Incredibly striking 16mm photography fills the frames of Vengeance Is Mine, All Others Pay Cash, the new feature from Indonesian filmmaker Edwin. Co-written by the director and Eka Kurniawan, based on Kurniawan’s book of the same name, the film tells the story of Ajo Kawir (Marthino Lio), a street fighter whose hyper-masculinity and need to prove himself with his fists is inextricably linked to his erectile dysfunction, a source of humiliation for which he’s desperate to find a cure. It’s only fitting that his introduction to the love of his love, Iteuna (Ladya Cheryl), comes in the form of a fistfight, when Ajo is after the man Iteuna serves as bodyguard for.
This hand-to-hand action sequence is one of several that populates the two hours of Vengeance Is Mine, action which Edwin makes invigorating by stripping it to its bare essentials. These fights are expertly choreographed feats of martial arts that also manage to feel grounded, in a way telling us more about the characters and their emotions than the dialogue often does. Fighting becomes fucking, as the chemistry between Ajo and Iteuna is palpable when their bodies come together violently in this early scene. It’s not the only time that Edwin will use the close proximity of hand-to-hand combat as a means for sexual tension.
Iteuna knows of Ajo’s impotence before he even tells her about it, yet she declares her undying love for him all the same, starting them on a life together that will unfortunately be disrupted by petty jealousies, traumatic pasts, and owed debts. Kurniawan’s tale is an epic of crime and romance, set against the backdrop of a period of time in Indonesia (the 1980s) when your masculinity was all you had. Ajo is a formidable fighter with his fists, but not being able to fuck makes him a mockery, and his need to prove himself sexually ingrains a self-hatred that not even Iteuna’s love can pierce.
Spanning years, with this powerful love story at its core, Vengeance Is Mine often calls to mind the domestic epics of filmmaker Edward Yang, who drew out cultural critiques within tales of crime and romance. Edwin’s film is first and foremost about the love of Ajo and Iteuna, but their story manages to encompass a great deal of themes on the societal pressures placed on Indonesian men during this period, and indeed expectations that are put on men in general, often leading to unhealthy excursions of their own self-hatred, fueled by toxic masculinity from external forces. This concentration on gender expectations layers over into Iteuna, who is perhaps the most badass fighter of all the characters we see over the course of the film.
Edwin bakes this conceit into a compelling tale, influenced by the martial arts movies from Hong Kong which became all the rage in the country around the time the film is taking place. Vengeance Is Mine is a film that these characters would have loved to watch, or at least the action scenes are. The filmmaker takes a veritable smorgasbord of influences, and forms them into something that feels singular in its vision. The truly magnificent photography creates rapturous images that draw you in to every frame, giving you a wondrous vision of Indonesia that harkens back to this same era of filmmaking, making you wonder why anyone would ever want to make a film with an aesthetic different from this.