Vengeance Is Mine, All Others Pay Cash

Every year, every film festival, there’s a certain number of films that we preface with the reminder: film festivals are a time to take chances. I do truly believe that. Of course everyone wants to see the blockbuster (Dune), and the Oscar front-runner (The Power of the Dog), and whatever Olivia Colman’s up to (Mothering Sunday), but you can’t – or at least you shouldn’t – attend a film festival and not see something that’s a little different, a little experimental, a little out of your comfort zone.

For the title alone, I was willing to take a risk; for a movie described as an offbeat martial-arts romance, I couldn’t resist.

There are two things you’ll need to know about Ajo Kawir (Marthino Lio). The first is that he’s impotent. You may as well hear it from me. Everybody knows. The whole village knows! They’ve also got their theories as to how it happened, and what rituals and superstitions might cure it. So far, no luck. Secondly, Ajo is a brawler, a fighter for hire. One day while on a job, he encounters the bodyguard of his current target. Iteung (Ladya Cheryl) is more beautiful and more female than his usual opponents – and more formidable. Their no-frills but nevertheless robust fight ends, inevitably, in love.

Most love stories between a street fighter and a mafia bodyguard would go straight to happily ever after, but not this one. There’s the problem of Ajo’s impotence, naturally. Ajo is well-versed in alternative routes to satisfaction, but apparently that only goes so far, and pretty soon both Iteung’s lust and Ajo’s shame are going to suffer a terrible collision. If that’s not enough, Ajo unadvisedly drags his feet in assassinating a gangster, and you better believe that’s going to come back to bite him in the ass. Then there’s some other stuff about someone stalking Iteung, and a ghost keeps popping up – well, that’s where I lost the plot, to be honest. But even completely stymied by the story, I was committed to its ridiculousness, to its weirdly sweet romance, to its retro vibe and ode to exploitation. It’s a grab bag of genres that don’t make much sense together, nor do they try very hard to. Director Edwin is comfortable making his audience uncomfortable, but what he makes is so ballsy and weird and entertaining, you can’t help but give the guy a pass.

Vengeance is Mine, All Others Pay Cash (Seperti Dendam, Rindu Harus Dibayar Tuntas) is an official selection of the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival.

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