David Cuevas takes a look at ‘Vengeance is Mine, All Others Pay Cash, as part of FilmHounds’ ongoing Toronto International Film Festival coverage.

In the grand tradition of bargain-bin martial arts movies and 80’s retro-nostalgia, Edwin’s cinematic throwback throw-down Vengeance is Mine, All Others Pay Cash utilises the most out of its violent extremity and social allegory. Set in the year 1989 in Indonesia’s Bojong District, Edwin’s chronicle on the cycles of violence and retribution follows the various violent excursions and romantic escapades of street fighter Ajo Kawir; a youthful combat-man for hire with an ambiguous past. The title of the film in and of itself promises an epic of great magnitude. Designed with Kaurismäki-inspired text and sensual 16mm Kodak-endorsed cinematography, the vibrant tone compliments Edwin’s social critique on the various forms in which violence connects the everyday commoner. 

Violence takes form in different motives and situations throughout Edwin’s film. Whether its a depiction of a sexual assault, hand-to-hand combat, or even verbal harassment — aggression and blood-lust simmers in nearly every frame. It isn’t until the film’s third act where a mediator is introduced. Jelita — a physical embodiment of Ajo’s weary relationship with his soulmate and partner-in-crime Iteung — later transitions the film from messy action-homage to a tranquil reflection piece. There’s no real winners or losers found within Edwin’s film, but rather a divide between the living and the dead. Ideology, language, and patrol over the class populace are also significant weapons of interest featured throughout Vengeance is Mine, All Others Pay Cash. For example, a brief mention on the Indonesian Population Census causes a domino effect of internalised regret for Iteung and her husband Ajo. 

Still Courtesy – The Match Factory

As per the film’s aesthetic and visual homage, the aforementioned hue of its 16mm photography provides soft colours and textured action-sequences. The fights themselves border on slapstick and real brutality, where Edwin’s clever escalation towards violent realism in the film’s third act creates a fluid integration of theme and visual storytelling. The same is applied with the film’s narrative backbone. However, Edwin’s artistic choice to diverge from the traditional three-act structure dampens the film’s character arcs and moral urgency. Predominantly focused on subplots over pre-established motives and the linear timeline of events, the ramifications of this aforementioned artistic choice alienates its viewer from further emotional engagement. 

It’s a great shame too, since the thematic text is simultaneously rich with purpose and dry wit. Yet, Edwin’s commentary on aggression and blood thirst is surprisingly wholesome; a pleasant surprise for a film that features various bizarre scenes of meticulously crafted mayhem. Vengeance is Mine, All Others Pay Cash is mean, lean, and crude cinema; a vibrant portrait of absurdist aggression riddled with high-octane action scenes and playful 80’s pastiche.

Still Courtesy – The Match Factory
Vengeance is Mine, All Others Pay Cash screened at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival as part of the Contemporary World Cinema program. The film is currently seeking international distribution.

By David Cuevas

David Cuevas is a writer, reporter, and the official festivals editor (US/Canada) for FilmHounds Magazine. In his spare time, you can find him watching a bunch of movies while contemplating on his own existence.

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