In the time-honored tradition of Netflix underpromoting their film festival acquisitions in favor of front-paging their in-house Television Fad of The Week #content, we now have Vengeance is Mine, All Others Pay Cash — which premiered to positive reviews at last year’s TIFF & Locarno before being quietly dumped onto the global streaming platform this April. I understand the difficulty in marketing this low-budget Indonesian curio; it is incredibly elusive in its genre & tone. Vengeance is Mine is a sentimental indie romcom dressed up in the closed fists & stiff kicks of a retro martial arts bone-cruncher. It mixes the understated, quietly morbid humor of a Kaurismäki film with the full-throttle fight choreography of vintage Hong Kong action schlock and the slowly simmering romance of a 90s festival-circuit slacker pic, topping it all off with a matter-of-fact ghost story & flashes of political satire. In order to properly promote their product, Netflix would have to first be able to define what that product is, which is an exceedingly difficult task in this instance. Still, it would have been worth it for them to give it a shot; they bought a very good movie, even if it’s a puzzling one.
In Vengeance is Mine, a small town fists-for-hire mercenary (Marthino Lio) starts as many bare-knuckled brawls as he can to broadcast & reinforce his masculinity, as it’s an open secret he’s been sexually impotent his entire adult life. He meets his match in an adorable bodyguard (Ladya Cheryl), who beats him into submission and wins his bruised heart in the process. It’s cute to watch them flirt through traded blows, sweetly smiling while kicking each other’s teeth in. A years-spanning romance develops between the two lonely brutes, complicated of course by their inability to copulate in a traditional sense. The film fully sidesteps the potential machismo of its street-brawl backdrop by building its central romance around male impotence & female sexual pleasure. Ex-lovers, corrupt politicians, and meddling ghosts keep the story novel & unpredictable, even as it feels like not much is happening from scene to scene. Director Edwin also underlines his female lead’s ties to the Cynthia Rothrock era of martial arts cinema by dialing the clock back to a late-80s setting—complete with windbreakers, dirt bikes, and rat tails—affording it a vintage cool on top of all its messy modern melodrama.
On the one hand, it’s wonderful that a movie this strange & low-key is available to a global audience on a platform as mainstream as Netflix. It’s not enough for modern indie movies to be accessible, though. They need to be marketed into existence, especially if they’re going to populate on streamers months after their initial festival buzz fades. Vengeance is Mine, All Others Pay Cash might appear to be an especially difficult product to market but, I dunno, Drive My Car was a 3-hour drama about rehearsals for a staging of Chekov’s Uncle Vanya, and Janus Films managed to draw a lot of eyes to the screen for that one after it premiered at Cannes. Netflix apparently does not care about promoting their own festival acquisitions unless they have potential Oscar Buzz™, which this bitter martial arts romcom very much does not. I’m starting to wonder why they bother buying low-budget festival movies in the first place, even though I am enjoying the benefits.