Affliction (Teddy Soeriaatmadja, 2021)

The lives of an affluent urban family are disrupted when they receive a call from a mysterious visitor informing them that she is no longer prepared to look after the husband’s ageing mother in Teddy Soeriaatmadja’s eerie familial horror, Affliction. What posits itself as a meditation on the effects of childhood trauma turns out to be its reverse, but nevertheless contemplates contemporary filiality as the wife, blaming herself for her mother’s unexpected death by suicide, tries to repair her familial bonds by resolving to look after her estranged mother-in-law. 

The fact that Nina (Raihaanun Soeriaatmadja) has never met her mother-in-law Bunda (Tutie Kirana) despite long years of marriage to her husband Hasan (Ibnu Jamil) doesn’t seem to have felt odd to her, at least until she’s visited by a young woman who informs her that Bunda has advanced dementia and needs more comprehensive care than she can give her. Her words that it’s time a son should look after his mother further add to Nina’s sense of guilt especially as she is still grieving for her own mother whose ghost she saw slightly before she died leading her to believe that there might have been something more she could have done to save her. But when she mentions the strange encounter to her husband, he becomes angry and belligerent explaining that he has a “different” relationship with his mother than Nina had with hers and has no desire to return home or ever see her again though open to the idea of hiring a new live-in nurse. 

Nevertheless, the family to eventually make it out to the incredibly remote mountain area where Hasan grew up. To Nina there seems to be something not quite right with the house, a sense of discomfort and unease that is something more than her mother-in-law’s strange manner though bar a strange episode on their first meeting she appears to be in much better health than the young woman who visited implied. Even so, Bunda is indeed very territorial over her home, citing herself as its guardian and point blank refusing to leave it despite the worrying presence of a mysterious woman who turns up at night to stare in at them through the eerie fog gathering outside. 

Much of the drama centres on Nina and Bunda who are neither divided mother and daughter-in-law nor bonded in solidarity as women trapped by a patriarchal system that turns them into the carer and the cared for whether they like it or not. Despite having agreed to take responsibility for his mother, Hasan is incredibly ambivalent the entire time, constantly banging on about needing to get back to the city for an important interview and accusing Nina of trying to sabotage his career in pointing out that it’s going to take a little more time to sort things out with Bunda than just packing all her stuff and bundling her into the car. A child psychologist, Hasan ironically had little time for his own children and family prioritising his career prospects ahead of his role as a father, but on arrival at the cabin his manner turns towards the controlling and narcissistic, eventually taking off and leaving Nina and the kids behind while he finishes his big presentation back in the city. 

Hasan hints at a traumatic past in an opening speech insisting that a lack of parental love is responsible when a child becomes violent towards their peers but it turns out that there’s a reason beyond toxic parenting in Bunda’s raucous laughter on hearing her son’s occupation that implies both an intense love for him along with shame and resentment that he seems only to have rejected her. The house is indeed haunted as Nina had feared, though by something much darker and more human than she could ever have expected. Where a happier resolution might have been expected in Hasan suddenly realising that his narcissistic obsession with career success is ruining his family life, we find only the toxicity of familial bonds as Nina is asked to make the same choice that Bunda had but chooses a different way to save her family, easing another mother’s pain rather than allow the unresolved past to erode her relationship with her children as she tries to salvage what she can from the ruins of a seemingly perfect life.


Affliction screened as part of this year’s Five Flavours Film Festival.

Trailer (no subtitles)

Autobiography (Makbul Mubarak, 2022)

“It’s 2017. Forget about hierarchies. We are friends” a former general disingenuously reassures from the other side of the bars in Makbul Mubarak’s pointed exploration of the mediation of power in contemporary Indonesia, Autobiography. A young man with few prospects for the future is drawn towards authoritarianism by a charismatic father figure but is soon confronted by the realities of his quasi-fascist posturing only to discover that there may be no real escape from the violent world of toxic masculinity that he has unwittingly entered. 

19-year-old Kib (Kevin Ardilova) lives alone in a vast mansion, the country home of a former general, Parna (Arswendy Bening Swara), who soon arrives unexpectedly with the intention of beginning his political career. Kib is quite obviously awestruck by the figure of the General, gazing at him like some long lost saviour drunk on the sense of power he exudes from every pore. On silently collecting the old man’s laundry, he stops to stare at a large portrait of him in uniform on the bedroom wall as if somehow thinking he too could one day be a fine general wielding such infinite power for himself. 

