Preman. 2021. Directed & Written by Randolph Zaini.
Starring Khiva Iskak, Farell Akbar, Muzakki Ramdhan, Putri Ayudya, Salvita Decorte, Gilbert Pattiruhu, David Saragih, Revaldo, & Kiki Narendra.
Introversy Films Indonesia
Not Rated / 92 minutes
Action / Crime / Drama
★★★★1/2 (out of ★★★★★)
The following essay contains spoilers!
While neanderthals and conservatives the world over lament toxic masculinity as a buzz phrase latched onto by ‘liberal’ writers, they remain ignorant to the actual damage toxic masculinity does, to them and every other man they know. Lots of media has started to confront toxic masculine values over the past few years, some in better ways than others. Preman is a fascinating Indonesian action film that tackles the violence of toxic masculinity and how one generation passes down that violent, confused masculinity to the next generation—or, how they choose to break the cycle.
The film follows Sandi (Khiva Iskak), a deaf criminal who takes care of his son Pandu (Muzakki Ramdhan). One day, his violent job as a local gangster’s henchman collides with his family life: little Pandu witnesses the mob murder an old man refusing to sell off his land to the big boss and his corporation. Sandi must protect his son and escape their little village, or face the mob’s wrath. This starts a cat-and-mouse chase. Sandi wrestles physically with his and his son’s attackers, and figuratively with his own past mired in toxic masculinity, hoping his son lives a different life.
The film opens with a compelling dream sequence, or more of a nightmare. We see Sandi as a young boy. There’s a big blue bunny, then a rainbow-coloured puddle of liquid, as if it’s blood running from a dead body. We see the grown Sandi, as he wakes up, but the more the film wears on we see the blue bunny again, as well as other anthropomorphic foxes. What becomes clearer is Sandi’s stuck in his childhood because of a deep trauma. The blue bunny, we discover, is symbolic of Sandi’s friend Lukas. He and Lukas were close, teased by the other boys at school and called gay, which eventually led to tragedy after Sandi was forced by the other boys—symbolised by the foxes—to punch Lukas in the face, resulting in a more devastating act later. After said devastating act, Sandi’s wounded physically and psychologically by the traumas of toxic masculinity, carrying his deafness and a wounded psyche for the rest of his life because of the strict requirements that come along with ‘being a man.’
“This is what you’ll always be.”
There’s a bit of tongue-in-cheek comedy throughout Preman, thanks to how the film portrays the way toxic masculine behaviour prevents boys from ever becoming proper men. In one scene, a couple of gangsters chat about when “your dick ain‘t responding” a.k.a “impotence.” One of the men is nonchalant about it, while the other, who brought it up in the first place, treats erectile dysfunction like a shameful secret. The second guy piles on a ton of homophobia, too. He distinguishes how he talks, perceived as how a ‘real man’ talks, and how his friend talks, or how “sissies” talk. He goes on to berate Ramon (Revaldo) with taunts of “Sherlock Homo” and “deaf faggot.” The other guy later plays into similar toxic masculine behaviour when he mocks the weapon Sandi carries, a kind of modified modern mace, in the face of a bunch of gangsters: “And you‘ve got one ball.” While Sandi tries his best not to teach Pandu the ways of toxic masculinity, his fellow gangsters are stuck in an adolescent loop of angry male ego and homophobic rhetoric, never capable of mentally growing up.
Sandi actively tries to prevent passing on a legacy of toxic masculine behaviour and violence to his son Pandu. Early in the film, Sandi’s boy, who just got beat up at school, is mad for not being taught “how to use Monkey Fist.” He doesn’t even seem to want to teach Pandu to fight as a means of self defence because he’s trying to keep violence out of the kid’s life. There’s also Haji (Egy Fedly), the old man who winds up murdered for not selling his land, warning Pandu: “Son, when you grow up, don‘t be like your dad.” Because though Sandi tries his best to prevent handing down all that toxic masculinity to his son, he’s still been working for a gangster, using violence to earn a living. Haji knew that Sandi was a good man, but that the latter wasn’t reflecting that goodness in his everyday existence, and still inadvertently teaching his son that violence is profitable. There’s also a deeper meaning behind Haji’s murder, due to capitalist greed, and the way toxic masculine violence is connected to larger destructive societal forces.
The foxes in Sandi’s surrealist, traumatic dreams are symbols of toxic masculinity’s violent ways, and we later see how that violent masculinity gets reflected in bigger societal systems, such as capitalism. The fox is part of the emblem in Guru’s (Kiki Narendra) office, and he’s also got a big knife bearing a fox head handle, giving material, physical force to toxic masculine values. Later, Sandi sees the other gangsters as foxes while he fights his way through them. So the symbolic fox, connecting the boys who picked on Lukas and Sandi as kids with the violent gangsters in Sandi’s present trying to force villagers into selling their land to a corporate entity, show how all those toxic masculine values crystallise in violent, destructive ideologies like capitalism.
Preman‘s action is brutal and fierce, at times recalling films like Gareth Evans’s The Raid and Timo Tjahjanto’s The Night Comes for Us. While the screenplay holds lots of thematic weight, there’s no shortage of bloody action sequences to pull the viewer into Sandi’s violent world. Khiva Iskak gives a moving performance as Sandi, using body language and his eyes to convey a world of emotion, then kicking a whole lot of ass to boot. Any review of Preman that ignores Muzakki Ramdhan’s perfrmance as Pandu is amiss. Pandu isn’t just a plot device for Sandi, like he might be in other similar action films; he’s a fully realised character, thanks to Ramdhan.
Even in 2021 we have to contend with many people who refuse to understand the complex issues toxic masculinity creates in young boys, and how those young boys can go on to perpetuate that toxicity in their own lives/families. Preman uses a traditionally masculine film genre, the action flick, as a vehicle to confront the violence typically portrayed in it. Sandi’s quest to ensure Pandu grows up free from all the toxic masculine bonds that held him down for so many years is a compelling one we rarely see in a film that features copious amounts of blood and broken bones. We ought to have more films like Preman that employ then subvert genre tropes as a way to tear down pop culture representations of masculinity and offer ways to build up new, fresh, progressive ones.