Ain’t It a Kick
By Chloe Lizotte
Vengeance Is Mine, All Others Pay Cash
Dir. Edwin, Indonesia, no distributor
It’s 1989 on the outskirts of West Java’s Bojongsoang district: we meet our hero, Ajo Kawir, wearing a stylish pink windbreaker and managing to pull off a rattail. He revs his motorcycle—an emcee intros him as the “returning champion,” to the delight of his exclusively male crowd of onlookers—and crushes his opponent in a game of chicken. But instead of following Ajo along his victory lap, Indonesian auteur Edwin lingers on the back of a truck, where there is cartoonish graffiti of a boy’s face pressed against the bottom of a foot, mid-kick; “Heaven is found at your mother’s feet,” reads the spray-painted caption. Then, this boy made of paint turns to the camera and announces: “Only a man who can’t get it up can face death without fear.”
The title of Vengeance Is Mine, All Others Pay Cash may be slick and playfully edgy, but in ironic passages like this, Edwin ruptures that tone. As the boy says, the main conflict centers on virility: Ajo may be the quickest motorcyclist in the district—and, as we soon learn, a formidable fighter in hand-to-hand combat—but he is also impotent. Teaming with novelist Eka Kurniawan to adapt his popular novel to the screen, Edwin uses this scrappy story to critique masculinity in action cinema; the film, which won the Golden Leopard at Locarno, lands somewhere between a pulp comic, an action romance, and a surrealist fable. Subverting the clichés of these genres, the film’s aesthetic is deceptively minimalist, even patiently observed. Alongside two Apichatpong Weerasethakul alumni—sound designer Akritchalerm Kalayanamitr and editor Lee Chatametikool—as well as Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s frequent cinematographer Akiko Ashizawa, Edwin crafts a tribute to ’80s B-movies that’s driven by emotional rhythms.
Most of all, Vengeance Is Mine, All Others Pay Cash is a love story between Ajo and another fighter, Iteung (Ladya Cheryl, the lead of Edwin’s Blind Pig Who Wants to Fly and Postcards from the Zoo). Of course, they meet-cute in a brawl: she’s the bodyguard of Mr. Lebe—a “scumbag,” they both agree—whom Ajo wants to shake down to settle a debt. Just as Ajo is less concerned with money than with asserting his machismo—“pay or no pay, I just want to fight,” he tells his friends the night before—Edwin dwells less upon plot mechanics than the couple’s natural chemistry. Against the backdrop of a rocky quarry, they leap on and off trucks, tumble down slopes, and scale a massive conveyor belt, each smiling as they recognize that they’ve finally met their match. Eschewing rapid cuts in favor of relaxed medium shots, Edwin captures the hard-edged intimacy of their combat, a reminder that the best fight scenes are about the visceral artistry of the human body.
If Ajo is technically Vengeance Is Mine’s protagonist, Iteung is its motor. Edwin based his version of Iteung on the no-nonsense prowess of Cynthia Rothrock, the American martial-arts icon who reached superstardom in ’80s Hong Kong action films. Like Rothrock, Iteung’s ability to kick ass is a given, and Cheryl’s naturalistic performance gives her a depth that goes beyond combat—likewise, Edwin takes care not to contextualize her as Ajo’s “female foil.” Instead of setting up vulnerability and violence as gendered opposites, Edwin entwines the two in the film’s characters and aesthetic. He explained to MUBI that he saw this as a direct reaction to the way that action cinema, as much as he loved it, shaped masculine ideals and desensitized audiences to violence, something he felt matched the tenor of Suharto’s dictatorship. Vengeance Is Mine doesn’t deny the libidinal appeal of these movies—far from it—but Edwin focuses on the genre and gender expectations that they instill. If sex and violence are ways of communicating in these films, then erectile dysfunction is the ultimate metaphor for social paralysis.
After a slightly fraught courtship—Ajo starts getting cold feet because of his ailment—Ajo and Iteung end up married, but Ajo still owes a debt to a retired military general named Uncle Gembul. Ajo is under contract to kill a man named Macan, but Iteung offers him common-sense advice: return the money and forget the job. The couple is living in relatively stable domestic bliss: they’ve set up a small garage, and Ajo pleasures Iteung even if she can’t reciprocate. And yet Ajo can’t resist the urge to fight. He’s receiving mysterious, deliberately corny phone calls threatening Iteung—all placed by her ex and former fighting partner, Budi, who now sells leech oil as a sexual aid. Edwin makes this society-wide obsession with virility so silly, so heavy-handed, that it becomes absurd; a tank of phallic sea mollusks, of all things, makes an appearance in a quiet café. So it’s intriguing that Ajo’s best friend, Tokek, played by musician Sal Priadi, gives them a guitar as a wedding gift: “Sometimes touch can say what words never can,” the card reads. The gentler sensuality of music seems at odds with the aggressive caricatures of potency that surround Ajo, and although he naturally takes to the instrument, he can’t quite relax in this new identity. Like a self-protective reflex, he’s compelled back toward “conventional” masculine aggression. This conflict is also expressed in the dramatic contrasts of Dave Lumenta’s score; for every romantic guitar melody, there is a synth-y prog theme to drop over a punch-up.
Edwin explicitly links these psychological stakes to the repression of violent trauma. The inciting incident for Ajo’s impotence goes back to childhood, when he and Tokek witnessed a woman’s brutal rape by two cops; in a flashback, we see the two boys peeking through her house’s shuttered windows like Jeffrey Beaumont squinting through the closet slats in Blue Velvet, right before the intrusion ruptures their innocence. Earlier, the children speak about the “mystery killings” arranged by Suharto throughout the ’80s, a wave of random violence to consolidate power amid rampant protests. Iteung asks if Ajo thinks he needs to kill the two men to help him push through this trauma, but it’s clear that a vengeance killing wouldn’t magically resolve the surrounding circumstances.
In the same way, there’s no catharsis in what might seem to be “key” plot points. After Iteung admits to Ajo that she is pregnant—by Budi in a sequence that signals her impulsive, irrational desperation for self-control, kindled by her own buried trauma—he zooms off on his motorcycle in a blind rage. He arrives at a house and approaches a cowering old man with a cane. This man barely occupies the foreground, but it soon becomes clear that this is Macan—the Macan, who was rumored to have cut off his own finger to offset the pain of a toothache to avoid being vulnerable to a dentist. Within seconds, Ajo has wrested Macan’s cane from his hands and knocked him to the ground. The carnage is obscured by a wall, and the sequence is scored by a delicate piano line mingling with throbbing synth. Oddly, the betrayal at the beginning of the scene almost overshadows this elided killing, which makes Macan’s death more haunting: Iteung’s transgression arose from the social dysfunction surrounding sex, power, and violence, and Macan is the feeble collateral damage.
Although these somber scenes stand out in retrospect, much of the film is playful. Its final third, which finds Ajo maturing so that his disposition matches the sensitive, dulcet tones of his guitar, takes some wilder swings that may literalize the metaphor too much—namely, a dreamlike character named Jelita, who pointedly shares the same name as Budi’s leech oil. But Edwin has a knack for punctuating the action with character details that are unexpectedly sweet, and even comic. When Ajo first meets Uncle Gembul, for example, he reaches his hand out for a shake and then withdraws it in a fake out. These scenes are less twee than affectionately humanist, and Vengeance Is Mine, All Others Pay Cash continually opens up space for these nuances. Even if Ajo and Iteung can’t fully reject the seductive thrill of the fight—which, after all, is how they met—it seems possible that they might, together, find a healthier way of relating to each other.