Such a thought might in a sense be transgressive. Kib is a servant in this house and as his father Amir, currently in prison for standing up to developers who were trying to steal his land, points out, their ancestors have always served the ancestors of Purna. Purna may tell him that no one cares about class anymore, but it obviously isn’t true or these two men wouldn’t be on opposite sides of the bars, or perhaps they would but their positions might be reversed. “Be careful who you trust” Amir tries to warn his son, but it’s already too late. Kib is ambitious. There’s something that bristles in him when Purna asks after his brother and wonders how well he can be doing as a migrant worker in Singapore with thinly concealed disdain in his voice. When Purna gives Kib an army shirt and says he looks just like him when he was young, a resemblance soon noticed by others, it flatters him to think he may be the General’s son rather than that of a mere servant turned convict. 

The more time he spends with Purna the more like him becomes, walking around with a swagger, exuding power and intimidation as if he really were a soldier not just a boy in a green shirt. Tragically he doesn’t even quite understand how this power mechanism works or what it’s implications are. When he accidentally bumps into a mosque while attempting a tight three point turn, local men surround the car demanding compensation. Purna gets out and puts on a show of authority. On realising what they’re dealing with the men instantly back down. Purna has a sheepish Kib apologise, and the men apologise to him, before explaining that sorry is a powerful word that can turn rage into blessing. What Kib fails to realise is that Purna is talking not about humility but intimidation, a mistake he learns to his cost in bringing a boy only a little younger than himself to Purna to “apologise” for disrespecting him expecting the General to pull the same trick again but shocked when events take a much darker turn than he’d anticipated. 

The boy he brought in, Argus, was the son of a woman whose coffee plantation would have to go if Purna got his hydroelectric plant approved. Purna sells the plant as a way of dealing with the problems caused by inefficient infrastructure but hides the corruption at its centre, forcing families off their land for the developers’ benefit through violence and intimidation. Argus is just as angry Kib, only he’s not falling for Purna’s sales patter. Kib watches the General shift the blame onto the developers, whom he backs and back him, while claiming to be a man of the people and giving a glib speech at the funeral of a boy he killed in nothing other than pettiness. 

Yet Purna is ageing and his grip on power may not be as firm as it once was while his seeming sentimentality in his attachment to Kib as a surrogate son is also a weakness. Kib may be deciding that being a migrant worker’s not as bad as becoming the heir of a man like Purna, but once you’re in it’s hard to get out as the ambivalent closing scene implies catching him dumbstruck once again only now like a general overseeing his troops and in one way or another a prisoner of his father’s house, a servant inheriting the mansion whether he wants it or not. In many ways a tale of seduction, Autobiography paints a fairly bleak picture of the contemporary society ruled by violent masculinity and fragile authority figures who quite literally visit their sins on their sons. 


Autobiography screens 15th/16th October as part of this year’s BFI London Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Preman: Silent Fury (Randolph Zaini, 2021)

“Sooner or later, you gotta do the right thing” the girlfriend of a complicit policeman tries to explain while he rationalises that in reality there’s little difference between a policeman and a gangster and even he’s too afraid to stand up to a dictatorial local thug deeply tied to an ambitious politician. Like many recent films from Indonesia, Randolph Zaini’s Preman: Silent Fury is a tale of toxic masculinity, societal prejudice, and a bullying culture but also one of fear and complicity in which a marginalised man must face his childhood trauma in order to save his son from suffering the same fate. 

Sandi (Khiva Iskak), who lost his hearing in childhood, is a member of a vigilante preman gang, Perkasa. The preman view themselves as defenders of justice, but in reality are feared and despised by the world around them for their intimidating and violent behaviour. Sandi’s gang was once ruled by the wise Haji (Egi Fedly) who had lofty ideals of defending his local community from an oppressive authority but he’s recently been ousted by the authoritarian Guru (Kiki Narendra) who is no better than a thug willing to do the dirty work of a city politician in return for power and influence. His first job is clearing a local slum by force, insisting its residents leave but offering them no safe place to go. When Haji tries to resist, Sandi’s young son Pandan (Muzakki Ramdhan) witnesses his murder and thereby places a target on his back and that of his father as they try to figure out how to survive Guru’s increasing ruthlessness. 

