Friday, March 18, 2022

First Look ‘22: Vengeance is Mine, All Others Pay Cash

Viagra was patented in 1996. Unfortunately for Ajo Kawir, his chaotic story takes place in 1980s Indonesia, when the only available recourses for what ails him are dubious folk remedies. Of course, those never work, so he resorts to meatheaded feats of machismo to prove his nonexistent virility in (one-named) Edwin’s Vengeance is Mine, All Others Pay Cash, which screens at MOMI during this year’s First Look.

Everyone knows Kawir is a wet noodle, so to speak, but he fights at the drop of a hat to prove some level of manliness. He has become a thug for hire, since he might as well get paid for it. Kawir’s latest job is putting the hurt on a predatory, mobbed-up construction company owner. Unfortunately, his target just hired the rather impressive Iteung as his bodyguard. She quickly realized her boss was pondscum, but she remains duty-bound to protect him.

During their brawl, the two fighters fall head-over-heels. However, Kawir is reluctant to court her, due to his condition. As it happens, she knows his business, just like everyone else in their rough-and-tumble West Java district, but she is willing to try to make things work anyway. Of course, her thuggish ex, Budi Baik constantly tries to interfere. There is also Kawir’s final unfinished assignment hanging over his head. He was supposed to kill a reclusive retired military officer, but now he just wants to settle down with Iteung. This will become a long-term issue, because the Kurtz-like officer knew Kawir was coming from him.

Edwin’s take on Eka Kurniawan’s novel, co-adapted with the novelist, is deliberately unruly, which mostly works for it. There are probably one or two flashbacks too many, but the combination of 1970s exploitation-action aesthetic with social commentary and off-the-wall genre elements are entertainingly mashed-together. Stylistically and thematically, it bears comparison to
Leonor Will Naver Die, but it doesn’t have as much soul. Edwin also works the emasculation motif like a rented mule.

Still, Ladya Cheryl is pretty impressive as Iteung, giving a performance reportedly inspired by Cynthia Rothrock. She also has suitably weird but potent chemistry with Marthino Lio’s Kawir. He brings a strange, wiry physicality to the flawed protag. He is comparatively small of stature, but he conveys a fierce Napoleonic inferiority complex that overwhelms his minimal good sense.

is probably more accessible than Postcards from the Zoo, which was probably Edwin’s last film to reach a considerable North American festival audience. It definitely represents art cinema at its rowdiest, while still archly addressing sexual politics and Suharto-era corruption. The mid-section gets a little bogged-down, but it is definitely different in an intriguing way. Recommended for fans of Southeast Asian exploitation cinema, Vengeance is Mine, All Others Pay Cash screens tomorrow night (3/19) as part of First Look 2022.