SGIFF 2021 Review: ‘Vengeance is Mine, All Others Pay Cash’4 min readReading Time: 3 minutes
Ajo Kawir is a fighter who fears nothing, not even death. His raging urge to fight is driven by a secret — his impotence. When he crosses paths with a tough female fighter named Iteung, Ajo gets beaten black and blue, but also head over heels — he falls in love.
Cast: Marthino Lio, Ladya Cheryl, Reza Rahadian
Country: Indonesia, Singapore, Germany
Language: Bahasa Indonesia
Runtime: 116 minutes
Vengeance is Mine, All Others Pay Cash, the 2021 winner of the Golden Leopard, is from another world. It’s an intricately crafted love letter to revenge thrillers from the 1980s and 1990s, featuring fight choreography that ascertains Indonesia as the reigning king of the action genre — that much is familiar and clear. Where the film starts to feel foreign and exceedingly thrilling is with how it constantly hops between being low and high brow, and never settling for any middle ground.
Vengeance is unabashed about ragging on its main character’s impotence with a dizzying amount of crass jokes and references. Yet, the film is also extraordinarily sharp with its critique of toxic masculinity, backed by visual treats from its delectable arthouse sensibilities. This cross-cross motion between extremes eventually weaves an intricate tapestry that might leave audiences overwhelmed — and, certainly, with an impish desire to untangle everything.
Adapted from Eka Kurniawan’s novel of the same name, Vengeance follows Ajo Kawir (Marthino Lio), a fearless mercenary-for-hire driven by his impotence. A job to shakedown a businessman leads him to cross paths with Iteung (Ladya Cheryl), who is hired to be the businessman’s bodyguard. The two eventually fall in love after their exceptionally rowdy first date. Married life for the two fighters, however, doesn’t come easy with their past creeping ever-closer behind.
It’s impossible to pigeonhole Vengeance into a single genre or mood. While the undying romance between Iteung and Ajo remains a key focus, the film makes effortless detours to the supernatural and the Western genre with little to no tonal whiplash. A gripping momentum is built to expect the unexpected, especially when the cinematography, soundtrack and performances constantly remain on pace. Anyone heading in expecting a throwback action flick will be more than satisfied with the barrage of spectacular action choreography and set pieces.
But Vengeance sneaks in kidney shots — welcomed ones too.
Under its no-nonsense veneer, Vengeance is far from straightforward. The film plays on the overflowing machismo ever-so-prevalent in the revenge thriller genre, and how patriarchal relations have allowed this toxicity to fester in our world. Ajo and Iteung are both trapped within these structures. Ajo’s entire village is somehow aware of his impotency, and his embarrassment brings him under the thumb of a corrupt retired military general. Despite being able to dispatch just about anyone in her way, Iteung has spent her entire life harassed and taken advantage of by powerful men.
For the both of them, sex cannot be an outlet — Ajo’s reason is clear but Iteung’s is far more damning — so they turn to violence as the next best thing. Their warpath for vengeance is not without reason; it all seemingly stems from their inability to consummate their marriage. Their personal vendettas bring a whole new meaning to “the personal is political”. The film frames their predicament as a dead-serious commentary at times but is unafraid to highlight the absurdity of their drastic responses too.
Marthino and Ladya are both tremendous at riding the waves; their chemistry is incredible and it forms that backbone of Vengeance. What makes their performance especially engaging is their vulnerability. Again, speaking to the film’s finesse of its nostalgia-soaked premise, these are oftentimes afforded through dramatic declarations of love that will probably be considered nauseatingly mawkish today — song dedications preluded by love poems, chasing after each other in the pouring rain, a wife trying to cure her husband’s impotence by going on a killing spree, etc.
The staggering beauty of Vengeance comes from how the film embraces and lovingly recreates the action thrillers of the 1980s and 1990s on the era’s own terms, before engaging it all from a modern perspective. Vengeance simply refuses to be fully digested within a day or two; it’s not because of all the genre and tonal misdirections either, but with how creatively detailed the themes are presented.
Who knew a film with so many dick jokes could be such a cutting critique of the patriarchy?
Vengeance is Mine, All Others Pay Cash made its Southeast Asian premiere on the opening night of the Singapore International Film Festival 2021.