
Dressed in a military outfit, Guru is an allegory for lingering authoritarianism visually recalling historical dictators and is introduced while giving a bombastic speech which Sandi is obviously unable to hear yet goes along with anyway. Sandi’s deafness is in one sense aligned with his complicity in that he is literally unable to hear the reality of world around him but is also linked back to the childhood trauma which robbed him of his voice. An early failure to do the right thing, siding with the bullies out of fear rather than standing up for his friend who was being taunted with homophobic slurs, set him on a life long path of complicity too afraid of the gang and of preman culture to ever be able to leave it.
Yet his disability also leaves him marginalised with few other directions in which to turn considering that disabled people struggle to find work in a society that has little accommodation for difference. Hairdresser/assassin Ramon (Revaldo) who refers to himself exclusively in the third person and peppers his speech with French, points out that everyone viewed Medusa as the villain but the real villains were Poseidon who raped her, Athena who cursed her, and Perseus who killed her rather than Medusa herself. Ramon is also on the end of a series of homophobic slurs from one of the Perkasa thugs who’d been trying to talk to one of his colleagues, who wants to be a musical theatre star, about erectile disfunction but struggled to get his point across while using a series of broad euphemisms out of embarrassment hinting at the hidden costs of societal repression. “Ramon is a mirror reflecting the ugliness of the world” the assassin explains, wielding his scissors of vengeance on behalf of a corrupt authority.
As the policeman’s girlfriend points out, the reason the policeman has ended up in trouble is that he didn’t help Sandi when he asked him, just like Sandi didn’t help his friend, because he was too afraid to stand up to a thuggish bully. At some point you have to do the right thing, she reminds him, and only by refusing to be intimidated by Guru can they hope to escape his violence along with the threat he presents which allows him to dominate their society. Impressively shot given its low budget origins, Zaini’s playful drama features a series of well choreographed action sequences culminating in a striking avant-garde conclusion in which Sandi faces off against fox-suited villains, spraying psychedelic neon paint and exorcising the pain of his childhood trauma while freeing his son not just literally but mentally from an oppressive and bullying society.
Preman: Silent Fury screens at Asia Society 23rd July as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival. It will also be released in the US later in the year courtesy of Well Go USA.
Original trailer (English subtitles)
Images: Courtesy of Well Go USA Entertainment