Set in ‘80s West Java, Indonesia, Vengeance Is Mine, All Others Pay Cash tells the story of Ajo Kawir (Marthino Lio), a tenacious street brawler who is famous for his fearless attitude. Through his many manly acts of destruction and machismo lies a condition that fuels it all – his sexual impotence. Even with numerous attempts to cure it (including the application of leech oil and chilli paste from the town hooker, played by a hilarious Christine Hakim), it becomes obvious that the source of it lies on the side of the psychological.
But things take a sharp turn for Ajo when he encounters his latest target’s bodyguard, Iteung (Ladya Cheryl). The two get into a massive brawl and they fall in love. But the romance is tested when their prurient needs get in the way. Not to mention Ajo’s near-suicidal need to defeat and assassinate an infamous crime boss. And on top of that, an ex-lover of Iteung’s interjecting the wonderfully blossoming picture.
Vengeance is Mine, All Others Pay Cash is a curious beast of a film; a melange of genre pastiches filtered through a dramatic melancholy that borders on something illusory. Complimenting that feel is the tactile 16mm cinematography by Akiko Ashizawa (best known for her work in Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s filmography), which particularly shines during night scenes.
The genres that writer/director Edwin “pastiches” are enjoyable to witness, especially when he focuses on ‘80s Hong Kong cinema. From Iteung’s appearance (complete with denim costume and a wonderful perm) to the lead actors admirably doing their own stunt work in long singular takes across scrappy settings like construction sites, the reverence for genre is wonderfully felt. Ajo’s impotence can be seen as a reference to Clarence Fok‘s erotic crime thriller Naked Killer as it also features a lead action hero who suffers from a form of impotence, and even some death scenes that look eerily similar to a moment in Yuen Woo-ping’s martial arts crime flick Tiger Cage.
Edwin’s handling of the subversion of cinematic romance is also well done, as he lays out all of the tropes of melodrama – including meet-cutes as fight scenes, theme park dalliances, conclusions of love triangles – and refreshes them. But when Edwin handles melodrama, which is the true basis of Ajo’s impotence as well as the conditioning of society as a whole being driven by patriarchal rule, the film struggles to handle the weight.
Part of the reason is the glacial pacing of the storytelling. While the pace is appropriate for the story’s ethereal moments (including a late intro of a character whose presence can be described as supernatural with a call of siren song) as well as moments when Ajo drowns in the consequences over his impulsive actions (including a scene when Ajo fights with a prisoner played by Cecep Arif Rahman, best known for his work in Gareth Evans‘ The Raid 2), it does make the genre shifts look jarring.
Another reason is the lack of chemistry between Lio and Cheryl. Cheryl holds up on her end of the deal by lending conviction, charisma and grit to the role of Iteung, particularly when her character takes an abrupt turn in the third act. Unfortunately, Lio lacks the certain magnetism to make his character worth empathizing for. He manages to be convincing in portraying his anger and darkness of Ajo, but during intimate moments his work does not register as well as it should.
Overall, Vengeance Is Mine, All Others Pay Cash is a strange, unwieldy genre-mash piece that overcomes its haphazard pacing and cultural esoterisms with its flights of fancy, solid characterizations and sharp commentary on toxic masculinity. Recommended.
THREE AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Vengeance is Mine, All Others Pay Cash is screening as part of this year’s Toronto Film Festival, which is being presented both in-person and virtually between September 9th and 18th, 2021. For more information head to the official TIFF page.