(Trigger warning: Rape, sexual violence) It’s been a while since I walked out of an Indonesian movie with pure joy and sheer hope for the future of Indonesian cinema. Seperti Dendam, Rindu Harus Dibayar Tuntas (with its English title Vengeance is Mine, All Others Pay Cash) did just that.
I’ve been anticipating the movie since I read the novel for the first time in 2017 and when it was announced in 2018, but I remained skeptical. How can someone recreate the pulp-novel, fast-moving aesthetic of the novel while retaining Eka Kurniawan’s magical realism and scathing political critique? The answer is its cinematic parallel — the celluloid washed-out aesthetic of campy Indonesian 80s movies. And together with the aesthetic, director Edwin lays on top of it a spectre that is ever-present in that era — the looming state violence of the Soeharto administration.
The film, based on Eka Kurniawan’s novel of the same name, tells a story about Ajo Kawir, a hotshot from Bojongsoang (a village in Java) who has impotency troubles. He expresses his masculinity in other ways, including motorcycle races and picking out fights with people. In the film, he navigates a network of different odd jobs that satiates his insecurity in his masculinity, yet he falls in love with a woman he fought with: Iteung. The plot itself is very simple: it is essentially a love story. However, both Eka Kurniawan’s writing and Edwin’s filmmaking pulls out layers of the deceptively simple plot into different strands that will make us evaluate the time and place of 1980s-early 1990s Indonesia. In my screening, we saw a pre-recorded video of Edwin introducing the film, where he urges the audience to see this as an anti-nostalgia film: instead of romantizising that bygone era, we are urged to look back at it critically, and see how it informs us to our present day conditions. In Seperti Dendam, Edwin directs the focus of its audience to see past the romanticization.
The first evidence of this is in its stylistic choices. Cinematographer Akiko Ashizawa (who is a frequent collaborator of Kiyoshi Kurosawa) utilizes 16mm film to give the film a vintage look, and working together with art director Eros Eflin, brings the colors, objects, and general vibe of the Javanese countryside in the 1980s. However, this nostalgia is subverted from other elements of the film that breaks its realism and gives it its heightened aspect. The most obvious choice (that couldn’t get past subtitled translation) is the film’s choice of language. Audiences who are used to more realist, modern films depicting Indonesian rural regions are more used to language that is close to its region. For example, director Kamila Andini who has dabbled in this genre through her films Yuni and The Seen and Unseen (Sekala Niskala in its Indonesian title) incorporated Serang-Javanese and Balinese languages in both films’ scripts. However, even though Seperti Dendam is set in rural Bojongsoang and rural areas through the Pantura strip, it uses stiffy, formal Indonesian language for some of its dialogue. This is not without its purpose — it reflected the harmful anti-regional language policies that Soeharto implemented in his administration. Informal Indonesian language is always going to be regionally influenced by indigenous languages or immigrant languages such as Chinese, or Arabic, and as Soeharto led efforts to standardize Indonesian and kick out immigrant (particularly Chinese diaspora) “influences”, it leads to film and TV of its era to have this stiffy, militaristic version of the Indonesian language. The casting of Seperti Dendam, in my opinion, also adds to this veil of anti-realism. It casts larger-than-life, veteran Indonesian actors like Christine Hakim and Lukman Sardi in minor roles and casts newer extremely popular actors like Reza Rahadian, Ratu Felisha (who is often casted in horror movies like Kuntilanak and Hantu Perawan Jeruk Purut which are often considered “trashy”), and Sal Priadi (a popular indie musician in his debut acting work in this case) in supporting roles, which constantly reminds Indonesian audiences that this is a movie.