Dressed in a military outfit, Guru is an allegory for lingering authoritarianism visually recalling historical dictators and is introduced while giving a bombastic speech which Sandi is obviously unable to hear yet goes along with anyway. Sandi’s deafness is in one sense aligned with his complicity in that he is literally unable to hear the reality of world around him but is also linked back to the childhood trauma which robbed him of his voice. An early failure to do the right thing, siding with the bullies out of fear rather than standing up for his friend who was being taunted with homophobic slurs, set him on a life long path of complicity too afraid of the gang and of preman culture to ever be able to leave it. 

Yet his disability also leaves him marginalised with few other directions in which to turn considering that disabled people struggle to find work in a society that has little accommodation for difference. Hairdresser/assassin Ramon (Revaldo) who refers to himself exclusively in the third person and peppers his speech with French, points out that everyone viewed Medusa as the villain but the real villains were Poseidon who raped her, Athena who cursed her, and Perseus who killed her rather than Medusa herself. Ramon is also on the end of a series of homophobic slurs from one of the Perkasa thugs who’d been trying to talk to one of his colleagues, who wants to be a musical theatre star, about erectile disfunction but struggled to get his point across while using a series of broad euphemisms out of embarrassment hinting at the hidden costs of societal repression. “Ramon is a mirror reflecting the ugliness of the world” the assassin explains, wielding his scissors of vengeance on behalf of a corrupt authority. 

As the policeman’s girlfriend points out, the reason the policeman has ended up in trouble is that he didn’t help Sandi when he asked him, just like Sandi didn’t help his friend, because he was too afraid to stand up to a thuggish bully. At some point you have to do the right thing, she reminds him, and only by refusing to be intimidated by Guru can they hope to escape his violence along with the threat he presents which allows him to dominate their society. Impressively shot given its low budget origins, Zaini’s playful drama features a series of well choreographed action sequences culminating in a striking avant-garde conclusion in which Sandi faces off against fox-suited villains, spraying psychedelic neon paint and exorcising the pain of his childhood trauma while freeing his son not just literally but mentally from an oppressive and bullying society. 


Preman: Silent Fury screens at Asia Society 23rd July as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival. It will also be released in the US later in the year courtesy of Well Go USA.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Images: Courtesy of Well Go USA Entertainment

Vengeance Is Mine, All Others Pay Cash (Seperti Dendam, Rindu Harus Dibayar Tuntas, Edwin, 2021)

The innocent love of a pair of traumatised youngsters is crushed by the society in which they live in Edwin’s ‘80s-set pulp adventure, Vengeance is Mine, All Others Pay Cash (Seperti Dendam, Rindu Harus Dibayar Tuntas). An absurdist parable about the corrosive effects of toxic masculinity and its links to oppressive authoritarianism, Edwin’s outlandish drama sees a young man contend with literal and societal impotence through the medium of violence while falling in love with a woman equally in desire of revenge against her misuses at the hands of a misogynistic society. 

Rendered sexually impotent after childhood trauma, 20-something Ajo (Marthino Lio) gets his release through violence well known for always being up for a fight whether there’s money involved or not. Yet as we see he seems to enjoy being on the receiving end, almost giggling when he’s set upon by a small mob in a bar. During the course of one particular job with a social justice angle roughing up an overreaching local businessman who apparently pressed a man into debt in order to extract the payment from his wife, Ajo ends up running into Iteung (Ladya Cheryl), his target’s bodyguard and a lover of violence like himself. The pair fall in love, but Ajo is afraid to pursue a relationship because of his impotence eventually provoked into a rain-soaked confession only to realise that just like everyone else in town Iteung already knows and doesn’t care. She marries him anyway but is continually stalked by a resentful ex, Budi (Reza Rahadian), while Ajo is preoccupied with a job he unwisely took on to knock off a gangster rival of former general Uncle Gembul (Piet Pagau).

The pair are in a sense pursued by their pasts each of which stems back to an instance of sexual abuse, the young Ajo forced to participate in a rape after being kidnapped by a pair of corrupt soldiers and thereafter rendered impotent. In an ironic touch, the assault takes place on the day of an eclipse which president Suharto had issued advice not to look at owing to the possibility of damaging one’s sight though in essence Ajo gets in trouble for looking directly at something he should not have seen and is rendered impotent by corrupt state power. Years later, Iteung decides she wants revenge, that if she could track down and enact justice on these two former soldiers she might be able to lift Ajo’s curse and ironically enough restore his manhood so that they might have a full marriage. 

