‘Vengeance Is Mine, All Others Pay Cash’ review: a retro-action exploration of machismo and impotence

A raging fighter, driven by erectile dysfunction, meets his match and falls in love in Edwin’s satire of ’80s action movies and toxic masculinity

While Indonesian action movies have always been popular in Southeast Asia, the country’s dazzlingly choreographed exports have gained international prominence in recent years. Led by excellent, ultra-violent films like The Raid and The Night Comes For Us, Indonesian martial arts flicks have become the genre’s new gold standard, inspiring Hollywood copycats like John Wick and Dredd.

But despite a long lineage of legendary Indonesian action movies – dating back to its low-budget heyday in the 1980s with films such as Jaka Sembung, Ferocious Female Freedom Fighters and Jaka Gledek – you’d be hard pressed to find one as weird or as offbeat as Vengeance Is Mine, All Others Pay Cash, which won the Golden Leopard at the 74th Locarno Film Festival.

Adapted from Eka Kurniawan’s pulp fiction novel Seperti Dendam, Rindu Harus Dibayar Tuntas (Like Revenge, Longing Must Be Paid in Full), Edwin’s blackly comic satire of the genre’s machismo-fueled fisticuffs follows Ajo Kawir (Marthino Lio), one of the toughest fighters in the Javanese underworld. The fearless brawler is always ready to bash some skulls, but sadly, his rage is driven by his shame about erectile dysfunction. As the film explains, “only a man who can’t get it up can face death without fear”. Impotence is obviously the central theme of this film, as Ajo compensates for his humiliation by beating up challengers in his hometown of Bojongsoang and participating in daredevil motorcycle games.

A thug for hire, Ajo is one day sent to intimidate a local big shot. What he doesn’t count on is the target’s badass female bodyguard, Iteung (Ladya Cheryl, channelling action heroine Cynthia Rothrock). In a series of over-the-top battles, Iteung beats Ajo to a pulp, which serves as this world’s perverse version of a meet-cute.

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

Given his condition, Ajo is shy about his attraction to her, but when it becomes clear that Iteung doesn’t care about his flaccidity, the pair eventually fall in love. The blossoming romance between Ajo and Iteung, heightened by Lio and Cheryl’s delightful chemistry, provides the film’s finest notes, carving out spaces of tenderness and emotional depth in this brash, action-oriented movie about dicks.

They’re the heart of Vengeance Is Mine, All Others Pay Cash – a heart that is broken in the present by a rival gangster named Budi (Reza Rahadian) who leads Iteung astray, and in the past, when the origin of Ajo’s impotence is revealed through traumatic childhood flashbacks of a brutal rape. As these revelations unfold, the characters’ despair and disappointment are deeply felt.

Vengeance Is Mine All Others Pay Cash review Edwin Indonesia
Marthino Lio and Ladya Cheryl in ‘Vengeance Is Mine, All Others Pay Cash’. Credit: Press

Edwin may pay copious visual homage to the stylised brutality and practical effects of ’80s B-movies, but all the film’s aggression and violence is rooted in the protagonists’ interior lives and emotional needs. Constantly mocked for his penile problems, Ajo’s sense of emasculation is the recurring motif of Vengeance Is Mine, All Others Pay Cash’s unsubtle social critique.

However, its bluntness and excess does cause the film’s study of sexual trauma, shame and disempowerment to lose its potency. Vengeance Is Mine, All Others Pay Cash boasts impressive hand-to-hand combat sequences, celebrating action movie tropes while subverting them through its smart thematic elements. But it also tries to be a crime drama, an oddball romance, and a tongue-in-cheek comedy – even a supernatural fantasy, when a ghost somehow turns up.

Edwin has made a gonzo genre mash-up full of flourish and ambition, but sometimes stumbles with meandering plotlines and messy execution. Yet despite bouts of tonal whiplash, going from dark to goofy to smart to surreal, this film must be praised for offering action aficionados more to chew on than cheap thrills and slick choreography.

Details

  • Director: Edwin
  • Starring: Marthino Lio, Ladya Cheryl, Reza Rahadian
  • Release date: December 2 (Indonesia)
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