Meet the Martial Star of Netflix’s Wu Assassins, Iko Uwais

By Gene Ching

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KUNG FU TAI CHI summer 2019 coverFor the last decade, the hottest rising martial arts movie star has been Iko Uwais, but only the hardcore martial arts fans know him. Iko is a tough name to pronounce (it’s "ee-koh" not "eye-koh"). And yet, even though he’s been in Star Wars, stardom has yet to change him so much that he adopts an "American" name like most other Asian stars such as Jackie Chan, Tony Jaa, or Max Zhang. He’s still uncompromisingly dedicated to his roots, his homeland and his traditional martial lineage. Even his Instagram (iko.uwais) remains astonishingly modest. There’s occasional movie promotions and red carpet selfies, but mostly it's charming grams of his family.

Nevertheless, 2019 is looking like the Year of Iko.  He’s already starred in two theatrical films this year and now he has the lead role in the new Netflix series Wu Assassins.  For readers who are just tuning in, let's start with Iko’s humble beginnings.

Unity in Diversity

Iko was born on February 12, 1983, in the city of Jakarta on the most populous island on the planet, Java.  Jakarta is the capital city of Indonesia, a country comprised of more than 17,000 islands that lie where the Pacific and Indian oceans meet between Southeast Asia and Australia.  Indonesia has a population of over 268 million.  That makes it the fourth most populous country in the world behind China, India and the United States.  And over half of those 268 million Indonesians live on Java.

Iko is a master of Silat.  Silat is a Southeast Asian martial art prevalent in Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.  Like Kung Fu, Silat is a general term for a large and diverse collection of combat disciplines.  These vary from country to country, and even within a country, there are many unique styles and traditions.  The Silat practiced in Indonesia is specified as Pencak Silat.

"Silat, it's my opinion you know, it's really difficult," explains Iko.  "It's hard to understand about Silat.  Silat is really really general.  It's kind of like a religion, from Muslim martial art.  It's a lot of styles and a lot of character as well.  [There's] a lot of provinces in Indonesia.  Each province in Indonesia has its different style too.  Every province, every place, it's different character.  Silat is more connected to religion – Muslim – and it has animal styles too, you know?  Animals are more general, like Tiger or Monkey.  Most of the moves are like a Tiger and a Monkey.  You know like Arabic words?  Writing, you know?  It's kind of like Arabic writing, you know?  The Arabic alphabet.”

If animal styles and analogies to traditional calligraphy sound familiar, it’s because Chinese martial arts have these same qualities.  Iko agrees.  "It's very similar with the Kung Fu – China style.  Silat is more like a dance.  We can combine live music.  You celebrate with music too and do more like religion, kind of like that.”  Akin to Chinese Lion Dancing, Capoeira or Thai Boxing, music plays into the practice and performance of Pencak Silat.  And like so many traditional martial arts, Silat demonstrations are an integral part of festivals and celebrations.  However, Silat retains its own unique character and signature weapons like the unique ring-handled blade called a Karambit.  “It's completely different than other martial arts," says Iko.

Iko descends from a Silat bloodline.  His grandfather was H. Achmad Bunawar (died 2013), the founder of Silat Tiga Berantai school in Jakarta.  “My grandfather is master of Pencak Silat in my school,” says Iko.  “My grandfather, he’s really old.  He’s master of Pencak Silat in Asia.”  Iko was privileged to study under his grandfather from childhood.  "I started when I was ten.  Like 1993."  He became so passionate about the art that he skipped college just to focus on his training.  As Silat was a family tradition, he had the support of his father Mustapha Kamaluddin and mother Maisyaroh. That dedication and sacrifice paid out.  After a decade of training, Iko placed 3rd at the Jakarta Provincial Tournament.  Two years later, in 2005, he placed 1st at the National Pencak Silat Championship and was honored as the Best Performer in the demonstration division.

Silat is now a sport featured in two of Asia’s most prominent multi-sport games.  In 1987, it became an event at the 14th Southeast Asian Games, and just last year it joined the larger 18th Asian Games.  Both inclusions occurred when those respected games where held in Jakarta.  Sport Silat is not yet part of the Association of the IOC Recognised International Sports Federations (ARISF), the key steppingstone towards consideration as a potential Olympic event.  Karate will be accepted at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics; other martial sports that are currently ARISF-approved include Muaythai, Sumo and Wushu.

