As a storyteller, it’s tempting to throw everything at the wall to see what sticks. Oftentimes, the combination of items is enough to make the spectacle worth watching. Even in situations where items slide down to the floor, seeing someone make a big attempt at all is enough to spark attention. And fittingly enough, director Edwin made that big attempt with his film Vengeance Is Mine, All Others Pay Cash. Plenty of films have had a sincere romance at their center, and others have had elaborate martial arts. But almost none of them have tried this hard to combine the two styles. Whether the results are worthwhile, that’s another question…
At the heart of the story is Ajo Kawir (Marthino Lio), a man who has a constant urge to fight. Whether for money or just for fun, Ajo is there to stand his ground and come on top. Unsurprisingly, there is a reason for his unwavering anger: he has a serious case of erectile dysfunction. Along the way, he meets a bodyguard named Iteung (Ladya Cheryl) and soon gets into a brutal fight with her. But even with Iteung tiring him out, Ajo cannot help but spark a romantic relationship. For the first time in ages, he wants to do more than try to be the last man standing. Still, there lies an uncertain future, and that causes the lives of both Ajo and Iteung to change.
If Vengeance succeeds at anything, it’s in the ability to hook its audience early. First of all, Edwin makes his love for Hong Kong cinema clear in the combat scenes. The choreography borders on being balletic, and the camera only moves to emphasize the movement of the actors. Under no circumstances do the filmmakers render the pivotal fight between Ajo and Iteung into a total blur. In addition, it benefits a lot from its early 1990s setting. From minute one, the movie revels in its lo-fi, grainy aesthetic thanks to its use of 16mm film. And as for the music, it utilizes an electronic score that’s simple and moody at the same time.
I wish that the filmmakers found a way to maintain that initial momentum, though. Because past the opening act, Vengeance begins to completely fall apart at the seams. While the action element never quite goes away, it starts to shift into a dark, seedy tone that fits poorly with everything preceding it. In regards to the romance, it thankfully sustains itself for a while. After all, the middle act centers around a love triangle of sorts. Still, the transition between genres is not gradual, and it only gets worse the longer it goes on. Given that its 114-minute runtime is by no means speedy, it’s clear we are in for a tedious grind.
Edwin and Eka Kurniawan’s screenplay also has a huge issue with introducing too many details as it progresses. Based on how I described the plot, it seems like Ajo and Iteung become a couple that muscles through tough events together. And yet, there is a long stretch where the two don’t interact with each other much at all. One can argue that this section intends to expand on Ajo’s struggle with his own masculinity. However, this supposed exploration provides nothing that was not already obvious in the opening. And just to make things messier, a large portion of the final act centers around a character that may or may not be a ghost.
Like most movies that are jumbled messes, it’s hard to blame any of it on the performers. Ajo calls for someone who can seamlessly move between expressing toughness and vulnerability, and Lio fits that bill admirably. Every time he takes part in a fight, he puts a ton of anger at the forefront. And for the times he tells Iteung about his impotence, his soft, boyish looks take center stage. Interestingly enough, one can say a similar thing about Cheryl. On top of being a love interest, she also has to be a nimble, unassuming fighter. And in that regard, she arguably makes a bigger impression.
I admire the filmmakers for doing their own spin on genre conventions. Furthermore, it functions as a solid proof-of-concept for Edwin as a director of Hong Kong-inspired action movies. Still, I like to think that capitalizing on potential is one of the best things a project can accomplish. And in the case of Vengeance, that is not something that seems to be under consideration. Let us hope that Edwin takes a more careful approach to craft a story in the future. – Mark Tan
Vengeance Is Mine, All Others Pay Cash‘s release date has yet to be announced.