Hot on the festival circuit and making waves as the first Indonesian film to win the prestigious Golden Leopard at the 74th Locarno Film Festival, Vengeance Is Mine, All Others Pay Cash already came in with high expectations, even before its premiering as the opening film of the 32nd Singapore International Film Festival (SGIFF). And after watching it, there’s really no question why it’s been lauded and praised.
But the lead-up to this point honestly shouldn’t be surprising. Based off Man Booker International-nominated author Eka Kurniawan’s novel of the same name (Kurniawan also shares screenwriting credit), and helmed by director Edwin, who has been a festival favourite for years, Vengeance is nothing short of a cinematic masterwork. Crafted lovingly in tribute to 80s cinema and culture, its fun veneer is a facade for its pitch black message about the dangers of toxic masculinity, and how that in turn corrupts Indonesian society into one that communicates primarily through the language of violence.
Speaking to Edwin over coffee before opening night on 25th November, the mononymous director is no stranger to SGIFF, having been a part of it since 2004 with his short film A Very Slow Breakfast, and previously received special mention for his feature film Blind Pig Who Wants To Fly in 2009. Now, coming back for the 32nd edition, Edwin’s reputation has grown by leaps and bounds, with his work becoming increasingly daring and epic in scale, so much that one cannot imagine where this director’s craft will take him next.
“Actually, I went to film school because I didn’t know what I wanted to do, and thought it was going to be fun just watching films all day long,” admits Edwin. “But when we got thrown into the process of making films, as an introvert, I found it quite challenging to come out and talk to so many people. But I learnt to enjoy the process of meeting more and more people, and in turn learning from them, so much that it became something I actively wanted to do.”
That was back in 1999, when the world was awash in newness and potential. Indonesia was entering a new political age, new technology was emerging in the film industry, and Jakarta was holding a film festival for the first time, exposing the general public and filmmakers to the world of international film and industry members. But amidst all the new, one never forgets the long years of the Suharto regime, and even longer history of violence, one that Edwin grew up at the height of in his childhood and teens.
It makes sense then that Edwin would be drawn towards the works of Eka Kurniawan, whose writings deal with precisely the experience of trauma, its lingering effects on society, and the seemingly endless cycle of violence the country cannot completely leave behind. “I didn’t read Eka’s work until Vengeance was released as a novel in 2014,” says Edwin. “And what struck me was the title. In Bahasa Indonesia, the title is Seperti Dendam, Rindu Harus Dibayar Tuntas, which reads like graffiti spray painted on the back of trucks, and brings out ideas of revenge and longing.”
“That’s the kind of culture that’s commonly seen in North Java, the coastal region full of harbours with trucks rumbling down roads as they transport goods across the archipelago to Sumatra and back,” Edwin continues. “It’s a very long road, and when you’re riding down it, you see so much of this graffiti on the back of trucks. Some of the words and images are funny, some are harsh, some sexist, others poetic. But there’s so much emotion and expression in those phrases, that I used to take note of them and jot them down!”
Even before the decision to adapt the novel, Edwin found himself enamoured with Eka’s novel, breezing through it and letting his mind run wild. “I loved how it paid tribute to popular Indonesian culture in the 80s, whether it was horror or B-movies or comics, all the stuff I grew up with that I never knew could hold such importance,” says Edwin. “And most of all, the writing was fresh, it was contemporary, and so evocative – I could practically see, hear and even smell the environments and situations that Eka created within these pages.”
Set in Indonesia in the 80s, Vengeance centres on a young man by the name of Ajo Kawir, a village laughingstock for being sexually impotent, in a world which prizes virility and sexual prowess as marks of manhood. But with nothing to lose, this results in an inability to fear death, and a thirst to prove his masculinity in whatever way possible. As he tries to regain his manhood through constant fights, brawls and murder, he encounters his match in Iteung, a female bodyguard. Boy meets girl, and the rest is history, at least, until their unfulfilled sexual consummation catalyses the series of events that force them to confront their respective childhood traumas, and leave a trail of blood and violence in their road to recovery.
“The book also spoke to me because of how it was set during the regime, where there was this climate of fear the government had created to try and control society itself, something that we could return to if we’re not careful,” Edwin continues. “It made me think about all these unaddressed issues in our history, the normalisation of violence as a means of control and manipulation.”
Edwin then got to know Eka through a producer friend, and the two hit if off quickly talking about comics, films and pop culture. While initially, Edwin suggested that Eka could come up with a new story they could co-write for film, the two eventually decided to just adapt Vengeance for the screen instead, with the process officially kickstarting in 2016.
“That was my first time adapting a book for screen – in between, we also adapted the novel Aruna and Her Palate, but this took a while longer,” says Edwin. “Eka was very easy to work with, he knew that film is a completely different medium from prose, and wasn’t fussy about 100% sticking to what he wrote. But of course, I wanted to keep to the spirit of the book, while also making sure that the film was coherent, by putting the sequence of events mostly in order, and not confusing the audience by ensuring that we focused on specific characters and their stories.”
“So we took a step back, and tried to look at the novel as a whole. We realised that there’s so much playfulness to Eka’s writing and structure, where it was mocking and playing a lot with different genres and tropes,” says Edwin. “So likewise, we wanted to explore that with the film as well. We decided to ground it in the central romance between our two leads, while everything else comes along in relation to that love story, which mixes in drama and action too.”
Despite the multiple storylines and introduction of so many characters along the way, Vengeance as a film almost never leaves you confused, and because of its heightened reality, dancing on the edge of surrealism, it becomes easy to accept the strangeness and charm it introduces over and over again, right down to the ridiculously camp fight scenes, to the downright supernatural. But always, the characters are understood to each bear their own burdens, each with their own complex history, even if never explicitly said out loud, that allows us to feel and sympathise for their predicament, as products of the society they were born into.