Sport Silat competition is strikingly parallel to Wushu.  There’s sparring matches known as Tanding, which has both point sparring (including throws and takedowns) and full contact (like Sanda 散打).  And then there’s forms divisions known as Jurus.  Just Wushu Taolu (套路), these encompass Jurus Tunggal or solo forms (empty-hand or weapon), Jurus Ganda which are two-person choreographed sparring forms akin to Wushu Duilian ("opposed practice" 对练), and Jurus Beregu, which is synchronized team forms just like Wushu Jiti ("assembled group" 集體).  “I’m still local,” says Iko modestly, “not at the level of the South Asian Games yet.  I did not compete for the South Asian Games but I performed for international exhibition to exchange culture [for] martial art in American and other countries – kind of like exhibition.”

Iko might have been content as a Silat teacher, but then came Merantau.

And Iko’s life changed.


Every Journey Must Begin with One Small Step

“You know, I never thinking about this life,” reflects Iko.  “I’m not thinking about this world.  I just want to be regular and that’s it.”  It was a simple twist of fate that catapulted Iko into global stardom.  He was working as a driver for Esia, an Indonesian telecom company, when a fledgling filmmaker visited the Silat Tiga Berantai school to film a documentary on Pencak Silat as part of a five-episode series on Indonesian culture for Christine Hakim Film called The Mystic Arts of Indonesia.  The director was Welsh-born Gareth Evans.

When Gareth saw Iko’s skill and his film presence, he knew he had a diamond in the rough.  Iko still seems somewhat stunned about how it all happened.  “Go back to 2007, yeah, some director from U.K. visit to my school.  I don’t know.  Maybe he speak to me and he choose me to be the person to be in Merantau.”

Merantau premiered in 2009 and soon became a cult favorite.  Beginning in the lush island forests, it’s a coming-of-age tale gone wrong.  Yuda, a young Silat master played by Iko, embarks on a spiritual quest to find his way in the big city.  In Indonesian, such a quest is called a merantau and the big city was the ghetto streets of Jakarta.  Yuda’s merantau takes him into the bleak and violent world of the Asian sex trade, with tragic results.  Shot on location, it’s a captivating postcard of Java, punctuated by some of the best fight choreography seen on the screen in years.  With a bushy mop of hair, Iko looks unsettlingly like Daniel-san from The Karate Kid (1984), but that’s where the comparison ends.  Iko’s martial skills are awe-inspiring.  Throughout the film, he delivers long complex single-shot sequences lasting dozens of moves, displaying a fearsome mastery of martial arts.  Merantau introduces what has become Iko’s trademark style – brutal, gritty, yet sophisticated fight choreography with that silky flow of Silat, replete with Karambits.  Merantau also introduced another Silat master, Yayan Ruhian.  Yayan plays Eric, a Silat fighter opposite of Yuda.  Yayan also collaborated with Iko for the fight choreography.

Iko, Yayan and Gareth remained a trio in two more films, delving even deeper into their newfound universe of ultraviolent Indonesian choreography.  Gareth signed Iko to a five-year contract.  Iko quit his day job as a driver and dedicated himself even more to Silat.

Then came The Raid.


When There's Nowhere Left to Run or Hide... You Fight or Die

Iko’s next film with Gareth and Yayan was The Raid: Redemption (2011).  It’s a simple plot.  Iko plays Rama, a Special Forces rookie, who gets trapped in a drug lord’s building with his elite squad and must fight his way out.  Yayan plays Mad Dog, and joining the cast are Judoka Joe Taslim, fellow Silat master Donny Alamsyah (who had a non-action role in Merantau) and Eka Rahmadia, a Taekwondo practitioner.  The Raid doesn’t mess around.  It jumps immediately into an orgy of ruthless ultraviolence and remarkably is able to sustain that, again based on its extraordinary savage fight choreography.

The sequel, The Raid 2 (2014), continues these ferocious fight scenes without missing a beat.  These films are not for the faint of heart.  They are sanguineous and barbaric, but the fight choreography is unparalleled.  For the sequel, Cecep Arif Rahman joins the cast of Silat masters.  Through Iko, Yayan and Cecep, Silat is shaping cinematic fight choreography more than any other style now.  The Raid films also became cult favorites, so much so that for the last half decade there’s been discussion of a Hollywood remake.  It caught the attention of Director J.J. Abrams, who grabbed the trio of Silat masters for his next project, Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens.

