Notes: On watching “Vengeance Is Mine, All Others Pay Cash” in New York City

By Teta

Action movies were a staple of my childhood. Violence on screen was fine in my household, but whenever a kissing or mild sex scene happened, a pair of hands were sure to shoot out and shroud my eyes from the horrors of human sexuality.

I would later learn that some of the best action movies are never just about the gunfights, hand-to-hand duels or multilayered schemes, and that those romantic scenes were crucial to a protagonist’s journey, that love can fan or douse the flames that drive a story. It was those action movies that could string together romance, family drama, world-building, history-making and horror all at once that I wanted to watch.

“Vengeance Is Mine, All Others Pay Cash” [“Seperti Dendam, Rindu Harus Dibayar Tuntas”] (2021, dir. Edwin) is that lush tapestry of ’80s/’90s action flick homage, hero’s journey, sweeping romcom, road trip discovery and supernatural mystery that I basked in. I was so eager to watch it for the first time that I drove four hours up to New York City to catch the March 26 screening of it at the Museum of the Moving Image. (It’s now available to stream worldwide on Netflix, and it definitely holds up on rewatches!)

We got to meet Indonesian actress Ladya Cheryl (center), who played Iteung, after the screening!
Ladya Cheryl gave a short speech before the start of the movie.

The movie adapts an Eka Kurniawan novel by the same name and follows its basic premise: Ajo Kawir is a hot-headed young man that fights a lot to make up for his literal impotence. He’s even more torn up about it when he meets the love of his life, the expert fighter Iteung.

Film adaptations usually stand alone from their book inspirations for me, but in this case, I strongly preferred the movie over the original novel. Before I launch into film vs. book comparisons, let me take this moment to highlight what a fantastic film this is on its own. Ladya Cheryl as the Last Boss-level fighter Iteung brought so much depth and charm to the character, and Marthino Lio as Ajo Kawir was magnetic. Every shot felt so immersive and sensuous; it was shot on 16mm film with Japanese cinematographer Akiko Ashizawa. The chemistry between not just the main leads but with each supporting character was so natural and effective — it felt like a lived-in community, it felt like built-up history and connections.

(From this point, I’ll get into spoilers, so if you haven’t watched the movie or read the book yet, you might want to jump off and return to this. Also, content warning for rape, more sexual violence, graphic physical violence and mutilation.)

English translation: The wait is over to watch Edwin’s film adaptation of Eka Kurniawan’s novel. “Vengeance Is Mine, All Others Pay Cash” is now streaming on Netflix.

Now, for the comparisons. I first read “Vengeance Is Mine” (translated from Indonesian to English by Annie Tucker) four years ago to much apprehension. At that point, I had read Eka Kurniawan’s two other books available in English — “Beauty Is a Wound” and “Man Tiger” — and I had issues with the depiction of sexual violence against women in both works. I didn’t like what I felt was a lingering, gratuitous gaze during the acts of violence; I didn’t like the over-descriptions. They were very hard to read, and I felt no catharsis nor added clarity at the conclusion of each book. So when I first started “Vengeance Is Mine,” I was wary that it would be much of the same. Here’s my initial review from 2018:

“Vengeance” has a very cinematic feel to it, with jumping narratives and timelines and lots of pulp-y, action movie-like fighting, even a truck-chasing scene. But the main premise of the book is rooted in sexual violence: the protagonist, Ajo Kawir, becomes impotent after witnessing a horrific act of sexual violence. Ajo Kawir is probably the most sympathetic of Kurniawan’s characters, but it’s kind of a low bar. And sure, when witnessing sexual violence, he’s rightfully horrified, but the choices that Kurniawan makes to (1) depict in detail the acts of sexual violence and (2) inflict unending trauma onto the women in his stories make it difficult to read his works. And after reading three of Kurniawan’s books, it seems to me that his use of sexual violence is done with the gaze of a voyeur and for the advancement of a male character. There’s no care for the women, no sympathy, and the graphic depictions are truly painful.

