Those who have seen the action movie Merantau might remember Yayan Ruhiyan as the pragmatic, no-nonsense Eric, who bombarded a man twice his size with fatal blows, causing the latter to collapse in defeat before realizing what had hit him.
In The Raid, set to be released in March, Yayan is the sadistic, fearless Mad Dog, an even more formidable figure seemingly devoid of any goodwill.
Yayan offscreen, however, seldom speaks without a smile. Humble and soft spoken, his only intimidating trait for those meeting him for the first time might be his compact yet obviously toned figure and the fact that he caused the table to rattle significantly each time his sinewed arm brushed against it.
He was unsure why he was chosen as the antagonist in both of the films directed by Gareth Huw Evans.
“I don’t think I have a scary face. Some people say it’s cute … I am just trying to carry out the responsibility given to me the best I can,” Yayan said, laughing.
Apparently, he and the others involved in the process did a decent job. While Merantau, which was released in 2009, got favorable reviews, The Raid was listed as one of Time magazine’s 20 most awaited movies this year.
The film tells the story of a local SWAT team on a risky mission to enter a drug lord’s lair, and was screened at the “Midnight Madness” portion of the Toronto International Film Festival last year.
According to Yayan, his experience with Merantau was something entirely unexpected.
“I was only a member of the choreography team. Two weeks before the shooting began, I was told that there was one role that was still vacant for someone with the ability to do martial arts as well as say lines. I was told ‘Pak Yayan, you are requested to participate in the casting process’,” he recalled.
Yayan said he participated because he felt he had to do his best to carry out the request. A few days later, he was told he got the part.
Despite having acted in two movies and another scheduled soon, he said his background was purely athletic.
Born in Tasikmalaya, West Java, 43 years ago, the teenage Yayan followed in the footsteps of his brother, who did karate. But, Yayan preferred the Indonesian martial art of pencak silat.
“There was a new school [of pencak silat] that was experiencing quite a boom and I tried to enroll there … now it is called PTSD [Pencak Silat Tenaga Dasar] Indonesia. I finally became assistant coach and then I was summoned to Jakarta to become a professional trainer,” he said.
Unfortunately, he was unaware that his training to be a jury referee (wasit juri) in Jakarta would prevent him from participating in future tournaments. He was only told of the prohibition later when he tried to register for a tournament.
“It’s all right. If I can’t be an athlete, I’ll create athletes,” Yayan said, smiling.
His work with pencak silat since then has sent him to various places, including France, the Netherlands and Belgium, where he gave trainings for several months in 2007.
A year later he met Evans, who was doing research about pencak silat, and, later, a documentary on the subject. Yayan and several others, including Iko Uwai, who acted alongside him in Merantau and The Raid, were asked to do the choreography for the documentary. It was then that the idea to make a pencak silat film first came about.
Merantau began, and Yayan, Iko and several other pencak silat athletes arranged the choreography in four months, although, according to Yayan, they were absolute beginners in the world of moviemaking.
“[The pencak silat style] to be used to color the fighting scenes is Sile Harimau Minang … one of the difficult styles in Minang,” he said.
Yayan himself has studied a number of pencak silat styles, mostly from West Java and West Sumatra, as well as other martial arts such as aikido.
One fight scene can take several weeks to complete, and it takes a true pencak silat athlete to deliver a truly convincing performance in front of the camera, he said.
In The Raid he has fewer lines. Most of the dialogue is in the form of fight scenes.
“The important thing is character, how to do a movement with feeling … In conducting a movement, there is wiraga, wirasa, wirama. Wiraga is how the body displays the movement, wirama is whether one can create the rhythm in the performance, and wirasa is whether one can perform the movement with feeling,” Yayan said.
He discovered that roughly the same principle of “feeling” applies to acting as well.
“If I can quote an elder in the moviemaking world, acting is not about carrying it out seriously but carrying it out with feeling … I found out that it’s true. We often see a performance we might label good, but it’s just a performance that doesn’t get through … it has no feel to it,” Yayan said.
He is now working on more choreography for an upcoming project, again with Evans and Iko.
Yayan’s busy schedule in the moviemaking world has kept him from engaging in as much training as he used to.
However, he still finds time to train once or twice a week.
“I get up in the morning, train for two hours, and if Iko is [at the office], I will train with him,” he said.
Yayan has a number of people he looks up to in the pencak silat world. One of the most awe-inspiring for him is the late Enny Rukmini Sekarningrat, who was a teacher of the Panglipur pencak silat school.
“She was really a teacher who knew what she was doing and could be a teacher in the personal and intellectual sense,” he said.
His current dream is to make pencak silat something Indonesian youth are proud of. “Even though it seems like it will be very hard, God willing [I can do it]” he said.
Thanks to Merantau quite a few people did approach him to learn the Sile Harimau style. However, the movie also had some unexpected consequences. For six months after the release, people would recognize him in public as “Eric”.
“But I knew they were asking for Iko… ‘Why? You want me to tell him you said hello?’ [I would say],” Yayan laughed.
The problem subsided, however, when he started growing his hair long. “I am quite safe now,” he said, smiling.