Action, Horror, and More: Inside the Colorful World of Timo Tjahjanto

Timo Tjahjanto

Action, Horror, and More: Inside the Colorful World of Timo Tjahjanto: Indonesian cinema remained relatively confidential for decades. This was until a few talented directors allowed it to shine outside the country’s borders – and beyond its home continent. One of them is Timo Tjahjanto: the filmmaker has put Indonesian movies on the map by creating gripping action and horror films and is now considered a master in both genres. However, reducing his film to mindless gorefests would be unfair. Ever since his first slasher in 2009, the director has developed a unique style. More recently, Tjahjanto has been using his background in horror to create some gritty, extremely violent, and entertaining action films – the latest of them, The Big 4 (2022), is trending on Netflix across the globe.

Colors have played a preeminent role in creating Tjahjanto’s trademark, starting with red – his first horror films were tainted by gallons of hemoglobin. Timo began as one side of the dynamic duo, the Mo Brothers (with filmmaker fellow Kimo Stamboel making up the other half). Together, the self-proclaimed “brothers,” who met at university, directed the blood-splattered slasher Macabre (2009), starring actress Julie Estelle as their final girl. Later, she would go on to become the iconic Hammer Girl in The Raid 2 (2014).

Timo’s inclination towards gory and over-the-top horror is even more visible in his short film Safe Haven, released as part of the anthology V/H/S 2 (2013). This psychedelic found footage short follows a visit to a bizarre cult and was co-directed by The Raid’s creator Gareth Evans. The short segment becomes an insane waking nightmare partway through, to the point where little can be revealed about Safe Haven without spoiling it. Let’s just say for now that its clear color palette gives way to some terrifying visions overflowing with red – as always with Tjahjanto, the story ends in a glorious bloodbath.

Despite briefly incorporating a little action into the carnage with Killers (2014), it was Headshot (2016) that allowed Timo to direct his first “pure” action film as one of the Mo Brothers. The result is a dark and gritty movie, where the directors pit a mobster with memory loss and his caring doctor against his former gang. Headshot is considered by many as the spiritual successor of The Raid (2011) and its 2014 sequel.

Much like the duology, this film makes good use of Pencak silat, a group of Indonesian martial arts, and features professional martial artists. The influence of Gareth Evans’ films is visible in the realistic fights and the casting: Headshot rounds up familiar figures, including stars Iko Uwais and Julie Estelle. The movie shares The Raid’s intensity. But its depressing gray color palette contrasts with the rest of Timo Tjahjanto’s work. Despite its beautiful combat scenes, Headshot cannot be considered the director’s best work because it lacks what other flicks from Tjahjanto have: a humorous undertone and a pinch of madness. Even Timo’s beloved blood somehow seems darker.

A more solid installment in Tjahjanto’s filmography is his next action movie, The Night Comes for Us, which was released in 2018. The film was distributed by Netflix, making it easier than ever for international viewers to enjoy Indonesian action cinema. This over-the-top movie marks a turning point in the director’s work. It introduces us to Tjahjanto’s universe, where horror and action explicitly collide. In The Night Comes for Us, a member of the Triads decides to challenge his bosses by saving a little girl and faces the wrath of his former gang as a result.

Timo Tjahjanto
The Night Comes for Us (2018)

The main anti-hero is played by Joe Taslim (who starred in The Raid), with Iko Uwais cast against type as a villain. This will come as no surprise, but Julie Estelle is also part of the crew. The shadow of The Raid seems to loom over Tjahjanto’s movies persistently. Yet The Night Comes for Us is able to find its own style and tone. Here, the assassin’s underworld is far more developed, and characters compete to see who has the most iconic look and improbable weapon. Despite being filled with gruesome injuries caused by a cow femur, pool balls, or a garrotte, the movie maintains a distinctive darkly humorous tone. Its violence is so over-the-top that it brings a smile to the incredulous viewer’s face.

The film also features a red thread in Tjahjanto’s filmography: the power of women. It started with Macabre in 2009, boasting both a female protagonist and a frightening villainess, and has not stopped since. In The Night Comes for Us, this is illustrated by a climactic face-off between Julie Estelle’s mysterious character and two ruthless female assassins. Their two-against-one brawl is a masterclass in cinematic intensity, and its creative use of blue and purple neon lighting helps to give it a surrealistic feel. Not only is the scene brutal, but it also navigates the thin line between realism and hyperbolism, as injuries seem both excessive and gruesomely realistic.

This would become the trademark of Tjahjanto’s style and is perfectly outlined by a unique color code. While Headshot’s color palette was excessively bleak, matching its atmosphere, The Night Comes for Us mixes warm neon lighting with dark interiors. This choice is more radical than it would seem, as garish color palettes are relatively rare in recent action films. These shades are also very unique. In The Night Comes for Us, Tjahjanto uses purples and reds, far from Michael Bay’s teal and orange color grading, which defined so many action films of the 2010s. In turn, its unique colors give the Indonesian movie a refreshingly original aesthetic.

This presence of garish colors and their symbolism of a more humorous, over-the-top tone is even more obvious in the director’s latest film, The Big 4 (2022). This time, Timo Tjahjanto offers us an action comedy, once again available on Netflix – and trending in more than fifty countries. It follows four assassins raised by their mysterious mentor, who witness the death of their father and have to work with his biological daughter, a police officer, to avenge him.

Between its crude jokes and giggling villain, The Big 4 is best defined as an action comedy, but never compromises on the fights, which remain fast-paced and appropriately bloody. The movie also perfectly illustrates Tjahjanto’s use of colors: its warm lighting and bright shades perfectly match its lighter tone. The director does not forget his roots either and doesn’t hesitate to taint the screen with good old crimson blood splatters.

So, what next? Throughout the past decade, Timo Tjahjanto has confirmed his place as one of Indonesia’s leading directors and as a creator, able to mix action with horror and badass heroes with garish environments. Following The Big 4’s success, the director recently announced that a sequel is coming. Viewers can hope that this follow-up will allow the filmmaker to keep mixing genres and developing his colorful style.

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Timo Tjahjanto Links: IMDb, WIkipedia