‘Vengeance Is Mine, All Others Pay Cash’ Review: Retro ’80s Action Homage Uses Sexual impotence as Social Critique

Festival regular Edwin delivers a withering critique of masculinity with the enjoyably gritty if over-obvious “Vengeance Is Mine, All Others Pay Cash.” Usually when films deal with impotence, they tend to be coy or jokey, but there’s no beating around the bush here: Erectile dysfunction is the theme, with all the implications of disempowerment and emasculation the issue implies.

As metaphor, impotence is used to make a broader critique of a toxic culture that puts so much emphasis on virility, but that just gives the filmmaker license to make garish use of plot-heavy twists and turns boasting plenty of decently choreographed fight sequences that must have immediately appealed to Fatih Akin, whose Bombero Int’l came onboard as co-producer. Given the level of stylized violence together with playful genre elements as well as a topic sure to get a rise out of viewers, it’s not hard to imagine festival audiences having fun.

Everyone in the West Javan district where Ajo Kawir (Marthino Lio) lives knows that he’s unable to perform sexually, so he transforms his humiliation into cartoonish acts of machismo to “prove” he’s man enough for everything else. He’s a cheap hired thug sent to rough up a local big shot, but he doesn’t reckon on the guy’s female bodyguard Iteung (Ladya Cheryl, in her third feature with Edwin). Ajo’s need to fight clearly comes from his sexual impotence, but the enjoyment Iteung gets from beating people up has little psychological motivation unless the assumption is that women have to be tough to make it in this world.

As the two duke it out in a series of battles, they fall in love. He’s shy about the relationship given his condition, but she knows about it (like everyone else) and still wants him for her husband. Another thug named Budi (Reza Rahadian) also has a crush on Iteung and sets out to sabotage Ajo as well as humiliate him by setting up a business selling leech oil with claims it cures limpness. Iteung’s needs eventually lead her astray with Budi, and she becomes pregnant, causing Ajo to leave in a fury, hitting the road and taking to drink while lashing out at everyone around him.

Piecemeal flashbacks seek to explain the cause of Ajo’s dysfunction: When younger, he was forced to watch and participate in the brutal rape of a woman by two cops, and the trauma made him flaccid for life. Pinpointing the source of his impotence to a violent act against a woman gives “Vengeance” the imprimatur of a pro-feminist tract, though Ajo’s aggression as an adult isn’t limited to his own gender. Perhaps the idea is he’s only willing to kick a woman’s ass if she’s able to fight back.

Edwin and co-writer Eka Kurniawan, whose novel this is based on, cram rather too many meandering plot lines, especially one involving latecomer Jelita (Ratu Felisha), whose enigmatic appearance, in every sense, fails to satisfy. Some of the problems come down to editing, especially with regard to the flashback, but it’s also clear the film tries too hard to balance winking 1980s-style brash action sequences with a genuine critique on the performance of masculinity. Indonesian audiences will also pick up on veiled criticism of former Indonesian president Suharto and his consolidation of power during the mid- to late ’80s, when the film is set.

Musical choices cover a range of styles and are often used in ways that deliberately clash with the action on screen, creating an interesting dissonance. Tongue-in-cheek animated painted signs on the backs of trucks further the fun, adding to the sense of a film not quite achieving its ambition of combining tough societal commentary with an arguably misjudged silliness.