She meanwhile is also carrying her own trauma having been subject to male sexualised violence from a young age. Given Ajo’s condition, the pair consummate their relationship through pugilism, a fight scene standing in for sex but the disruptive presence of the brooding Budi continues to linger on the horizon Iteung coming to regret a bargain she made with him in the hope of tracking down the soldiers. Having quelled his lust for violence, discovering that Iteung has betrayed him sends Ajo into a murderous rage finally completing the job he had been afraid of doing in fear that it would pollute his otherwise blissful relationship with his new wife. In an ironic touch, Budi’s big business plan is selling a snake oil male virility tonic, his insecure yet superficially powerful vision of masculinity held up as an ideal while Ajo once again attempts to validate his manhood through violence. After a period of wandering and an encounter with a mysterious figure he begins to rediscover a sense of security in masculinity that is not linked with sexuality realising that all he wants is to be with Iteung and he no longer cares whether or not his impotence is ever cured. 

A retro homage to the action exploitation movies of the 1980s, Edwin’s absurdist world building is a direct attack on a macho culture that manifests itself in oppressive authoritarianism along with the concurrent misogyny that leaves women vulnerable to male violence. At heart a romance in which love ultimately triumphs over the corrosive effects of toxic masculinity and entrenched patriarchy, Edwin’s absurdist tale later takes a turn for the metaphysical in the form of the arrival of a ghostly avenger come to enact justice on those who presumed themselves above the law but nevertheless ends on a note of cosmic irony in which the wages of vengeance must indeed be paid in full.


Vengeance Is Mine, All Others Pay Cash screens in New York March 19 with lead actress Ladya Cheryl appearing in person as part of Museum of the Moving Image’s First Look 2022. Due to popular demand, a second screening without guest appearance has now been added on March 26.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Yuni (Kamila Andini, 2021)

“Marriage is a blessing”, according to a wise old grandma, “we shouldn’t refuse a blessing, no?” expressing a commonly held belief in the traditional small town where the titular Yuni (Arawinda Kirana) resides in Kamila Andini’s melancholy social drama. Yuni meanwhile isn’t so sure, if marriage is a blessing then why does it feel like a trap and how can you call something a blessing if as it seems to have been for some of her friends it only results in violence and misery? 

At 17 Yuni is a talented student, her progressive female teacher urging her to consider going to college while offering various pamphlets about applying for scholarships which Yuni feels might make it easier for her parents to accept. Yet in addition to the academic criteria, the rules are clear that married women are not eligible which is a problem because Yuni has just received her first marriage proposal from a man recently relocated to the village who is handsome enough and thought a catch because he has a good job in a local factory. 

While everything in Yuni screams no, she finds it difficult to articulate her resistance constantly second guessing herself wondering if she’s doing the right thing or if as some of the other girls suggest she is lucky to have received such a generous offer and ought to accept it. Her obsession with the colour purple, the colour both of a wedding dress and according to another girl widow’s weeds, which causes her to steal any purple item she sees is an expression of her alienation yearning for colour and vibrancy in a culture which seems to deny her both. Dressing in purple under her green school uniform, she rejects the idea of marriage and wants to continue her education, spending time with an older woman who takes her to clubs to dance enjoying the illicit freedom of a modern society which has otherwise been kept from her. 

Even at school, her freedom begins to shrink. The Islamic Club seems to dominate everything, planning to introduce virginity tests for the female students to prevent the inconvenience and shame of teenage pregnancy though it does not seem as if the boys are given the same talk. The girls are all convinced that one of their classmates is pregnant because she wears a baggy jacket and has become withdrawn, but later wonder if she may have been raped no one seemingly very interested in helping her. Later after embarking on an escapist romance with diffident and sensitive classmate Yoga (Kevin Ardillova), Yuni is also asked if was raped when confessing that she is no longer a virgin in order to escape a second marriage proposal to become the second wife of a wealthy old man who not so subtly tries to buy her from her grandmother while implying that she might be considered damaged goods as a woman who’s already rejected a suitor. 

