Opening on two motorcyclists playing a reckless game of chicken for petty cash in an unfashionable outskirt of Bandung in 1989, Indonesian writer-director Edwin’s sixth feature, the Golden Leopard-winning Vengeance Is Mine, All Others Pay Cash, is intent on challenging any and all expectations its punchy title might evoke from the very start. As the winner of the contest, rat-tailed protagonist Ajo Kawir (Marthino Lio), sets off on a victory lap, he passes a painted advertising board, which promptly comes alive and offers the audience a glimpse beneath the veneer of Ajo’s masculine swagger: “Only a man who can’t get it up can face death without fear.” Our hero, for all his readiness to take on multiple people in any kind of fight, is impotent. But this perceived sexual inadequacy is not the fatal flaw that will come to haunt Ajo on his hero’s journey. Instead, for Edwin and co-writer Eka Kurniawan, on whose eponymous novel Vengeance Is Mine is based, the devil seems to lie in the culture that produced their conflicted hero.
Living amidst the murky social and political climate of 1980s Indonesia, Ajo, the adopted son of Iwan Angsa (Yudi Ahmad Tajudin), the hired muscle of a local crime lord jovially styling himself as “Uncle” Gembul (Piet Pagau), has to navigate the tension between surviving in and pushing back against traditional notions of gender. Indeed, contrary to what its title might imply, Vengeance Is Mine’s thematic and narrative interests go beyond the remit of traditional genre filmmaking: whereas those works mainly revolve around aggression and the lust for violence, Edwin, in a conversation at the Locarno Film Festival, is careful to stress the importance of “banal desires” like passion or love that are just as human. No wonder, then, that Vengeance Is Mine is, first and foremost, a love story: as they tussle in extended hand-to-hand combat, Ajo Kawir and the equally skilled fighter Iteung (Ladya Cheryl) fall for each other, aggressive competition being both a toxic way of life and a site of profound emotional connection to them. As a part of his genre-subverting approach, Edwin mines this central relationship both for stylishly choreographed martial arts action and playfully off-beat comedic digressions, for heightened moments of declarative romance and empathetic explorations of the longing, the passion, and the jealous anger that are part and parcel of romantic love. The apparent disharmony of Ajo and Iteung’s soft, amorous musings and the ruthless beatings they engage in is mirrored in the thoughtful deployment of jarring soundscapes and increasingly dynamic, messy editing, courtesy of sound designer Akritchalerm Kalayanamitr and editor Lee Chatametikool, two frequent Apichatpong Weerasethakul collaborators, most recently on 2021’s Memoria.
Regular Kiyoshi Kurosawa cinematographer Akiko Ashizawa, meanwhile, adds a visual flourish to this tonal versatility: shooting on film, her work on Vengeance Is Mine seems as aesthetically indebted to the evocative shadows and deep colors of Wong Kar-wai’s great romances as it is to the slightly grainy textures and rapid camera movements of the 1970s genre fare Edwin takes his cues from. By combining these visual languages, these tried and tested techniques of vastly different genres, Ashizawa not only creates a rich and captivating portrait of a decisive period in recent Indonesian history; she underscores the film’s fundamental revisionist project of critically engaging with the conventions and formats of the past and remixing them into something truly contemporary.
ALAN MATTLI: It was very interesting to come out of the press screening of your film and hear the different ideas flying around. The European critics were drawing comparisons between Vengeance Is Mine, All Others Pay Cash and Italian giallo films, while a critic from Vietnam recognized a lot of aspects from the masala films from the 1970s and 1980s in there. How does your movie, which mixes martial arts action with romance and comedy, deal with and reflect on the question of genre?
EDWIN: I think formats are very important for popular culture, not just cinema but also popular music and even sports. I think they are very important to my home country, to Indonesia as well, where genre films have created some kind of cultural DNA. And unfortunately, popular entertainment cinema always involves violence, so we are very used to the idea of the normalization of violence—I guess also because we were ruled by a military-backed president for 32 years, by Suharto. So this cultural format, those celebrated B movies I watched as a kid, those silly action and revenge movies that portray a lot of machismo, felt like reality. It was just very normal to see a man behaving like that. Under the Suharto dictatorship, it just made sense—we respected this man who was celebrating machismo and violence during this period.
ANNA BABOS: Violence and aggression are already there in the title of your film, Vengeance Is Mine, All Others Pay Cash—though I gather the original Indonesian title, Seperti Dendam, Rindu Harus Dibayar Tuntas more accurately translates to, “Like Revenge, Longing Must Be Paid in Full.” The English title you settled on sounds very cool, very…
BABOS: Macho, yes. But the original Indonesian title maybe has a little more poetry in it, a bit more sensitivity. And the film is very much like this: it’s both very aggressive and very sensitive.
EDWIN: That’s exactly what interested me from the very beginning, when I first saw the book’s original title. It’s like you say: it has this poetic quality, but at the same time, it’s full of anger. We can go back to the context of violence and machismo, which are very embedded in our culture. It raises a lot of questions for me. Can I make a film that redefines the impact of popular culture whilst also criticizing the idea of machismo? And if so, how? Revenge is also quite human. It’s just a feeling, but it depends on how you act on it. It’s quite normal for human beings to feel anger, like it is for them to feel longing. Both are feelings that need to be expressed somehow. Revenge as well.
