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Edwin has a knack for a catchy title.
The first short from the Indonesian auteur, who goes by the singular moniker, was Kara, the Daughter of a Tree. It premiered in Cannes’ Director’s Fortnight section in 2005. Edwin’s debut feature was called Blind Pig Who Wants to Fly, a Fipresci international film critics’ award winner in Rotterdam in 2009. His follow-up was Postcards From the Zoo, a Berlin competition entry in 2012.
But, title-wise, Edwin has outdone himself. His latest feature, which premieres on Sunday at the Locarno Film Festival in its Concorso Internazionale sidebar bears the straight-outta-B-movie rubric: Vengeance Is Mine. All Others Pay Cash.
Edwin adapted the film from a novel by Booker Prize-nominated writer Eka Kurniawan, a man dubbed “the Quentin Tarantino of Indonesian literature” for his gleeful mix of pulp fiction and stylized violence undercut by surreal touches. (In Kurniawan’s original novel, a scene of a particularly brutal beating is narrated by a disinterested lizard watching the events from the ceiling). Kurniawan and Edwin co-wrote the film’s screenplay. The Match Factory is handling international sales.
As its lurid title suggests, Vengeance Is Mine is an homage to revenge movies, particularly the violent action schlock which was widely popular in Indonesia in the 1980s and 90s, when the film’s action is set.
Marthino Lio plays Ajo Kawir, a street thug and sometimes assassin whose taste for extreme violence is a cover for his “shameful” secret: he is impotent.
For anyone growing up in “the very patriarchal, machismo world” of Indonesia at the time, says Edwin, impotence “was a very familiar word [it] was a boogie man scarier than cancer, HIV, or all other ghouls. Violence towards women, or all other kinds of violence [was thought of] as somewhat excusable when you knew the man was frustrated by his “incapacity”.”
Ajo finally meets his match in the form of the fearsome, beautiful bodyguard Iteung (Ladya Cheryl). They fight it out, and both end up bruised, battered and head over heels in love. But can Ajo be a “real man” to Iteung if he can’t get it up?
Ahead of the film’s Locarno premiere, Edwin spoke to The Hollywood Reporter‘s European Bureau Chief Scott Roxborough about sexual taboos, why dictatorships love violent movies, and how B action movie vet Cynthia Rothrock became a superstar in Indonesia.
This film is based on Eka Kurniawan’s novel. What was it about his story that appealed to you?
First, it was the title. I didn’t know anything about the book. I’d heard a lot in the news that this author is one of the most promising and celebrated authors in Indonesia after he was nominated for the Man Booker Prize for his previous book [Man Tiger]. So I picked up his newest book: Vengeance Is Mine. All Others Pay Cash. From the first page, I was hooked because he has a very visceral, very inviting way of telling a story. Usually, I’m a slow reader but this felt like reading a popular comic book. I realized that he has put in his story all the aspects of films and books and comics, all the popular culture, and mixed them up in this book perfectly, but not in a romanticized way. So although it is set in the 1980s and ’90s, it feels very contemporary, it feels very new. That was intriguing for me.
Your film seems directly inspired by action movies of the time.
The film and the book are like an homage to our popular culture in the ’80s and ’90s when these action movies from America and Hong Kong, these martial arts movies, and the Indonesian horror movies are in their prime. I guess those are my childhood memories. I love cinema from watching the kind of movies. Now that I’m grown up, I wonder why I liked them. I realize that these genres, these action movies in the ’90s, are mostly about revenge, revenge through violence. About this idea of total justice.
It’s a very black-and-white view of justice and I think that is a very Indonesian thing. We learned to value justice by violence, by revenge. But why we love that kind of stuff has always been a mystery for me. And so with this film, I’m investigating that, the violence at the heart of our popular culture.
Actually, it’s not difficult to understand that in the ’80s and ’90s, it was the peak of the Suharto military regime, which glorified masculine and machismo values. That’s why all those action movies are celebrated in our pop culture. The violence was embedded in Indonesian culture during that period. That period and the ideas from that period are still very present and still very powerful in Indonesia today. So this is a very current film. It’s not nostalgic at all.
How relevant is it that your “action hero” uses violence as a way to distract attention from his sexual impotence?
I’m always questioning where is the place for sensitive men, for sensitive humans, in this macho world, in this Indonesian machismo-celebrating world? I think it is difficult for us to talk about sensitivity. So it was important to have this character in the film, Ajo Kawir played by Marthino Lio, representing that. How this sensitive human, this beautiful flower, can only express himself through violence. That’s the only way he can seem to fit into this chaotic machismo world.
So you see him as a sensitive man who actually just wants to live a normal life but is drawn into the violence because that’s expected of him?
Yes, exactly. He’s struggling because he doesn’t know how to express his sensitivity. He can only express anything with violence as compensation in order to be seen as a man, as a macho man. And that’s quite sad that in a society that is very, very patriarchal, it’s not easy to see how sensitivity can grow in that system.
The female character, Iteung, played by Ladya Cheryl, is not a figure you’d typically see in action or martial arts films of the time: a powerful, and also incredibly violent, female figure.
Yeah, I think it’s a new perspective. I don’t know if it’s ever happened before, but it’s not common to see female characters like this in Indonesian or Asian popular movies of this kind. What I’m interested in is how the vengeance in the story is transferred. Ajo Kawir was the victim at the beginning, but then his vengeance is transferred onto Iteung, who acts out his revenge for him.
Did you have any direct inspiration for the role?
Well, not any particular film but there is this American movie star, well I don’t know how popular she is in America but she’s very popular in Indonesia because she did a lot of action films in Indonesia: Cynthia Rothrock (China O’Brien, Tiger Claws, Lady Dragon). She was imported from America and did several popular action movies in Indonesia. She’s super famous here.
This movie subverts the macho action genre but it’s also a loving tribute to those ’80s B-movies that you grew up on. What do you think was the appeal of them for your childhood self?
I think it’s the revenge aspect. I love revenge films. When I was a kid, I think it had something to do with being able to celebrate and justify violence that would otherwise be unacceptable. The violence in these movies is justified because it’s fighting a greater injustice. But it’s very ironic because violence, the idea of achieving justice through violence, has become completely normalized. We were conditioned to think you pay an eye for an eye.
Both the main characters in the film have been traumatized as children. Is this also a metaphor for the traumatization of Indonesia under the Suharto dictatorship?
Yeah, definitely. The problem is Indonesia, as a democracy, is still very young. When Suharto fell, it was in 1998, so just 20 odd years ago. That’s not that long. We are still learning a lot about how to express our idea of democracy after the very long Suharto regime. When there were a lot of things we weren’t allowed to criticize. We had to just follow the rules of this very militaristic culture. Then, suddenly, there was this idea of democracy in 1998.
Expressing our ideas of democracy is still very new. And the concept of violence and vengeance is still, subconsciously, very deep in our culture. It’s not easy to to to to really get rid of. There’s a lot of laws that still need to be criticized and to be changed. We have to be very careful not to slip back into the romantic idea of violence and revenge.
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