Crash, bang, wallop
Breakthrough thriller is directed by Welshman Gareth Evans who grew up on Jackie Chan. It’s a dream come true, he tells Donald Clarke
ARETH EVANS must be the most unlikely man ever to direct a breakout Asian action movie. Since it sneaked onto the festival circuit late last year, The Raid – an Indonesian thriller entirely contained within one decaying apartment block – has been gathering buckets of deserved acclaim. Cracking along at a relentless pace, the picture piles ferocious punch-up upon ear-shattering shootout. The Raid won the Midnight Madness Award at the Toronto Film Festival and both the audience award and the Dublin Film Critics Circle best picture prize at the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival (the first time those two gongs have gone to the same film).
Against the odds, the latest hero of Asian cinema turns out to be an affable, enormously tall young man from the Rhondda Valley. He must be sick to death of explaining how this came to pass. But he’ll have to tell the story at least one more time.
“Oh that’s all right, that’s all right,” he says in a rain-softened voice. “I was based in Wales all my life – until I was about 27 I guess. I always wanted to make films, but never quite managed it in the UK. That was my own fault. I didn’t push hard enough. My wife, who is Indonesian and Japanese, put in a few calls at home and managed to get me a documentary on Silat, the Indonesian martial art. That introduced me to the culture. That was the starting point. I knew I could live and work there. That was it.”
That sounds simple enough. We’ll come back to the genesis of The Raid. But let’s dally a while in the Valleys. Evans is the son of a computer teacher dad and a mum who worked in the law courts. His father was a film fanatic and used to bring home an eclectic series of videos: Kurosawa one day, Die Hard the next, Jackie Chan the day after that. He remembers being ushered from the room during the notorious chainsaw sequence in Scarface.
“That’s what he’d do. He’d just put the video on pause and ask me to leave,” he laughs. “So, I’d sit outside listening to this screaming and imagining much worse than
Gwhat was actually happening. My friends and I would then act out Jackie Chan films in the garden. Fortunately, we didn’t have a camera. So, there’s no embarrassing footage.” He did a media course after school and now remembers working film footage into every dissertation he was assigned. After that he studied scriptwriting at the University of Glamorgan. His Asian bias was already evident at this early stage. As an exercise, Evans wrote a script entitled Samurai Monogatari. It never crossed his mind that the film would get made, but, after a friend translated it into Japanese, he found himself directing the piece as a no-budget feature. “Yeah, we bought ornamental swords from ebay and one of them broke and the blade flew off. Who would have thought they wouldn’t be safe to use?” he says. “It was a hell of a lot of fun. It was great to do something semi-professional. We were in the forest pretending we were in Japan. It didn’t really open any doors. Then I did an independent feature called Footsteps. That didn’t open any doors either. But I just wasn’t trying hard enough. It took the trip to Indonesia to do that.”
Before travelling to Jakarta, Evans, who had only been to the country once before, secured a job at a local television station. While working on the Silat documentary, he met up with Iko Uwais, master of the Indonesian martial art Pencak Silat. The two men decided to make a feature. Their first effort, Merantu, gathered some notice. But The Raid saw Evans really finding his feet. The film offers a masterclass in the art of discipline. There is not an ounce of fat to be found.
“Making the documentary helped me shake off that feeling of being a foreigner. It dragged me away from the tourist areas. When it came to doing a proper movie, we did not allow ourselves to act like foreign film-makers. We were not going to shoot it like a postcard with all the landmarks. You know what I mean. Every American film set in Paris has the Eiffel Tower in every shot. That wasn’t going to happen.”