MATTLI: As you say, violence is often associated with masculinity, particularly in genre films. In your movie, however, you have Iteung, who is this strong female character, who, like the male protagonist, is a very accomplished fighter herself. Do you see this as a way of responding or talking back to this macho culture?
EDWIN: We love to see strong women characters in movies, and I think it also redefines the form of the genre. It’s going to be different if you have a more critical standpoint regarding the humanity of female characters in action movies. The portrayal has to be different from the films that were made during the 1980s. But I’m more focused on wanting to see female characters that are more than plain black and white, more than plainly heroic. I want to see human characters. Yes, I want to have a strong female character, but I don't want her to be too simple, too much of a caricature.
BABOS: Iteung is played by Ladya Cheryl, a frequent collaborator of yours. How did she contribute to the character?
EDWIN: She can definitely channel Iteung’s personality very easily. She also has this kind of aggressiveness that you can sense from Iteung, which is interesting because I think most men and women in my and Ladya’s generation suppress our feelings. Thoughts on sexuality, for instance, are not issues to discuss. So the expression is somehow always awkward, and aggression and violence are the simplest way to express things. You can even create art through aggression. Ladya definitely understands that kind of expression of suppressed feelings that you see from Iteung. She also had fun with all those action scenes. She loves old B movies.
BABOS: How did you choreograph the action scenes?
EDWIN: We had a small office that looked like a house. We cleaned out everything until it was empty. Then we found our team of choreographers, most of them with a background in martial arts, working as stunt actors. They stayed there for two months with the actors of Ajo Kawir [Marthino Lio], Iteung [Ladya Cheryl], and Budi [Reza Rahadian]. They came in every day, trying to do this and that. There were a lot of experiments on how we choreographed certain scenes. I myself hadn’t done any complicated action scenes before, so I also needed time to explore the form of action choreography.I just want to highlight that the intention of the action in this movie was not only focused on the technicality. It had to be like dance choreography. Yes, it’s violence, but there is the same quality of sensitive movement as you have in dancing.
BABOS: How much freedom did you have during shooting? Did you improvise certain things?
EDWIN: We couldn’t really improvise with the action, but we had more space with the drama. But I spent a lot of time preparing for this movie. I had twelve drafts of the script, which I modified every time I had revised something with the actors or something had changed during location scouting. There weren’t many adjustments when we shot the movie. My first feature film had a different process—very fluid, much more spontaneity. This one, I would say, was more fixed.
MATTLI: You hinted at the historical background of the movie, which is set in 1980s Indonesia under Suharto. Could you talk a little more about the political dimension of this backdrop? What, if anything, might be lost on someone who is not familiar with Indonesian history and politics when the film is distributed internationally?
EDWIN: Hmm. Yeah. [Pauses.] If you remember the character of Uncle Gembul, I think that’s the character who has all those manifestations of the political backdrop. The relationship between him and Iwan Angsa might not be easy for someone from outside of Indonesian culture. It’s something that might also not be easy for us Indonesians either.
Uncle Gembul comes from a military background. He’s a general, he’s powerful. He made friends with Iwan Angsa. When they were very young, they were in a group of rebels who fought for independence [from the Netherlands]. There aren’t many people who understand that the history of the military in Indonesia is rooted in that culture. They’re rebels; it matters who’s more potent. They didn’t go to military school to get into this position. After independence, these rebels robbed the houses of the Dutch, and they became heroes because they made the Dutch leave, by robbing and killing them. So most of the very first military generals came from that background. Of course, after that, they did go to military school, they got the education. But they had this background, this basis that was very dark.
The character of Iwan Angsa was the same. But while Gembul went to the military and became very powerful in the government, Iwan Angsa stayed in his lower position. In the film, there’s a discussion between the kids about mystery killers. That’s what was happening in the 1980s: they were created by the Suharto government. The government created fear amongst the people. They killed small crooks and displayed them in public, which was supposed to create a state of fear, to show that “we are powerful, we want to control you”—because in the 1980s, there were already some protests, the seed of the protests against the regime. So they needed to show power, by killing some random people. And it’s easier to kill groups nobody cares about. Maybe that part is not easy to get, or it can be missed.
MATTLI: It’s also a nice illustration of what genre cinema is capable of, that it has these undercurrents that might not be immediately recognizable, but then, once you dig in, read up on the context, it becomes actually very trenchant commentary.
EDWIN: I do hope that the audience outside of Indonesia, but also in Indonesia, can do some more digging. With Gembul and Iwan Angsa, I tried to give a hint that the movie may be related to a political context.
BABOS: What kinds of challenges were you confronted with during the adaptation of the book?
EDWIN: I worked with Eka [Kurniawan], the author of the book. He wrote the first two drafts of the script. We were both aware that the movie was going to be different, so we had to think what was best for the movie, what we could add to the original book. When people have read the book, what could we do to add to the experience?In the book, everything is told from the point of view of the penis; the penis can speak. He’s a character. In the film, he’s not. It’s more focused on Ajo Kawir and Iteung, so we put the trauma and the relationship first. That’s the main difference. But of course, in the book, there are more characters, there are more explanations on the background characters. That’s it though, the rest is the same.