Vengeance is Mine, All Others Pay Cash is the latest release from Arrow Video. A 2021 Indonesian black comedy, this is the tenth feature from writer/director Edwin, a filmmaker still relatively little known in the West. As is usually the case with the Arrow imprint, this release comes with a stack of quality bonus features.
In terms of the main feature, it’s a 114-minute story about the character of Ajo Kawir (Marthino Lio). Ajo is a young man from the Javanese part of Indonesia, and lives for thrill-seeking and violence. We are introduced to him in 1989, on a motorcycle engaged in a game of chicken where two bikes drive directly at a bottle placed on the road, with the aim to be to pick it up without a collision. From there we see that he looks for fights wherever he can find them. What is made clear (though less so in the book this work is adapting) is that Ajo has been impotent all of his adult life, and this is common knowledge around the community. That he is seen to be seeking a fight every time this affliction is spoken of – or occurs to him – is reflective of the black comedy, and satire, evident in the earliest part of this film. He is almost a parody of toxic masculinity, and the cause of this is as per the stereotype: something is missing from his own perception of his manliness.
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When hired to rough up a local criminal, he happens across his adversary’s female bodyguard, Iteung (Ladya Cheryl). As they end up in a brutal, yet slightly slapstick encounter, their shared language of violence leads to love. Iteung accepts Ajo’s condition, and they marry. Knowing that her husband’s condition likely stems from an incident from his teenage years where he first witnessed, and then was caught and forced to participate in, a violent sexual assault earlier in the 1980s, Iteung seeks out another local thug, Budi (Reza Rahadian), for the names of those responsible. Led astray with Budi, Iteung falls pregnant, and Ajo’s renunciation of violence fails, leading to prison time. While the years pass, his wife continues to seek justice for him, while Ajo works on his feelings towards the situation. Finally reconciled, their happy ending is challenged by her actions in seeking redemption.
This is fine film, full of satire about the Indonesian society of the time, the role of men in that society, musings upon from where men draw their sense of self and their feelings about being a man. In broad strokes it gets at certain truths, through painting very large the connections between environment and behaviour. Rather than look for happy or unhappy endings, it seeks to demonstrate that self-worth and commitment to change are ongoing processes, which require constant renewal of commitment.
Where the film is less strong is consistency of tone. As a black comedy it was positively transcendent. It is not comfortable remaining in this territory, however, lapsing almost into the equivalent of a kitchen sink drama at times, yet having the overlay of a far-eastern action film. It is exceedingly difficult to anchor this movie to one genre, and as it moves around those genres, some work far better than others. In fact, there is even a mystical element, with one character possibly not quite of our world. It is, without question, however, very much worthy of investigation.
Bonus features run to over four and a half hours, something rare for any release of a modern film. We might expect a mixture of new and archive features when it is RoboCop, but Vengeance was touring the festival circuit only a year or so ago. This is very impressive work from Arrow. We kick off with a 23-minute conversation with Edwin shot this May. He takes us – in English – through adapting the book, the Indonesian regime of the time, the decision to shoot the film on 16mm celluloid, the choreography of the fights, music choices, and Indonesian cinema in general. This is intercut with footage from the shoot, and other filmmakers. A good start to the extras on the disc.
Next up is a 13-episode collection of behind-the-scenes vignettes, running to a total of 72-minutes. Most of this is captured in the native language, but it is an exhaustive collection of thoughts on all aspects of making this film, with contributions from all the major players. Most notable here is the level of access: this is designed with home release in mind, and never dumbs down what the people involved are doing. We really get into the head of the director in particular. He understands who Ajo is, every aspect of his body language (discussed well by the actor) and what about the book he wants to put on screen for us all. Most profound is the section ‘Between Longing and Grudge’ where he discusses the idea that when love grows in a harsh emotional climate, conflict can become endemic to that relationship.
‘The World Behind Vengeance’ is a series of thirteen interviews with cast and crew, running to around 80 minutes, including director, screenwriter Eka Kurniawan, Ladya Cheryl (a frequent collaborator with Edwin). Again, the access is commendable, though if there are criticisms, it is, first, that instead of focused interviews with, say, the director, we get several, separate snippets of him – in fact, there is more of Edwin and Eka than anyone else – feeding in to the second issue that each interview is averaging around six minutes. This leads to everything feeling rushed, though there is no fluff here; there is never the standard DVD extra issue of it just being cast and crew saying everyone is wonderful to work with. Each contribution is thoughtful and adds to our understanding of both the work and the process of making it.
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Next, we get video diaries of all 27-days of the shoot. Running to around 28-minutes, this is just a mood piece, giving us a feel for each day, with no dialogue, just music. Then we move on to eight episodes of a public readings (though ‘public’ is misleading – it is cast and crew sat together, and reading to camera and overlaid with occasional animations to illustrate) from the original source material – only of interest to those who have read the book, but at 57 minutes, it adds to the sense that this is a release being treated with care and respect. After 18 minutes of deleted scenes (none of which feel like great losses from the final product), the set is rounded off with a theatrical trailer and a stills gallery.
While the film will be received with everything from love to disdain and is, on balance, a bit of a tonal mess, this is a fine set for a film that is most certainly worth a watch: it gives a snapshot of 1980s Indonesia, gives a strong feel for concepts of masculinity at that time in that country, and blends action, pathos, comedy, and drama in a way that means there is something for most viewers, even if the disparate parts do not fully gel. The quality of the release, as a whole, overcomes this small complaint.
Vengeance is Mine, All Others Pay Cash is out now on Blu-ray from Arrow Video.