PiFan 2014 Review: Silat Drama YASMINE Fights From The Heart

James Marsh, Asian Editor
An earnest and heartfelt coming-of-age story hailing from the tiny South-East Asian sovereign state of Brunei, Siti Kamaluddin's debut feature has attracted widespread attention thanks to its spirited use of en vogue martial art silat. While Yasmine trades the visceral intensity of Gareth Evans' The Raid for teen angst and family tensions, there is still plenty of interest in this female-centric tournament drama.

Good-natured teenager Yasmine (Liyana Yus) is devastated when she learns her father, Fahri (Reza Rahadian) has pulled her out of the local high school and enrolled her in a strict muslim establishment with harsh dress codes and a noticeable lack of extra-curricular activities. Concerned that his daughter his spending too much time hanging out with her friends and practicing silat, Fahri also brings in a private tutor to give Yasmine after-school Koran classes.

Yasmine feels understandably cheated. She works hard and has a generally pleasant and good natured personality, despite the fact her mother passed away many years earlier. She cannot understand why her father is so against her learning martial arts, so sets out to revive her new school's defunct silat programme, with the help of an eccentrically flamboyant coach (Dwi Sasono) and the only other interested students, Nadiah Wahid's shy, overweight classmate, and the handsome Ali (Roy Songkono). 

Compounding Yasmine's problems, however, is that her childhood sweetheart Adi (Aryl Falak) has returned home, now a celebrated silat champion, but has hooked up with her former classmate and arch rival, Dewi (Mentari de Marelle). Yasmine resolves that her only option is to beat her former team at the upcoming silat championships, without her father discovering what she is doing. With the rest of her team in tow, Yasmine sets out looking for the best possible silat masters to train them, but in doing so she loses focus on her true priorities.

Considering Yasmine is the first feature film from director Siti Kamaluddin, and only the second commercially produced film ever to emerge from Brunei, it should be noted right from the outset that the film is incredibly watchable, fluid and consistently engaging. Beneath its exotic surface it may not be telling a particularly earth-shattering story, but thanks to an incredibly energetic and bubbly performance from newcomer Liyana Yus, we immediately connect with Yasmine and want her to succeed.

Wisely, Kamaluddin has surrounded herself and Yus with an experienced cast and crew, to ensure things go as smoothly as possible. A self-confessed fan of Riri Riza's 2008 film Laskar Pelangi (The Rainbow Troops), the director tracked down its screenwriter, Salman Aristo, and convinced him to pen her film too. For the film's action choreography, regular Jackie Chan collaborator Chan Man Ching was brought down from Hong Kong, and the supporting cast is brimming with robust, recognisable talent from both Indonesia and Malaysia.

Essentially a coming-of-age yarn seasoned with teenage rebellion, Yasmine also explores the strict traditional gender roles still at play in South East Asia today. Normally only the worst examples of this filter through to the Western world, so it's fascinating to see how the dynamic between a strict father and precocious daughter plays out in an every day middle class muslim family setting. Yasmine is pushing boundaries throughout the film - but for a reasonable and mostly worthwhile cause, while her father is clearly being unreasonable and has his own demons to deal with. 

Doubtless audiences will most likely be drawn to Yasmine by the promise of numerous silat sequences, the martial art brought to international prominence by Iko Uwais in The Raid. While Yasmine does include one or two admittedly rather inexplicable fight sequences that take place "in the real world", the film's combat is predominantly confined to an official tournament. As a result, these sequences are somewhat muted by comparison, although Yus clearly knows how to carry herself on screen. Versed in wushu when cast in the role, the 20-year-old actress took a year off school to train 6 days a week in silat, and the results are all there on screen.

The film is not without its faults, however, and there are a couple of key failings that prevent Yasmine from receiving wholehearted recommendation. James Teh's cinematography throughout the film is gorgeous, and no opportunity to capture a warm orange sunset over the eclectic Bruneian skyline is wasted. But when it comes to filming the action, it falters. Too often the fights are over-edited and shot with an unsteady hand, losing much of the tension and artistry of the fight itself in the process. For what is in large part a martial arts film, this is a significant problem. Pacing is also an issue, particularly in the film's early stages, with numerous shots and sequences holding just too long before moving on, giving many scenes an awkward, clumsy feel.

My other quibble is with the casting of Reza Rahadian as Yasmine's father. Rahadian is an actor I like very much, and was incredibly impressed by his performance in last year's Something In The Way, but at 27 years old, he is simply too young to be playing the father of a girl in her late teens. That said his performance is good, and when his own dark secrets and rivalries are brought to the surface in the film's final third, it is great to see Rahadian get in on the action himself, he just never rang true as a parent.

Ultimately, Yasmine marks a sturdy, if imperfect debut from a pair of notable new female voices in Asian Cinema. The film will certainly open more doors for both Siti Kamaluddin and star Liyana Yus to help develop the fledgling industry in Brunei, or branch out into Indonesia or Malaysia in the future. In fact, Yus has already expressed an interest in starring opposite Iko Uwais in a future action project, and that is perhaps the most tantalising take away of all.  
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