Yuni is warned that turning down a second proposal is bad luck and struggles with herself in her decision, her internal confusion ironically interfering with her studying making it harder for her to escape through education. Meanwhile she hears of a woman who married young but experienced domestic violence after her husband blamed her for a series of miscarriages only to be disowned by her family following a divorce they again telling her she ought to have counted herself lucky that her husband still put up with her despite her “condition”. Another friend’s husband has abandoned her with a young son and she isn’t sure if she should divorce him and look for someone else, while one of Yuni’s classmates ends up having to marry a teenage boyfriend when a gang of blackmailers threatens to ruin their reputations after discovering them taking photos at a well known hookup spot. 

With most of the other women largely complicit, Yuni feels she has no one to talk to or turn to for advice eventually pouring her heart out to the sensitive Yoga who offers to run away with her knowing that nothing will change as long as she stays in the conservative environment of their hometown. Even the teacher whom she’d once admired, Mr. Damar (Dimas Aditya), proves no ally attempting to use her to escape his own sense of impossibility after she catches him trying on women’s clothes at a local department store. Mr. Damar’s own desperation causes him to act in the most insidious of ways, in effect barring Yuni’s path out of her repressive life in inappropriately wielding his power as a teacher against her. Having lost all confidence, Yuni no longer knows what she wants out of life and is growing weary of fighting the same battles in attempting to struggle free of the constraints of traditional patriarchy but is left with little choice once all her dreams are shattered. A tragedy of modern day Indonesia, Yuni sees its heroine’s spirit gradually crushed by the world in which she lives in which she has only the choice of lonely exile or resigned misery. 


Yuni screened as part of this year’s Glasgow Film Festival and is available to stream in the UK until 8th March.

International trailer (English subtitles)

We Are Moluccans (Cahaya Dari Timur: Beta Maluku, Angga Dwimas Sasongko, 2014)

A motorbike courier finds himself torn between conflicting priorities when his community is threatened by internal strife in Angga Dwimas Sasongko’s inspirational sporting drama We Are Moluccans (Cahaya Dari Timur: Beta Maluku). As the title suggests, team sports provide a means of communal healing fostering both hope and unity among the young but even so the traumatic memories of the recent past prove hard to overcome while the older generation struggle in the wake of their own broken dreams and contradictory responsibilities. 

At the turn of the century, a violent conflict breaks out between Muslim and Christian communities who had until that point lived together in relative peace. With his motorcycle courier business disrupted by the ongoing chaos, former youth footballer Sani (Chicco Jerikho) begins coaching a collection of local boys mostly as a means of keeping them away from the immediate violence of the riots. As the situation begins to stabilise, his new responsibility to the children places a strain on his relationship with his wife, Haspa (Shafira Umm), who complains that he spends too much time giving back to the community while the family is struggling economically to the extent that she can no longer extend their tab at the grocery store. His old football friend Rafi (Frans Nendissa) is also struggling with his fishing business having lost most of his crew who fled the area’s violence and so the two of them begin to make the football club more formal but it soon becomes clear that they each have differing goals and responsibilities that endanger their partnership and the commitment they’ve made to the boys.  

At several points Rafi, not to mention Haspa, criticise Sani for what they see as irresponsibility while some of the other village men also accuse him of unmanliness for choosing to look after the children rather than fight with them to protect the village. His problem is that he’s too kind hearted but is entirely unable to order his priorities torn by the necessity of providing for his family and following through on the commitment he’s made to the neighbourhood boys. He often gives his hard won money away to those in need, angering his wife who cannot understand why he continues to help others rather protect his own family even giving away money he’d saved for their youngest daughter’s vaccinations and abruptly selling their goats without discussing it with her when she’d earmarked them as an emergency fund to pay the enrolment fees when the oldest daughter starts school. 

Because of the ongoing violence, many of the boys are in single parent families and live in relative poverty often needed to help out with their parent’s businesses. To begin with many are fine with them playing football so long as it keeps them safe but as they begin to grow older attitudes harden, many believing that it’s a “pointless” waste of time and too much of a distraction when the children should either be earning money or studying. Sani becomes a kind of surrogate father teaching the boys diligence and responsibility even if struggling with the same in his personal life but obviously cannot overcome the social and economic difficulties of small town life all on his own. His original goal was only to keep the children safe and ensure they had happy childhood memories that weren’t about hate, violence, and fear, whereas Rafi is much more ambitious floating the idea of opening an official football school while eventually deciding to run for public office further adding to Sani’s sense of personal inadequacy. 

