Vengeance Is Mine, All Others Pay Cash
[…] What is brilliant about this surprising infusion of achingly genuine emotion is that Edwin and Kurniawan aren’t aiming to have it supplant the inherited action impulses of the story they tell.
[…] With Edwin layering heightened genre trope upon heightened genre trope and mixing, matching, and juxtaposing wildly different narrative cues and visual keys, dark comedy and grim drama become ever more closely intertwined…
With a title echoing those of roughly a dozen other movies, most of them gnarly, not-quite-classics from the seedier side of genre cinema, Vengeance Is Mine, All Others Pay Cash is nothing if not upfront about the tradition it roots itself in. Indeed, from the 1980s setting to its opening scenes – which see impotent fist fight enthusiast Ajo Kawir (played by Marthino Lio) engage in an outrageous display of masculine braggadocio, stop by a sex worker’s house, and kick off a bar brawl – the film signals its readiness to revel in the thrills and spills that have made this mode of filmmaking such an enduring format.
However, for all its obvious affection for the many Vengeance Is Mines that have preceded it – chief among them, one would imagine, the Giovanni Fago spaghetti western and the 1978 Filipino exploitation flick from Vampire Hookers director Cirio H. Santiago – it quickly becomes apparent that the Golden Leopard winner also approaches them with a not insignificant degree of scepticism. The opening motorcycle stunt is a hollow contest for petty cash in a run-down corner of Bojongsoang District on the outskirts of Bandung and Ajo’s visit to the sex worker’s chambers is a routine stop that ends in embarrassed disappointment for both while the boozy affray leaves him not victorious but bruised, bloodied, and with a dislocated joint or two.
As Ajo’s erectile dysfunction is mined both for raunchy jokes and narrative whimsy («Only a man who can’t get it up can face death without fear»), and as the action turns from triumphant to pathetic, these early scenes set the tone for surname-less Indonesian writer-director Edwin’s adaptation of Eka Kurniawan’s eponymous 2014 bestseller. In a matter of minutes, this Vengeance Is Mine upends the expectations fostered by its evocative title and reveals itself as a slyly revisionist genre piece that manages to eat its thematic cake and have it, too – in order to pointedly subvert its forebears’ more reactionary impulses whilst salvaging those elements that make them so eminently (re)watchable.
Edwin and Kurniawan, who shares a writing credit, achieve this through an inspired reversal of the hero’s journey that one would typically encounter in a film entitled Vengeance Is Mine: contrary to what the impotence conceit might imply, this is not the story of a “soft” man striving to “get hard”. Instead, Ajo struggles to perform the hard-edged machismo expected of him in Suharto-led Indonesia, and, after meeting the mysteriously alluring Iteung (Ladya Cheryl), has to learn to embrace and appreciate his own longing for love and companionship.
What is brilliant about this surprising infusion of achingly genuine emotion is that Edwin and Kurniawan aren’t aiming to have it supplant the inherited action impulses of the story they tell. On the contrary, Iteung and Ajo’s meet-cute occurs on a construction site overseen by the former’s corrupt employer, whom the latter (in yet another attempt to prove his masculinity) is endeavouring to bring to justice – meaning that the first major sparks that fly between the two are of the violent rather than the romantic sort. In an extended and wonderfully imaginative martial arts sequence, Marthino Lio and Ladya Cheryl dance through rows of moving trucks and atop precariously steep rock conveyor belts, beating each other near-senseless out of a shared sense of injured pride. As it turns out though, their violence does not beget violence but romance, so it isn’t long before we see them sat in front of their respective radios, in colour-saturated domestic settings that wouldn’t look out of place in Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love (2000), sending and receiving messages of profound romantic yearning.
From there, Vengeance Is Mine, All Others Pay Cash starts to fray and digress in a number of fascinatingly disparate directions. Most notably, Ajo and Iteung’s relationship starts to chafe against the realities of life in 1980s Indonesia as well as the laws of genre, as they both come to learn that once you’re part of the mob, or its Suharto-adjacent equivalent, the only way out is through violent means – though here, even the violence often feels tongue-in-cheek, as disruptive and gruesome as it can get, like a slapstick stunt gone wrong. The scene where not one but two rod-like objects penetrate a man’s head in quick succession proves particularly delightful, thanks to its lightning-quick switch from comedic framing to fatal consequence, leaving viewers little time to reconsider their initial laughter.
The film is punctuated by such tonally ambiguous moments, particularly once its two protagonists set off on their own individual odysseys through the weird criminal underbelly of Bojongsoang. With Edwin layering heightened genre trope upon heightened genre trope and mixing, matching, and juxtaposing wildly different narrative cues and visual keys, dark comedy and grim drama become ever more closely intertwined… and that’s not even mentioning the introduction of a vengeful wandering spirit (Ratu Felisha) and Hawaiian shirt-clad Uncle Gembul (Piet Pagau), who casually lords over proceedings like an Indonesian Sydney Greenstreet, serving as a frighteningly jovial cypher for Suharto’s military dictatorship always looming just out of sight.
It hardly comes as a surprise then that all these tangents, many of them elaborations on characters’ intersecting revenge plots, just barely come together to form a coherent whole in the end – although it’s perfectly conceivable that this too is at least partially deliberate. For while vengeance, in all its manifold and bloody glory, may be what animates the plot of Edwin’s sixth feature, its central concern and sole narrative constant is the star-crossed, hard fought for love of Ajo and Iteung and their struggle to build a sustainable, symmetrical, mutually empowering relationship.
Not only does this result in one of the most beautiful final shots in recent memory, a freeze frame that vitiates all macho posturing and allows itself to indulge in pure melancholy longing, it also offers an emphatic corrective to the one-sided gender politics this kind of genre cinema all too often espouses. As much as Vengeance Is Mine, All Others Pay Cash can feel like a magnificent throwback to the golden age of giallo and masala, make no mistake: this is bracingly modern filmmaking.
(in collaboration with the Locarno Critics Academy)
Text: Alan Mattli
First published: August 21, 2021
Vengeance Is Mine, All Others Pay Cash – Seperti Dendam, Rindu Harus Dibayar Tuntas | Film | Edwin | IDN-SGP-DE 2021 | 114' | Locarno Film Festival 2021
Pardo d'oro at the Locarno Film Festival 2021