Indonesian film director Edwin, a festival darling whose films have been the trump card for Berlinale and Rotterdam, returns to the circuit with a new gem. “Vengeance Is Mine, All Others Pay Cash,” which just had its world premiere in Locarno’s International Competition, is a genre-bending portrayal of an angry impotent young man stuck in the middle of the macho Indonesian Eighties.
As happened with many productions last year, the pandemic affected the film, which had to stop the shooting due to the lockdown. Lee Chatametikool, the film’s editor and an Apichatpong Weerasethakul regular, did all the editing online. “We had fun, even if the situation wasn’t generous in any way,” Edwin says.
Ajo Kawir (Marthino Lio) and Iteung (Ladya Cheryl), the lovebirds, are doing all sorts of odd jobs to survive their precarious existence. And on the way, a lot of combat happens. When fighting is not business, it’s self-made therapy; she has to find a place for herself in this sleazy world of men, while he’s burning with the frustration of being impotent.
“We do not talk about sexuality in our everyday life. Part of our culture is heavily influenced by machismo, to the point that men still have problems with biological impotency,” Edwin says. “And it’s women who become the victims of men’s fear of not being valid.”
Encompassing scenes of choreographed B-movie action and emotional melodrama, the film is an adaptation of Eka Kurniawan’s novel of the same title, who also worked as a screenwriter alongside Edwin. It was the zeitgeist he tried to capture, Edwin explains. “Some kind of combination between all I could remember from the cinema of those times. Not some films in particular, because I didn’t want to get trapped in nostalgia.” A lot of it came from the original text. “The book is clearly importing or even stealing the spirit of popular culture. Not only the movies, also the slang, the music, the attitude, it’s very, very kitsch. And the way the book describes the fighting scenes – it was like reading a cheap comic book from when I was a kid.”
Pop culture under the authoritarian New Order was loud, violent, and macho. “Vengeance…” is a lucid, anti-nostalgic showcase of wild Betamax cinephilia. “In ’98 there were big changes in terms of the political and cultural situation. The Suharto dictatorship went down after 32 years of ruling the country. At that moment, a new generation of filmmakers was coming from the Jakarta Institute for the Arts. We started to make films without really following the traditions from old filmmakers.”
By taking the means of production and new technology into their own hands, and finding new ways of thinking about Indonesian popular culture, these new films began to take other, unrestrictive directions, urban stories, and dramas presenting a critical recollection of the country’s recent memory.
As a child of the Eighties himself, Edwin wishes to revisit his past, but not to return to it: “At some point, I started questioning my fascination with violence that these entertaining movies were cultivating. Machismo is something the powerful want to indoctrinate the people with. It makes sense – why do we laugh at these revenge films? Because subconsciously we care about injustice. But why all this violence? Why can’t we solve the problems peacefully? I feel the culture of machismo needs to be addressed quickly – everywhere, not just in Indonesia, because it kills a lot of sensitivity. I’d like to ask filmmakers in Indonesia to be aware together. Nowadays it feels easier to make films thanks to technology. Can we use them to say something about the current situation?”
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