Homage to 80s culture and entertainment laced with wicked sociopolitical commentary.
We’re starting off this review by making one thing clear: this is a love story. But as its title suggests, Vengeance Is Mine, All Others Pay Cash goes far above and beyond that. Drawing together elements as far flung as action, Western and even horror into this genre hodgepodge, this is a film that leaves one breathless with anticipation as to where it’ll take you next.
Opening the 32nd Singapore International Film Festival, and still fresh from its historic Golden Leopard win at the Locarno Film Festival, director Edwin’s Vengeance Is Mine, All Others Pay Cash adapts Eka Kurniawan’s novel of the same name (and shares screenwriting credits). Like Kurniawan’s other works, Vengeance is primarily concerned with themes of violence and trauma, already foregrounded by the film being set in the late 80s, at the height of President Suharto’s military dictatorship.
For the most part however, our story takes place in a small village, where our protagonist Ajo Kawir (Marthino Lio) is a man lost without purpose, living life on the edge and looking death in the eye, picking fights wherever he goes. The reason? Despite his youth, he suffers from impotence, a fact known to all the villagers, and overcompensates through his attempt to present hyper masculinity through his daredevil personality.
All that changes however, when he goes out on a hit mission, and encounters bodyguard Iteung (Ladya Cheryl). The two spar, half hoping to incapacitate each other, half treating it like a strange, violent courtship dance. We did say this was a love story, and it’s not long before the relationship develops, and the two are happily wed. There’s just one problem – Ajo’s inability to fully consummate their relationship. The sexual frustration is initially resolved through good old handjobs, but societal pressure and unfulfilled desires eventually result in both halves expressing their darker sides in the worst ways possible.
Vengeance is honestly an incredibly fun film. The fight choreography alone shows off the effort the cast has put into their training, and results in campy action sequences that pay homage to 80s martial arts films, alongside far more grisly revenge drama that will leave viewers with a visceral reaction. Director Edwin knows how to insert visual humour where necessary, playing with tongue-in-cheek imagery such as phallic geoducks, while also animating graffiti on the back of trucks (including pseudo-philosophical taglines, which the film’s title is reminiscent of). Time jumps feel smooth, with just enough screentime that allows us to understand the situation before swiftly transitioning to the next period, and as a viewer, we are taken on a thrilling journey from start to end.
Anchoring the entire film is the relationship between Ajo and Iteung, with actors Mathino and Ladya sharing a powerful onscreen chemistry that makes them seem like kindred spirits. Even when they are at their most violent, Edwin’s direction allows us to understand how intense their respective childhood traumas have been, leaving them as broken adults desperately searching for some kind of redemption and meaning to it all, unable to fully leave the past behind.
It is this unresolved trauma that is key to understanding what Vengeance is really about. Neither Ajo nor Iteung have a proper way to heal, and their repressed emotions and pain finds an outlet in violence and an intense desire for revenge. Particularly interesting is how Ajo’s pain is expressed through blind rage, while Iteung’s adopts a far more terrifying shape; hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, and she constantly seeks out specific targets to exact her wrath upon.
For both Ajo and Iteung, the constant fighting and takedown of those who stand in their way is merely a symptom of the greater problem. Throughout the film, the couple are haunted by men who are in traditionally, more powerful roles. Iteung has to deal with her ex Budi (Reza Rahadian) and his men, who threaten her marriage physically, emotionally and sexually. Ajo on the other hand has contracted himself to being a retired general’s (Piet Pagau) hitman, constantly lording over him with how much power he has to improve their lives, if only they do his bidding.
These traditional power structures of the military and sexual virility are precisely the same ones that need to be deconstructed before the cycle of violence the characters are trapped in can end. The military perpetuates rank, hierarchy and classism, while the emphasis on virility and a need to prove it only encourages men to establish dominance over women, often through force.
Just when you think there’s a sliver of hope, when the good guys find their way back to each other again, and a friendly supernatural friend even steps in to offer help and clarity, momentary happiness is snatched away as quickly as it is given. No matter how much they try to fight the system in their own way, clearing each challenge, the system eventually catches up, and always wins.
Edwin’s version of Indonesia in Vengeance is a terrifying one to live in, one where you can never truly be free, and one which trades in machismo, and your worth is as good as whether you win the next fight (and there are so many fights). It is a film that is clear in its love for the ’80s – melodramatic declarations in the rain, young lovers dedicating songs to each other, or simply long scooter or truck rides that let you take in the simplicity of the past on the seemingly endless roads. Edwin knows his genre films well, and the direction and cinematography even so so far as to mimic those same genres (throw in over the top, almost incongruent music to further nod to that bygone era of films).
But peel it all back, and Vengeance is a dark film that never lets up in its juxtaposition of the nostalgia with the sharp sociopolitical criticism of how much Indonesian history and identity has been defined by its violence. Equal parts entertaining and horrifying, it’s not hard to see why this film has garnered as many awards and praise as it has, a love letter to cinema and triumph of Indonesian film that warns us that it is time to break the cycle, to live and let live.
Vengeance Is Mine, All Others Pay Cash screened on 25th November 2021.
Vengeance Is Mine, All Others Pay Cash was also accompanied by the SGIFF commissioned short film, Nelson Yeo’s Dreaming. Starring Doreen Toh, Kelvin Ho and Peter Yu, the short follows three ex-schoolmates who reunite at a chalet, only for unrequited feelings in a decades-old love triangle to come to light. Shot on film, the short effectively creates feelings of pseudo-nostalgia, and director Nelson is careful to always suggest but never outright tell us about these feelings, which the audience is left to interpret. Ending on a juvenile moment you can’t help but laugh at, Dreaming was an ideal accompaniment to Vengeance, and well balances its humour and tragedy to bring out the absurdity of human nature and relationships.
SGIFF 2021 runs from 25th November to 5th December 2021. For more information about the SGIFF, visit their website here