Their bodies move like snakes, monkeys, bleloks (South East Asian wading birds) and tigers; supple, mischievous, preening and ripping. I’m referring to the heroes of the Areel Abu Bakar directed Silat Warriors: Deed of Death (aka Geran), brother Ali (Khoharullah Majid) and sister Fatimah (Faiyna Tajudin) who live with their father Nayan.
The siblings are battling to save their family’s land/home, and prevent their deed-stealing, unrepentant brother Mat Arip from duping the family and using the deed to pay off his gambling debts to Ali’s childhood nemesis and ruthless loan shark Haji Daud (note the animal on one of his shirts), who answers to a land grabbing mystery man.
Ali and Fatimah are the keepers of their cikgu’s (che’gu or guru) form of Malaysian silat (means skill for fighting), which also mirrors their belief system. In the West, athletes and martial artists often blurt that the way they practice their pastime is like a religion. Yet for those seeped in the Sufism of silat, their art is a religion and understanding their religion makes them a better martial artist and person. It’s why in Silat Warriors their guru accentuates the importance of understanding their faith and assimilating the words of Umar ibn al-Khaṭtāb, which refers to their guru’s religious kinship with Umar.
In E.C. 622, Muslim kalif Umar became a chief adviser to the founder of Islam, Muhammad ibn Abdullah and he was also a close associate of the Meccan Muslim Abu Bakar, perhaps the film director’s lineage guardian. Umar was responsible for establishing dīwān, a register of warriors’ pensions that evolved into a powerful governmental body. There are hundreds of registered Malaysian silat styles in Malaysia. Understanding one’s religion is the key to understanding one’s silat, which is the film’s subliminal back-story that most Westerners won’t catch. So how did this all come about?
Chinese diplomats visited Persia in 126 BCE. Years later, Persia created the fighting art varzesh-e pahlavani that used low stances, kicks and ultimately became seeped in Sufism spirituality. Persian explorers visited S.E. Asia in 0000, and by 226, they had established trade routes with the Malays. By the 700’s Arab Muslims arrived in the Malays. Silat is proferred to originate during the powerful Malay empire of Srivijaya (600s-1200s) and refined during the Majaphit empire (1293-1527).
The only other martial arts in the world to adopt the Persian Muslim/Sufism connection are the silat arts. Silat fighters’ historical success against Dutch and Japanese invasions have been attributed to their mystical practice and manipulation of a warrior’s tenaga dalam, something akin to one’s chi, which originated in China circa 3000 BCE.
Similar to Shaolin arts, silat is also heavy into animal spiritualism, mostly the four animals from the opening sentence. Silat weapons also have animal ties, for example, the ubiquitous kerambit, where the small curve-bladed knife is symbolic of a tiger claw.
Comparable to old Chinese kung fu films, the fights in Silat Warriors get better with each combative situation, they become increasingly complicated and reveal more about each characters’ respective silat style. In old kung fu films this happened because the fights were choreographed and shot in the order of their appearance in the script and thus by the end of the movie, everyone is in synch with the pace and rhythm of the choreographer’s action style and the actors have gotten used to each other’s timing.
Due to Silat Warriors being the debut film for two of the top legitimate marital artist actors Majid and Tajudin, it takes time to adjust to cinema fighting because now one must be aware of camera position, hitting their marks on the set (know where to stand and where to end up) and of course remembering the choreography. It can be tricky stuff no matter how experienced one is as a martial artist or even a martial arts tournament champion.
When I did my first fight scene against four baddies in a 1980 Chinese kung fu film in Taiwan, a WW II film, I accidentally knocked out a stuntman. I missed his face yet caved in the stuntman’s Japanese army steel helmet and split open my knuckle, ouch man!
Another telltale sign that reveals fight unsureness is when combatants freeze for a split second; waiting to be hit or deliver the skill. These can be hidden with varying camera speeds, snap editing and chaotic camera choreography that uses quick tilts, pans, and zooming in and outs with shaky camera movements. Yet as the film progresses the actors have become more proficient in doing fights and so the camera choreography is not as chaotic and any rough edged camera movement are purposefully used to add emotion.
To me, one of the film’s best fights comes from the least expected character and this is when Abu Bakar intelligently reminds knowing audiences about silats’ female legends. For examples, Bima founded the silat style Bima Sakti. She developed the philosophy of never be the first to strike and even if hit, try never to hit back. Another legend tells that while washing clothes in a river and observing a monkey fighting a tiger, Rama Sukana used the monkey’s movements to avoid being physically abused by her husband.
When Duad’s hooligans burst into Nayan’s home and try to pseudo-politely force the father to sign over the deed to Duad in order to save the worthless life of his son Mat Arip, Fatimah’s crass, sass and insults disrespectfully disarm them but then you think this poor, demure girl is going to become gang fodder for untoward abuse. With brother Ali trying to get home before the gang gets more frustrated than three sharks following a red trail on the ocean only to find it’s an open bottle of ketchup…too late they lash out.
This is when the film becomes Enter the Fatimah. She smoothly fights with the greatest of ease, that daring young Hijabi girl brings the thugs to their knees. It’s no coincidence that her second fight, where a gang of men chase her alongside a waterfront, is a nod to Angela Mao Ying’s fight in Enter the Dragon. The difference being is that there is a subliminal play on what many might expect a typical Muslim woman to be like, cook for the family, keep the house clean and wear a hijab and a sarong. Instead, Fatimah does these things with martial arts spirit, using a meat cleaver, mop and sarong as weapons. It’s a beautiful message to note the ascension of Muslim women is Malaysia.
As would be expected by the unwritten laws of any decent martial arts film with a spiritually connected male hero being cool, calm and good natured, when push comes to shove, Ali is fast, furious and ferocious. Majid’s performance is honest and gritty.
Which comes to why I feel Silat Masters was one fight away from being a collector’s item.
One of the other premises of the film is about how silat is central to maintaining family values and sticking together no matter what. It’s the notion that blood is thicker than water, even in the deep river of deceit. At the end of the die, I mean day, the film could have upped the connectivity to audiences on a global level if the finale fight had Ali and Fatimah defeated the evil forces fighting together.
Yet who knows, the film left us with a Marvel movie moment ending that might bring about this unity in a sequel.