“Nothing can destroy us as long as we have will to live a better life” Sani later tells the children, mistaken it seems in his belief that they would find it easier to overcome the differences between them when acting as head coach for a team representing the entirety of the local area. Many of the original team resent the introduction of “outsiders” from the nearby Christian town, but the difficulties turn out less to be about religion or community than trauma, the source of the problem being that the father of two of the Christian boys is a policeman whom another of the players blames for his own father’s death. While such tensions exist within the group the team continues to fail, losing not because of a lack of ability but because they cannot overcome the legacy of trauma to work together. The problem is only solved through a reassertion of their commonality as “Moluccans” rather than Muslim or Christian ironically forged in opposition to their current other which happens to be a team from Jakarta, the urban pitted against the rural. 

In any case, Angga Dwimas Sasongko’s inspirational drama eventually makes the case for mutual forgiveness as path toward putting the past to rest in order to move forward into a kinder and more prosperous era. The emotional closing scenes provide both a personal sense of acceptance in as Rafi begins to put his pride aside to support the local team while Muslims and Christians come together to listen to the nail-biting penalty shootout through their respective contacts in the auditorium after the TV broadcast cuts out before extra time. Demonstrating the power of sports to overcome cultural barriers, We Are Moluccans finally advocates for the right to dream as the youngsters begin to develop self-confidence and a sense of possibility while working together towards a clearly defined goal. 


We Are Moluccans streams in Poland until Nov. 29 as part of the 15th Five Flavours Film Festival.

Trailer (English subtitles)

Madame X (Lucky Kuswandi, 2010)

“With the force of rainbows I will punish you all” transgender superhero Madame X exclaims as she takes on bigotry and self-interest to fight for human rights in a largely oppressive social culture. Despite emerging from long years of authoritarian military dictatorship in 1998, Indonesia’s LBGTQ+ community finds itself in a marginalised position with homosexuality still taboo and illegal under religious law in certain parts of the country. Lucky Kuswandi’s high camp, pure punk tale of a transwoman embracing her inner power to claim her place in society while standing up against intolerance is a bold advocation for a more compassionate world but also a whole lot of anarchic fun. 

It’s transgender hairdresser Adam’s (Amink) birthday and unbeknownst to her, her life is about to change. A mysterious client arriving at the salon warns her that she shouldn’t go dancing because there’s a kind of dance so dangerous it might end her life. Adam ignores her and goes anyway but is set up by her awful boyfriend and captured by anti-gay vigilante group Bogem who bundle all the transwomen in the place into their pickup truck for “recycling”. During the journey, Adam’s best friend Aline (Joko Anwar) is killed by Bogem leader Storm who turns out to be the head of the National Morality Front, a political party denying any ties to far right violence. Taken in by an LGBTQ+ friendly Lenggok dance studio in the dreamily named village Beyond the Clouds, Adam struggles to rebuild her life but receives a new mission when Aline appears to her in angelic form and demands vengeance. 

“There’s no place for us in the real world” Adam explains at the bar when a potential client asks what a nice girl like her is doing in a place like this, telling him that there are no “normal” jobs for women like her and so she has no other option than to make ends meet through sex work. Bogem refers to the transwomen as “trash”, as if they’re cleaning up the city while touting magnanimity in their intention to “recycle” them so they can be returned to mainstream society as “normal” men. Despite having three wives, their identities hidden by their colour-coded burkas, Storm preaches old fashioned family values but later is revealed to have ties to human trafficking mediated through Tarjo (Ikhsan Himawan), a local man continually dressed like a religious leader who himself is hiding an aspect of his sexuality from his sweet and innocent fiancée Ratih (Saira Jihan) whom he has convinced to give up her career as a lenggok dancer to become a “migrant worker”.

Lenggok, a traditional Indonesian dance, turns out to be the one that the mysterious woman said would end Adam’s life which is one reason she was reluctant to take it up, but only because the way former military instructor Uncle Radi (Robby Tumewu) is teaching it is really a martial art. Radi is himself in a happy longterm relationship with trans woman Auntie Yantje (Ria Irawan) who now uses a wheelchair because the strain of living has taken such a profound toll on her health as she and Radi attempted to stand up to injustice. With the help of mute servant Din (Vincent Ryan Rompies), they’ve built a secret base behind their bedroom filled with amazing gadgets made out of cosmetics and accessories, as well as a beautifully designed superhero suit just waiting for a hero. Adam can only embrace her destiny as Madame X by first accepting her national legacy in Lenggok dance, along with her identity as a transwoman and the trauma of her first love. 