“In Indonesian society, you are born into scrutiny, where there are clear rules and expectations for men and women to behave and perform,” says Edwin. “Like say for the LGBTQ community, it’s problematic when it’s an ordinary person who comes out, but then you had someone like Dorce Gamalama, one of the first openly transgender Indonesians back in 90s who was celebrated and looked at with pride. Beneath all this, there’s still so many entrenched gender issues that aren’t being addressed, and suppressed.”
“Living with that for so many years, and especially during the military-led regime, you realise how little control you actually have. So all this violence, it’s a culture that’s rooted in our blood, and the only thing we can do is challenge that idea through conversation and writing and film,” he continues. “While it is more free these days compared to before, we still to talk about it, because the more you suppress it, the more it will express itself in violent ways, to reveal all the repressed anger and feelings.”
Which then explains the ultraviolence in the world of Vengeance, almost like an extreme, funhouse mirror of the real world it took inspiration from, where everyone is a pugilist and raring for a beatdown. “In this world full of machismo, the characters need to show that they are tough in order to survive and fit in,:” says Edwin. “When Ajo and Iteung meet, yes, it’s romance, but they achieve it through fighting, because that is their language. Maybe they don’t want to fight each other, and maybe they don’t want to be violent, but violence is all around them, and affects and influences their lives in many ways.”
Speaking about the cast, Edwin explains how he came to work with female lead Ladya Cheryl once again, who also starred in his first two feature films. “She actually hasn’t been acting for a while now, and in fact, she’s based in New York,” says Edwin. “I wasn’t even sure she’d be interested in the film, but when it came to a point where we couldn’t find a suitable actress, a producer told me to send her the book and see what she thought. She got interested, sent in some audition tapes based on the screenplay, told us how excited she was over how the role was more action-packed and sexually-charged, and that was that.”
“Ultimately, it was important for all the cast members to have good, balanced chemistry, and it took just as long to find our male lead in Marthino Lio,” Edwin adds. “And then before filming, Ladya flew down to Jakarta, and all of us transformed the office into a makeshift martial arts studio; we threw out the furniture, lay down mattresses and cardboard, and and train together. And the actors, well they like how the film really expended their energy, and how the role let them do both the action scenes and the dramatic scenes, and I had fun directing them too.”
Beyond the physical preparation, even the language of the film, while perhaps lost to non-native speakers, was something Edwin considered very seriously in the writing. “The language we used isn’t conversational, but derived from the style that 80s action films used,” says Edwin. “It isn’t a ‘real’ way that people speak, because Bahasa Indonesia is actually very simple and practical. But back then, there was this nationalist movement to poeticise the language used in film and music and literature, and that theatrical language was what defined the screenplays of the era, and we wanted to return to that.”
“This idea of language, it’s so powerful, and a film critic friend talked about how it was also a site of violence,” Edwin continues. “There is this movement to force us into leaving behind our roots, to erase our traditional dialects and speaking, and the more we become Westernised and speak a ‘standardised’ Indonesian language, the more we forget.”
“Again, perhaps violence is our language after all, and it comes out so much in our arts and entertainment,” he adds. “Eka’s other book, Beauty Is A Wound charts how deeply interlinked Indonesian history is to violence, from the Dutch colonial days to the modern day regime, and all these patriarchal systems that have perpetuated since the beginning of our history.”
As for Eka’s reaction to Edwin’s adaptation? “Eka hasn’t actually seen the final cut of the film yet, and since the last time he had a look, it’s a completely different beast,” says Edwin. “It’s receiving an official release in Indonesia on 2nd December, and while cinemas have mostly been closed due to the pandemic, I’m really hoping that beyond the blockbusters, this film brings people back to the cinema again, especially those longing to see Indonesian films.”
Edwin of course, recognises the rich film culture and history that Indonesia has, and is hopeful that from here, the post-pandemic revival will only continue to grow. “Film has been such a big part of our lives, and it’s a good time for the Indonesian film scene,” he says. “Our audiences are so young, and now with social media, you can see everyone discussing films on Twitter and Facebook, and it offers them this opportunity to have great discussions online. And during the film festivals, like in Toronto, people snapped up the pre-orders, even when it was receiving a screening in the middle of the night, while another Indonesian film Yuni, won the Platform Prize at the festival. There was so much anticipation and pride back home for Indonesian cinema making waves overseas.”
Beyond audience support, film has always been one of the most expensive art forms, with a lengthy gestation period, but Edwin knows that there are avenues for funding. “Most Indonesian feature films are funded by private investors who still believe in the importance of supporting national cinema, while the films I do are often co-productions between companies and even countries,” says Edwin, referring to how Vengeance was a co-production between Indonesia, Singapore and Germany. “And these days, we even get funding from the Ministry of Education, while also benefitting from an initiative from the Ministry of Finance that helps us with the funding for marketing the film on television ads or billboards.”
“I don’t know what I want to be as a filmmaker,” says Edwin, as he muses on his purpose of making cinema. “Besides telling stories, maybe I just want to make sure I remember things, and to leave something behind for people to remember and watch. For now at least, even after winning the Golden Leopard, there’s still this responsibility as an artist to challenge myself, pushing on in this journey and keep doing better as a filmmaker.”
Vengeance Is Mine, All Others Pay Cash screened on 25th November 2021.
SGIFF 2021 runs from 25th November to 5th December 2021. For more information about the SGIFF, visit their website here