Dead Mine chalked up a number of firsts in the region, being HBO Asia's debut original feature, and Singapore based company Infinite Studios' new soundstage facility in Batam, Indonesia being used for the production. Technically, the movie boasts some excellent production values, from stunts to props, sound engineering and special effects to art direction, with the soundstage adding a dimension to filmmaking around the region, with one more slated for Singapore, but as the adage goes, never forget about the story, as it is still king.
The screenplay by Ziad Semaan and director Steven Sheil has an interesting premise, but unfortunately lapsed back to genre cliches. If the pace was kept high, and story tight, then Dead Mine would have been something of a shiny debut for the collaboration between companies and geographies. As an action-horror, it took quite a while for characters to be established around the usual caricatures that pepper the genre already, before the first big set action sequence acted as catalyst for the narrative to move forward, thrusting the entire cast into the titular location. Things slowed down a lot, in between posing, spewing rote dialogue, and traversing the many nooks and crannies of Dead Mine, but when it finally shifted to the high gear, it showed potential that never really reached a high.
Centered around the legend of Yamashita's treasure, the WWII Japanese General who had been rumoured to stash some handsome gold somewhere in the South East Asian region, Sulawesi, Indonesia becomes zeroed in for exploration, funded by corporate rich kid type Price (Les Loveday), who had brought along his girlfriend Su-Ling (Carmen Soo) for the ride, with his engineer Stanley (Sam Hazeldine) in tow, and researcher Rie (Miki Muzuno) to provide the brains for their expedition. Needing protection as they enter a foreign land, they engage the soldiering mercenaries in Captain Tino Prawa (Ario Bayu), with his rag tag team consisting of Djoko (Joe Taslim), Ario (Mike Lewis) and strong man Sergeant Papa Ular (Bang Tigor). My initial fear is that it may be something like Sanctum, but thankfully this was better, though not without its own illogical moments that exist for plot convenience.
Once they get all chummy and acquainted, the set action pieces are what stands out in the film, aside from the nicely done production sets that made the Dead Mine an incredibly believable location, with two separate tiers being the sandy underground, and the concrete labyrinth above it which suggests the location was more than a potential treasure store, but houses something a lot more sinister, harking back to experiments and torture. There's no lack of gore that adhered to a limit set to keep the ratings as low as possible, so plenty of violence actually happen offscreen, before cutting to show the bloody, gory end result.
And the makeup and costuming department is no slack either, having creature designers work overtime to come up with Mutant POWs, which serve up a lot more terror than the more powerful Imperial Guard type enemies decked in Samurai gear, because as mentioned, the pace could have been kept high to add a degree of urgency, tension and genuine dread to the entire situation. There's plenty of running, and careful treading within the mine, but a little speeding up of lengthy explanations would have been appreciated, and perhaps making it a wee bit more of a fair fight would have sweetened it up a little, than to have it quite one-sided.
Between the cast members, I thought the Indonesian actors triumphed in the film, especially with Ario Bayu's charismatic allure that made it believable that he's the de-facto leader a skilled crew would work under. Anyone who had watched The Raid: Redemption would be familiar with Joe Taslim, and it's interesting now that Hollywood had already come knocking on his door with the Fast and Furious franchise. Unfortunately he has only a bit role here, and doesn't show off his martial arts for his role. Bang Tigor is yet another actor with immense presence on screen, and that's not because he's bulked up.
Still, Dead Mine is a genuine showreel of the kind of production HBO (and its Asia arm) is capable of, with a decent production budget, collaborating with talent in the region, both in front of and behind the camera, and yet again a testament to Infinite Studio's promotion of how a soundstage facility that's really a first of its kind here, could benefit filmmakers to be a little bit more ambitious in telling a story that can be set almost anywhere the imagination dares to venture. So long as it's driven by a strong script, I'm pretty sure we can be set for a lot more variety in the kind of films that could be told in the months to come.