Iko, Yayan and Cecep got cameo roles as Razoo Qin-Fee, Tasu Leech and Crokind Shand.  They played members of the gang trying to collect debts from Han Solo soon after he reclaimed the Millennium Falcon.  It’s a short cameo, sans Silat, as they are quickly devoured by loose Rathtars.  However, they stand alongside other Easter egg cameos in the film like with Daniel Craig or Simon Pegg.  “Star Wars!” Iko laughs.  “You know, I got news from Gareth, the director I made films with.  He talked to me about that project and it seemed like, ‘Yeah, why not?’  Just try it.”  Between the Raid films, Iko had another cameo in Keanu Reeves’ film, Man of Tai Chi (2013), but he was sorely underused.

While most actors would be ecstatic to have any role in the Star Wars franchise, Iko was nonplussed.  Like with China, Star Wars wasn’t as big a deal in Indonesia as it was here.  “I don’t really follow Star Wars, you know, a fan like that.  I’m not really a big fan, but it’s good.  We try.  So yeah.”  It’s rumored that Iko was consulted about choreographing a lightsaber fight, but his suggestions were too brutal to be included.

Following The Force Awakens, Iko worked on three more fight films before returning to a Hollywood production, two under Indonesian horror film director Timo Tjahjanto (Headshot, The Night Comes for Us) and another with noted martial arts leading man Frank Grillo (Beyond Skyline).  All three were filmed in Indonesia.  For Iko, it’s easier to work on his home turf with his Silat comrades.  “When we choreo fights for Indonesia, I know each actor, so I can adapt with another actor.  So I create, I choreograph, for me.  It’s really easy for me.  But Hollywood, I have to adapt to another actor, so I have to create for each actor.  Some actors don’t do martial arts really well.  Just like doing hands for each actor or actress.  In America, just basic skills.  I feel like this.  With me, it’s an adjustment and another actor is not from Pencak Silat – their skills.”

Last year, Iko stole the show with his first leading role in a Hollywood film.  Mile 22 starred Mark Wahlberg, John Malkovich and MMA champion Ronda Rousey, but it was Iko’s performance that critics were raving about.  Iko was struck by the sharp contrasts between making movies in Indonesia and Hollywood.  “For me, it’s very different.  In Hollywood, it’s really about timing, right?  So when I work in Hollywood, it’s maximum maybe like twelve hours, right?  Indonesia would be not like that.  We never thinking about the timing.  We never think about the time.  Maybe the situation too, like when I’m in Hollywood, the crew every single [person has] a special division.  In Hollywood, the crew, they have to be focused on every single job.  But Indonesia, we collaborate.  We work kind of like a family.  In Hollywood, it’s more professional.  Indonesia, like a family, different nature – not ‘real’ family but it’s more professional in Hollywood.”


Prepare for the Rideshare of Your Life

Iko has already starred in two films this year, Triple Threat and StuberTriple Threat was eagerly anticipated by martial art movie buffs because it had a solid martial cast.  The "Triple" was Iko, Tiger Hu and Tony Jaa, backed by other noted action stars including Scott Adkins, Michael Bisping, Celina Jade, Michael Jai White, and Jeeja Yanin.  Stuntman Tim Man was the Fight Choreographer and Iko enjoyed the collaboration.  “Almost like we don’t have to test the level.  Emotionally I get them still to follow the movement too.  They just copy fast my movement.  I’m not worried.  It’s like still complex movement, you know?  It’s physical for them.”  Triple Threat had a very limited theatrical release and was mostly distributed through home entertainment.  Martial stars still don’t command the box office presence they deserve in United States theaters.

Stuber, an action comedy buddy flick, had more star power with WWE champion Dave Bautista and comedian Kumail Nanjiani as leads.  Standing 6’ 6” at 290 pounds, Bautista is typically cast as the villain, not the "good" guy.  For Iko to play opposite him is a test and testament to his screen combat skills.  “It’s great,” gushes Iko.  “It’s a great experience for me to work with Dave and Kumail and Karen Gillan.  They trust me too, about the fight stuff.  I choreograph everything I do.  Yeah, Dave, he’s really, man, really a super nice guy.  He’s big.  He’s really wide, really strong.  He’s a really nice guy.  And Kumail too.  Yeah, it’s fun.  It’s a fun time to work with them.”


