While Indonesian thriller Preman features compelling visuals, it unfortunately succumbs to a conventional story and unfocused tone.
Sandi (Khiva Iskak) is a “Preman,” defined in the beginning in the film as a gangster who has a sense of justice. He has a son who he takes care of and loves, and he happens to be deaf. After a series of dark events puts his son in danger, Sandi goes against his own group of gangsters in order to keep his son safe. Director Randolph Zaini imbues Preman with some colorful visuals and visceral camerawork, though unfortunately the film’s story lacks originality, and the tone feels unfocused throughout.
Zaini does break up the reformed gangster formula by imbuing surreal dream sequences. We occasionally cut to dreamy scenes when Sandi was a kid. In these moments, he’s surrounded by people in threatening animal costumes. The film is hinting at Sandi’s traumatic past, but it does so in such a weird, off-kilter way that doesn’t cohere with the grittier, more violent aspects of the story. The purpose behind the animal costumes, in particular, feels completely random and unmotivated.
The strange tonal jumps don’t end there, as another character is introduced about halfway through the film, Ramon (Revaldo), who is sent by Sandi’s ex-boss to kill him. It seems that Ramon is supposed to be a darkly comedic character; a flamboyant hairdresser who quips and randomly monologues about Medusa. In one scene, Ramon appears when Sandi visits his wife for the first time in years, and Ramon’s offbeat sense of humor clashes with the intense personal emotions of Sandi’s reunion. In the action scene that follows, the brutal violence tension of the scene is deflated by the score, which sounds way too jaunty and cheeky.
On top of the film’s inconsistent tone, the screenplay comes off as very thin, especially when it comes to the characters. The villains are flat, essentially stereotypical immoral businessmen, but their evil plans have very little for why Sandi fights against them. He is told by his mentor that he should leave the gangster life behind him, but we don’t know if Sandi ever even wanted to, or if he was all that conflicted in his work. While the screenplay weaves in some reasoning for why Sandi went down this dark path, it comes off as too simplistic and underdeveloped. We know he loves his son, but that’s about it.
Preman sports stylish violence, although it often feels too tame to satisfy hardcore genre fans. While the performances are sturdy and the direction is visually compelling, the strange comedic moments distract from the action, and the sentimentality feels unearned due to flat characters and predictable story. However, it is important to note that Preman is Zaini’s feature-length debut, and while it may falter on a story level, the film shows promise, and it will be worth checking out what Zain does in the future.
Preman premiered digitally at the 47th Seattle International Film Festival on April 8-18, 2021.