Told in flashback, the melancholy story of Adam and Harun becomes a point origin in the tragedy of love destroyed by oppressive patriarchal authority. “You’re the one ruining my son” Harun’s father claims before literally scarring his own boy and leaving him with an internalised homophobia which encourages him to blame Adam for arousing in him such taboo desires. Yet Adam fights back with the tools used against her, vanquishing her foes with the power of the rainbow. Rich with pop culture references from the Bond-esque opening titles to a Sailor Moon meets Wonder Woman transformation scene imbued with its own particular irony, Madame X is an anarchic tale of high camp hijinks but also a heartfelt origin story for a transgender superwoman claiming her space and standing up for the oppressed in an increasingly hostile environment.  


Madame X screened as part of this year’s Queer East.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Death Knot (Tali mati, Cornelio Sunny, 2021)

Orphaned siblings attempt to process the dark legacy of the superstitious past in the debut feature directed by and starring actor Cornelio Sunny, Death Knot (Tali mati). Travelling from the comforting sophistication of the modern city back into the eerie darkness of the ancient forest, the pair find themselves confronted first by a filial dilemma and then a spiritual conundrum in their potential destiny which their possibly shamaness mother may have gone to great lengths in order to prevent. 

As the film opens, Hari (Cornelio Sunny) texts with his younger sister Eka (Widika Sidmore) who somewhat sexistly tells him not to stay single too long because he needs someone to cook for him. Falling asleep watching a program in which a woman remarks on the presence of jinns as manifestations of energy that can’t be seen by the naked eye, Hari has a strange dream in which he witnesses his mother hanging herself in the forest in the middle of the night uttering only the words “stay away”. As it turns out, Eka had exactly the same dream and a phone call from their estranged uncle who rather bluntly tells them that their mother is dead and as the villagers won’t have anything to do with her they need to come for the funeral, confirms their worst fears. Ignoring the warning in the dream, Hari, Eka, and her husband Adi (Morgan Oey) drive back to their home village but quickly find themselves out of their depth trying to figure out what’s going on. 

The first clue is the reaction from a previously friendly old woman who suddenly gets up and walks off after exclaiming that the body should have been burned not buried when Hari stops to ask for directions. The second clue is that only three people including their uncle turn up for the funeral. The third clue is that everyone keeps telling them to leave town right away while the fourth is that they can’t because of a mysterious storm that has apparently closed all the roads. Meanwhile, hostile uncle Rahmen immediately asks for what seems like a lot of money to cover his expenses for the clandestine funeral and then wastes no time staking his claim to their mother’s house. Though neither of the siblings want it, the request offends Hari who feels guilty that he never really got to know his mother and is wary of abandoning the last traces of her in the house she once owned. 

Described by Adi as creepy, the house does however have a dark legacy, the pair already aware that their father left and took them to the city because of their mother’s strange behaviour that saw her ostracised by the other villagers who suspected her of being a shamaness responsible for a strange phenomenon known as “The Harvest” in which spates of suicides take place across a specific month. Hari tries to rationalise it away, pointing out that it’s hard to live in rural poverty and putting a label on unexplained deaths is easier than admitting that people are taking their own lives because of economic precarity and an ongoing sense of despair, but with the increasing strangeness all around him he has to admit a degree of spiritual unease in this fiercely traditional world he is ill-equipped to understand. 

Rather than hauntings and jump scares, Cornelio Sunny concentrates on conjuring an atmosphere of supernatural dread in which anyone may suddenly become a grinning demon, performing strange ritualistic dance and odd movements only to suddenly disappear from view. An educated man from the city, Hari quickly becomes fed up with talk of ancestral deities, pacts with the devil, and black magic, only latterly accepting his role within an arcane system and understanding that his mother’s distance may have been her way of protecting him which has in the end backfired. Yet having destroyed the symbol of this spiritual oppression, Hari discovers that there may be no escape from its darkening legacy or the atavistic superstitions of the villagers, an ominous cloud always hanging over him even as he faces the final choice of whether to continue fighting or accept the inevitable. Proceeding with moody fatalism, the ironically titled Death Knot ensnares its confused hero in a tightening noose of spiritual dread and filial guilt before cutting him adrift a victim of his own sophistication. 