Wu Assassins

In June of last year, Netflix embarked on the 10-episode martial arts-driven series Wu Assassins.  It’s a martial arts fantasy, set in modern-day San Francisco Chinatown, where an ancient order of assassins must combat the Wu triad and balance the fate of the world.  The show’s creator tapped Iko right away.  “You know the producer is John Wirth, right?  I got an offer from him and he just searched me out, I guess.  I get the news from my manager.  He said, ‘Hey Iko, we got a project with some TV series from Netflix which was just choreographing for the fights, I think.’  I say, ‘Oh, okay, that’s fine.’  You know, just try it because a series is a really good experience.  Maybe for me, it’s good opportunity.  And suddenly, John was like immediately, ‘Oh! Why not Iko?  Kai Jin is good at martial arts in character.  Why not him?’  He had a dream – about me, about the Kai Jin character.  ‘Let Iko try the character.’  I go like, ‘Okay.’  He said that, and when he said that, from then on, they explained character of Kai Jin in front of us.  Yeah, it’s really an interesting story.”  Kai Jin is the lead character, a chef who is chosen to be the Wu Assassin.  Although set in Chinatown, Iko is quick to point out that he’ll stay true to Silat.  “Kai Jin.  It’s not like Kung Fu, Kung Fu, Kung Fu.  It’s half Chinese, half Indonesian and more Muslim.”

Moving from movies to television is a major transition.  Iko explains.  “For Wu Assassins, for us, my team too, every single day, it’s really different – the way we create, the way we choreograph.  Because in the movie – Wu Assassins is a television series, right? – because a series and a movie, it’s really different.  In movies, we only just have one story line and we already describe the fight scene.  In Wu Assassins, every single episode is different.  So every single scene, we create, choreograph, it keeps changing.  It’s really hard for us.”

The cast is packed with martial arts actors.  “It’s great.  It’s fun, you know?  We can collaborate with another actor too.  You know Katherine Winnick, and Byron (Mann), those guys are really awesome.  I love learning from them.  It’s really fun.  And you know, we have Mark Dacascos! He’s great.  I really depend on them, man.”  Dacascos recently starred alongside Yayan and Cecep, who brought their Karambits with them portraying shinobi in John Wick: Chapter 3 – ParabellumWu Assassins is stacked with other veteran martial stars including Celia Au, JuJu Chan, Byron Mann, Lewis Tan, and Katheryn Winnick.

Earlier this year, Lewis Tan played Gaius Chau in the precedent-setting martial-arts-driven AMC TV show Into the Badlands.  In addition to Tan, Wu Assassins secured another Badlands refugee, Executive Producer Stephen Fung, for the first two episodes.  “Stephen Fung – that’s right.  He’s great.  He’s a really nice guy and a good director.  We can cooperate with the choreo and he really understands the martial arts and how to use it because he’s worked a lot with other actors.  And also, you know, he trusts me a lot about the fight scenes.”

With the leading role in a Netflix series, Iko stands on the precipice of pop culture acceptance.  But in his heart of hearts, he’s stalwartly devoted to his martial art.  Would he consider taking on a strictly dramatic role where he didn’t have to fight?  “I don’t know, man,” pauses Iko.  “I’m thinking.  It’s good opportunity for me too.  If it’s possible, why not?  I have to try another challenge for me.  It’s not only action.  Number one – drama is really important too for me.  Maybe, yeah, maybe.”  But for now Iko is eager to keep bringing Silat to the world through his films.  Most action stars must maintain a varied arsenal of styles and skills to be prepared for any role, and although Iko has embellished his Silat for the big screen, he stays true to his Karambit-wielding roots.  For him, it’s all about Silat.  “Yeah, it’s really important to me,” says Iko.

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Kung Fu Tai Chi Magazine - Fall 2019

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Photos (including cover shot) courtesy of Netflix. For more on Wu Assassins, visit For an exclusive review of Stuber, click here.

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