So, I did have some reservations going into the movie screening, but the movie for me does a much better, more careful job of depicting trauma without callously replicating it. Director Edwin adapted the screenplay with Eka Kurniawan, and that turned out to be a dream team because not only did the pacing and story flow feel tight and dynamic, there were key changes that helped me understand and appreciate the characters way better.

“Vengeance Is Mine, All Others Pay Cash” won the top prize at the 74th Locarno Film Festival in Switzerland.
  • I want to stress again how fantastic Ladya Cheryl is as Iteung. She brought an interiority to the character that I felt had been missing from the book. Ladya Cheryl is so impactful in the quiet moments and the frenetic fights; it really felt like an embodied performance. She was the star of the movie for me.
  • The movie handles Ajo Kawir’s trauma — the reason for his impotence — without depicting it in detail like in the book, yet it’s still able to convey the brutal violence and horror of it all.
  • Similarly, with Iteung’s trauma, rather than see her brutalization at the hands of her teacher — which the book grossly details — the film depicts her trauma response instead by slightly changing Budi Baik’s character (played with Nice Guy™ grotesqueness by Reza Rahadian). In the book, Budi Baik doesn’t know about Iteung’s trauma, but in the movie, he knows it intimately and uses it against Iteung to coerce her into having sex with him. It adds another dimension of evil to his character, the sniveling, entitled so-called “good guy.”
  • Indonesian screen legend Christine Hakim makes a cameo as a sex worker trying to help Ajo Kawir with his impotence. Thankfully, in the movie, that scene is with him as an adult, but in the book, he’s still a kid as Iwan Angsa, his best friend’s dad, tries to help him immediately after the traumatic event.
  • The book is a bit more straightforward with the revelation that Jelita and Rona Merah are connected. It’s slightly confusing in the movie, especially since they’re played by two different actresses.

Let me stop this rant now to say Edwin’s “Vengeance Is Mine, All Others Pay Cash” is one of my favorite book-to-film adaptations. It stands alone, and it also helped me understand the source material better. There’s no such thing as too much for me: I loved the blending of genres, the shifting from real to surreal, the action, the romance, the horror. It was beautifully shot and superbly acted — one of the best movies I’ve seen in 2022.

The Museum of the Moving Image in Queens.

Every so often, I’ll make the four-hour drive to New York City to watch a recently released Indonesian movie. Maybe that movie will be available on streaming at a later date, but I always appreciate the theater-watching experience because, oftentimes, there’ll be a treat.

When I visited to watch “Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts” [“Marlina Si Pembunuh dalam Empat Babak”] (2017, dir. Mouly Surya) in 2018, the Indonesian band that worked on the soundtrack, Efek Rumah Kaca, gave a live performance after the screening. And when I saw “Buffalo Boys” (2018, dir. Mike Wiluan) a few months later for its U.S. premiere at the New York Asian Film Festival, the director was there for a post-screening Q&A.

This time, I wasn’t expecting anything more at the March 26 screening of “Vengeance Is Mine, All Others Pay Cash” at the Museum of the Moving Image. This date was added on after high demand, and the first screening on March 19 already had a special guest appearance. But, to my sheer delight, the screening I went to was also attended by Ladya Cheryl.

She gave this brief speech before the screening:

‘Vengeance Is Mine’ is a movie that I’m very blessed to be part of it. It’s very important for me, especially in my life. … Just a little short story about living in New York that probably relates to this film: I moved to New York in 2016 with very limited English, so I have to go to ESL for six months. I thought it was a talking issue, like a speaking English issue, but then I realized after a while living here that it’s me having difficulty with talking in general. This movie gave me the opportunity to express my anger, and I’m really glad that I’m a part of this movie.”

Indonesian actress Ladya Cheryl at the Museum of the Moving Image, March 26, 2022

What a joy to watch an Indonesian movie on the big screen here in the U.S. These trips up the coast are so worth it to me, and I can’t wait for my next one.