So, since stylistically this movie has divorced itself from nostalgia and realism, how does it look into the era critically? Eka Kurniawan’s source novel is already a goldmine for this content. Ajo Kawir is entrenched in this highly masculine society, where men around him talk about women “paying debts with sex” and indulge themselves in petty fights. Where he fulfilled his masculinity through his thirst for violence, he is denied the natural validation of this masculinity through his impotency. The film portrays this masculinity in a very caricaturish way. Reza Rahadian’s Budi Baik character, for example, dons a slicked-back hairstyle that he often would adjust, and starts a leech oil business he claimed could work as a men’s sexual supplement. In another case, Piet Pagau’s Paman Gembul character is this rich village figure who carries with him a pack of cigars that he’d smoke in between his fingers dressed with gemstone rings. These different forms of masculinity, in a way, reminds me of how Italian director Federico Fellini’s film Amarcord deals with masculinity. In the world of Amarcord, Fellini portrays the men in the film’s village as very horny, immature people. Fellini has said how this is a byproduct of fascism and extreme religiosity in Italian society and how it has trapped its people into some sort of perpetual adolescence, where they “remain children for eternity, leave responsibilities for others, live with the comforting sensation that there is someone who thinks for you…” I feel like Seperti Dendam also portrays this sort of perpetual adolescent masculinity among its male characters under the Soeharto administration. However, the film also doesn’t fail to potray the more harmful consequences of this kind of masculinity.
What started out Ajo Kawir’s impotence is an incident that happened early in his life. A neighbor of his became a victim of Petrus extrajudicial killings, so his wife, Rona Merah, is assigned under the care of two military officials. On the day of the 1983 solar eclipse, Ajo Kawir and his best friend Tokek is delivering food to Rona Merah’s house and decided to take a peek insider her house when these military officials arrive. Here, they discover that the military officials have been raping her in these house visits, and when they caught Ajo Kawir from peeking, they sexually assaulted him as well. The description in the novel is very hard to read through, which is why I winced when the scene started in the film. However, Edwin carefully chooses which parts to show and which not to show, not only in choosing scenes but also artistically in the scene itself — which parts allowed the audience to see Ajo Kawir’s point of view, which parts are obscured by the shadows of the solar eclipse, etc. Additionally, Iteung’s backstory of her teacher sexually assaulting her and her self-defense is only mentioned in passing, which shows Edwin’s respect to raising the issue of sexual violence without traumatizing its audience who have gone through the same (unlike other movies *cough*). It’s hard not to think about feminist scholar Julia Suryakusuma’s concept of State Ibuism in these scenes, a concept she coined about the Soeharto New Order’s conception of women as only a tool of reproduction, as solidified by Keluarga Berencana family planning programs and groups such as Dharma Wanita. In Seperti Dendam, we see Iteung trapped in this dichotomy, especially in a scene where a census officer is interrogating her family decisions, seemingly outside her consent.
Through all the criticism of masculinity and sexual violence, the ills of Seperti Dendam leads to one root of evil: state violence. The root of Ajo Kawir’s impotence stems from an incident of Soeharto-era extrajudicial killings and the military supremacy imposed to “protect our women” that is a direct result of the New Order’s dwifungsi policy, allowing the military to have the majority of power in Indonesia. Soeharto’s focus on economic growth and military supremacy is prescient on the mentality of its people, as toughness and masculinity is prioritized over collective care. While Fellini’s Amarcord attributed this emotional stuntedness of its characters to Mussolini, Seperti Dendam does the same way to Soeharto. However, what differs Seperti Dendam from Amarcord is its hopefulness. The decision to frame the story as a love story is an important message that Edwin, Eka Kurniawan & co wants to convey. From all of Ajo Kawir’s escapades, from contract killing to truck driving, he always goes back to Iteung — both of them victims of state-imposed sexual violence, Iteung doesn’t care whether or not Ajo Kawir can have sex with her. Their love transcends ubermasculinity, state violence, and sexual violence, and the final shot of the film reinforces that by focusing on the couple embracing rather than the shenanigans happening in the background, and cutting to the end credits at the right moment. Seperti Dendam‘s production gives me a lot of joy about Indonesian cinema, and its message gives me joy in knowing how love and collective care could prevail even through capitalist-driven state violence.