Vengeance is Mine, All Others Pay Cash: as juicy as it sounds

This Golden Leopard-winning adaptation of Eka Kurniawan’s ‘unfilmable’ novel streamlines the narrative, brings out the book’s politics, and fulfils its own ambitions magnificently.

5 August 2022

By Tony Rayns

Marthino Lio and Ladya Cheryl in Vengeance is Mine, All Others Pay Cash (2021)
Sight and Sound

Eka Kurniawan’s terrific novel about a ‘cure’ for male impotence is on the face of it unfilmable, so the first thing to say about Edwin’s film – the Golden Leopard winner in Locarno last year – is that it’s a heroic feat of transcription from one medium to another. Co-scripting with Kurniawan himself, Edwin has streamlined the narrative, assigned the action to a specific time-period (1989-1993), eliminated all the flashbacks except the most crucial one, but kept the issues of sex and violence front and centre. The book’s opening words (“Only guys who can’t get hard fight with no fear of death”) are spoken by a sympathetic adult whose role is cut back to a cameo in the adaptation; in the film, those words come from the mouth of a child painted on the back of a truck, who comes to brief, animated life to speak them after witnessing the protagonist’s reckless triumph in a motorcycle ‘chicken’ challenge.

The core of both film and book is a credible and touchingly acted-out love story – complicated, messy and full of sublimated emotions, but a love story nonetheless. Ajo Kawir (Marthino Lio, a busy film and TV star, born like Edwin himself in Surabaya) is a young-adult layabout with a hyper-aggressive streak whose inability to get an erection is known only to a few close friends. Iteung (Edwin’s favourite actress Ladya Cheryl, last seen on screen in his Postcards from the Zoo, 2012) has trained in martial arts, affects a tomboy persona and works as bodyguard for a scumbag. She trounces Ajo Kawir when he goes after her boss, and the fight sparks feelings in both of them. She charmingly romances him by phoning in dedicated record requests to a local radio station and confronts him when he fails to respond, paralysed by his impotence. They fight again – and marry soon afterwards. It emerges that both have been damaged by childhood incidents: she was molested by her teacher Mr Toto, and he was left impotent by witnessing an exceptionally brutal rape-murder. As the film goes on, both serve jail-time for murders: he for carrying out a paid hit, to which he was contracted before he met her, she for hunting down bad guys who blighted her and Ajo Kawir’s lives. But Iteung gets pregnant while Ajo Kawir is in jail, and he walks away from the marriage when he finds out; he becomes a truck driver. Fate will deal a cruel blow when Ajo Kawir and Iteung are eventually reconciled.

The book makes it clear that the story happened a while ago, but date-captions in the film place it slap in the middle of President Suharto’s ‘New Order’ regime, which was characterised by weird nationalism, rampant anti-communism, quite overt misogyny and the championing of machismo.  This makes the film’s underlying politics a touch more explicit than the book’s: it’s a tale of women (not only Iteung but also a ninja-ghost called Jelita played by Ratu Felisha) counter-attacking the men who have harmed them, and of a macho guy who finds his inner humility and sensitivity in the relative solitude of the driving seat of his truck. The spirit of the (dark) times is embodied in the motto that he paints on the tailgate of the truck (“Seperti Dendam, Rindu Harus Dibayar Tuntas”, which precisely does mean ‘Vengeance is Mine, All Others Pay Cash’, although its appearance in the film is unaccountably not subtitled in English) and the measure of Ajo Kawir’s slow-dawning inner peace is the way he gradually leaves that egotistic aggression and ruthless materialism behind. Of course, the authors see this process being as necessary today as it ever was.

Since such dazzling early shorts as A Very Slow Breakfast (2003) and Kara, Daughter of a Tree (2005), Edwin has never been shy about using non-realist, often blackly comic elements in his explorations of very real social, political and psychological problems. Vengeance is Mine can turn from backwater social realism to pulpy generic material to outright fantasy in a second, sometimes within the same shot. The film cannot depict sexual matters with the same physical frankness as the novel, but the need to sometimes keep things verbal rather than visual plays into the use of impotence as a metaphor, not least in the startling early scene (an improbable cameo for the great Christine Hakim) in which a blowsy hooker fails to fellate Ajo Kawir. The film has a clear agenda, and fulfils it magnificently.

► Vengeance is Mine, All Others Pay Cash is available to stream on Arrow.