‘Vengeance Is Mine, All Others Pay Cash’ director Edwin on toxic machismo and personal, detail-oriented filmmaking

A chat with the Indonesian filmmaker who won the top award at 2021’s Locarno Film Festival with his adaptation of Eka Kurniawan’s acclaimed novel

International acclaim and prized festival spots for a black comedy about impotence – who’d have thought it? Certainly not Edwin. The 43-year-old director, producer, and screenwriter’s latest feature Vengeance Is Mine, All Others Pay Cash made history at this year’s Locarno International Film Festival as the first Indonesian production to nab the top prize, or Golden Leopard, during the festival’s 74-year run.

To the 43-year-old, though, this historic win over auteurs Abel Ferrara and Bertrand Mandico, was just “a serendipitous bonus”.

“Just seeing the possibility of the film being screened on a big screen for approximately a thousand people to see during its premiere was already astonishing,” he tells NME. “On top of that, to see the film being appreciated and scoring this Golden Leopard of a bonus was truly out of this world.”

A joint production between Indonesia, Singapore, and Germany, Vengeance Is Mine, All Others Pay Cash is an adaptation of the 2014 novel by International Booker-nominee Eka Kurniawan of the same name. Set in the 1980s, Vengeance tells the story of Ajo Kawir, who is notorious for his love of a good brawl. But the young fighter hides a mortifying affliction – he is sexually impotent.

He soon falls head over heels in love with a beautiful and formidable female fighter named Iteung, and struggles with whether he can satisfy his new beau. The film stars Marthino Lio (playing Ajo Kawir) and Ladya Cheryl (Iteung), with a supporting ensemble including Reza Rahadian, Ratu Felisha, and singer-songwriter Sal Priadi in his film debut.

After the film’s successful outing in Locarno, Vengeance’s next destination is the Toronto International Film Festival, where it will be screened as part of the Contemporary World Cinema session. “I want to know how the audience in America would respond to the film, and from what kind of POV [point of view],” Edwin muses.

Ahead of the film’s first screening in Toronto today (September 9), NME speaks to the filmmaker about the impact of his Golden Leopard win on the Indonesian film industry, how the New Order regime influenced the tone of Vengeance, and what new material has caught his interest as a filmmaker.

Vengeance Is Mine All Others Pay Cash movie Indonesia Edwin interview Locarno Film Festival Golden Leopard
Edwin poses with his Golden Leopard statuette from Locarno Film Festival 2021. Credit: Press

Winning the Golden Leopard was quite a historic moment, especially for the Indonesian film industry. Do you think this victory signals a brighter future for your native country?

“There is hope at the very least. [The victory] serves as a motivation, especially for filmmakers who are trying to find their way back to both their routine and their audience [due to COVID-19 pandemic]. Of course, Indonesian films do not strictly belong to filmmakers. I feel like this victory also belongs to the ones who watch Indonesian films. If we have no audience, there’s nothing that we can do. So it’s a sterling hope for all of us, truly.

“Will this victory lead to a brighter future? I still cannot predict the answer. Because we still have a lot of work to be done. It’s not just about the filmmakers and their audience, but also the given support and the ecosystem and so on.”

“I feel like the byproduct of the New Order regime’s machismo culture is unmissable to this day”

As a novel, Vengeance is relatively unusual due to its subject matter and narrative style. Why were you interested in adapting this story?

“I first read the novel back in around early 2016 and I felt the rush immediately. I thought, ‘Wow, this would be very interesting as a film!’, though I had never adapted a book before. So I pitched the novel to the producing partners at Palari Films and it so happened that they were looking for potential material to adapt.

“For me, deciding to adapt this novel posed a challenge because the film adaptation subsequently pays tribute to Hong Kong-made and Indonesia-made action and horror films of the ’80s and the ’90s. I could sense how the novel was heavily influenced by that particular slice of pop culture. However, the novel retains no faculty of nostalgia whatsoever. Just the opposite: it feels relevant and I found that very riveting.”

Singer-songwriter Sal Priadi is making his film debut in Vengeance. What inspired you to have him on board?

“Before casting took place, I had never met him. I heard of Sal Priadi from pals who are into the music scene. I had no idea what his music was, so I decided to browse through his video clips. He had this energy – from his physicality and his theatricality – and I found him quite expressive. I thought that maybe someday I would cast him in one of my films. Besides, meeting fresh talents is always an exciting experience.

“I got to meet him around early 2019. We had coffee, then I lent him the Vengeance novel. Once he finished reading it, we had another conversation and he shared with me a pretty interesting interpretation of the novel. On a personal level, I could feel both of us synching with each other as well.”

Vengeance Is Mine All Others Pay Cash movie Indonesia Edwin interview Locarno Film Festival Golden Leopard
Ladya Cheryl, Marthino Lio and Sal Priadi in ‘Vengeance Is Mine, All Others Pay Cash’. Credit: Press

There’s a multilayered depth to Vengeance. How did you make sure that your audience could understand that the film is not a run-of-the-mill sex comedy?

“Both the novel and the film discuss the toxicity of machismo culture. It’s a culture in which men must be judged based on qualities that define masculinity, and this culture was very dominant during the New Order regime back in the ’80s. It transpired a long time ago, but I feel like the byproduct of that machismo culture is unmissable to this day. Physical violence is still normalised, even though this present era should be an improvement to the past 20 years. That backdrop is what assured me that this film must have the capability to speak volumes to its audience.

“In this case, impotence could be interpreted literally as a frowned-upon sexual issue by society at large. People might even equate it to an infectious disease. On the other hand, impotence could also be interpreted as a metaphor for how the patriarchal values of our society still manage to squash the fragile things.”

“We still perceive history in black and white, and that’s an oversimplification”

Looking at your body of work so far – Postcards From The Zoo (2012), Possessive (2017), Aruna & Her Palate (2018) – it seems that you have a penchant for unique, yet very personal stories. How do you see yourself as a storyteller?

“I feel like filmmaking takes time. For instance, Vengeance took me five or six years. That kind of time would allow me to observe my surroundings, in which I could zoom and discern in greater detail. I would usually try to spot the tiniest, the most personal things. And usually, when we’re talking about personal things, something unique would manifest.”

Besides Vengeance, is there any material out there that has caught your eye?

“I’m always captivated by the conflicts among human beings. I’m also interested in our country’s history, but from a different POV. We still perceive history in black and white, and that’s an oversimplification. History is made by humans, and I’m interested in exploring humans.”

Vengeance Is Mine, All Others Pay Cash begins screening at Toronto International Film Festival on September 9

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