Vengeance Is Mine All Others Pay Cash

Vengeance is Mine, All Others Pay Cash (2021) 

Vengeance is Mine, All Others Pay Cash (Seperti dendam, rundi harus dibayar tuntas) first published by Little White Lies

“Only a man who can’t get it up can face death without fear.” 

This line comes from near the beginning of Vengeance is Mine, All Others Pay Cash, just after we have seen the film’s young hero Ajo Kawir (Marthino Lio) win a dangerous game of chicken on his moped. A long way, both chronologically and geographically, from the amped-up hyperreality of Fast and Furious, this tournament takes place on a backroad of Bojongsoang district in West Java, Indonesia, in 1989, and is presented with a dusty naturalism – and yet those opening words are delivered by the (impossibly animated) figure of a boy painted on the rear of a truck, introducing an element of magical realism that will never quite go away again. For though Edwin’s film, which he adapted with Eka Kurniawan from Kurniawan’s best-selling 2014 novel of the same name, charts a rocky relationship in the final decade of Suharto’s dictatorial presidency, it also features martial arts sequences, and even a ghost (Ratu Felisha).

Ajo is both impotent, and an angry young man, always looking fearlessly for his next fight. Even his romance with Iteung (Ladya Cheryl) is rooted in violence. For in order to get to a murderous gangster whom he has indignantly decided to target, the ever raging Ajo must first defeat the gangster’s hired bodyguard Iteung, making the vicious physical fight that ensues also their unconventional meet-cute. Both emerge injured from this first encounter, but you can see the sparks already beginning to fly between them when Iteung offers to share her Chinese medicine with Ajo, in a gesture of healing which is the film’s principal topic. Both these characters are products of horrific childhood experiences and of their broader sociopolitical environment, and their parallel journeys – as husband and wife, as vengeful killers and as jailbirds – are of a decidedly therapeutic bent, tracking a couple’s and a nation’s partial, imperfect emergence from the brutish patriarchy of the Suharto years. 

Like Justin Kerrigan’s Human Traffic (1999) – though in a very different genre – Vengeance is Mine, All Others Pay Cash concerns itself with a protagonist whose impotence reflects broader ambient issues, and follows him on a path to acceptance and maybe even to the return of his mojo. From beginning to end, the film is disarmingly upfront about Ajo’s condition, while gradually revealing both its traumatic cause, and a symmetrical trauma that has largely put Iteung off Ajo’s more ithyphallic peers. The visuals here are more restrained than the dialogue, and amid all the talk and acts of sex, there is no nudity – but one sequence showing giant penile snails which spit out water from their restaurant display tanks is positively obscene in its graphic representation of what Ajo is unable to accomplish. 

If Ajo and Iteung’s misadventures – sometimes together, sometimes apart – are rites of passage, the road is bumpy, and there is no easy endpoint, as they keep rolling onto – and reenacting – circuitous routes of abuse and vengeance. Here, love’s messy tussle is harder than it looks.

Strap: Edwin’s saga of action and impotence chronicles a violent, traumatised romance in the late Suharto period

Anton Bitel