Death Knot streamed as part of this year’s hybrid edition Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Two Blue Stripes (Dua Garis Biru, Gina S. Noer, 2019)

In less enlightened times, unplanned teenage pregnancy was sometimes seen as a grand tragedy involving the potential ruin of at least three lives. Thankfully, in many places at least, it isn’t quite like that anymore though for the young couple at the centre of Gina S. Noer’s sensitive yet lighthearted drama Two Blue Stripes (Dua Garis Biru) their impending parenthood exposes a series of divisions in a changing society as their families, one poor and religious, the other wealthy and secular though obsessed with respectability, react in quite different ways to the news their child is about to have a child of their own. 

At 17, Bima (Angga Yunanda) and Dara (Adhisty Zara) are a bashful high school couple eagerly planning their futures. While Bima is not exactly a top student, Dara gets good grades and is obsessed with K-Pop, hoping to travel to Korea for university. One day however they get a little carried away and some time later Dara begins to suspect she may be expecting. Originally opting for an abortion, she later finds she can’t go through with it and the young couple decide that if only they can keep the pregnancy a secret until after graduation they’ll be able to figure something out. Unfortunately, however, the ruse is uncovered when Dara is taken ill during a PE session and accidentally reveals the pregnancy while worried about the baby. 

The surprising thing is that Bima’s parents who are devoted to their Islamic faith are the most sympathetic, quickly accepting that what’s happened has happened and needs to be dealt with as calmly and sensitively as possible if also somehow disappointed in Bima while quietly proud of his surefooted though naive pledge to take responsibility. Dara’s parents, however, and in particular her mother Rika (Lulu Tobing) are far less understanding, intensely questioning their daughter in the grim “hope” that Bima may have forced himself on her and she is therefore “blameless”. This rather old fashioned, sexist notion of female purity is further borne out by the school who confess that they aren’t allowed to expel Dara because of her pregnancy, but all the same are asking her to leave meaning she won’t be able to take her exams with the other pupils while nothing will happen to Bima who will be permitted to go to class as normal. 

For Rika shame and confusion seem to be the primary motivators. Attempting to sweep the whole thing under the carpet, she begins talking to a pair of relatives who are desperate for a baby and weren’t able to have any of their own in the hope they will adopt. Affluent and seemingly secular, her worry is perhaps only partly reputation and the fear her own parenting will be called in question with the remainder a sense of frustration that a single moment may have undone all her daughter’s hopes for the future along with all the ambitions she had for her. 

Dara, meanwhile, continues to dream of going to Korea hoping somehow she’ll be able to make it work as young mother. For his part, Bima makes it clear that she should be able to fulfil her dreams if that’s what she wants, never trying to tie her down and always keen to shoulder his sense of the burden. Young and in love they want to stay together and try to make a family of their own, but they are also naive little realising both the differences between them and difficulties of supporting themselves independently. Bima ends up working in his father-in-law David’s (Dwi Sasono) restaurant, proving a good employee and perhaps earning his respect but simultaneously losing Dara’s as he slacks off on his studies, she somewhat disappointed to think he might end up waiting tables for the rest of his life exposing her slightly snobbish attitude further borne out by her reaction on arriving at Bima’s comparatively humble family home. 

In an interesting role reversal, however, it is eventually Bima who takes on the stereotypically “maternal” role pledging to stay home and raise his son while affording Dara the opportunity to pursue her dreams. The parents meanwhile also reflect on their failure to properly prepare their children for adulthood, wishing that they had been less bashful and talked properly about sex so that they might have made better informed choices. “How are we supposed to love, to breathe, to be, when it hurts?” asks the plaintive song running over the closing scenes ironically titled “Growing Up”, each of the youngsters perhaps wondering just that as they try to come to terms with their respective choices while embarking on the next stage of their lives no longer children but perhaps no more certain. 


Two Blue Stripes streams in the US until March 31 as part of the 12th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Queen of Black Magic (Ratu Ilmu Hitam, Kimo Stamboel, 2019)

“I’m not here just to punish you, I’m here to create hell” the vengeful tormentor at the centre of Kimo Stamboel’s contemporary remake of the 1981 classic The Queen of Black Magic (Ratu Ilmu Hitam) cooly intones. Reminding her victims that not to know is also a sin, the shadowy villainess has come she says to create hell on Earth because she is uncertain that mortal transgressions will be suitably punished after death and means to ensure those who have sinned suffer accordingly. Quite literally trapped in the space of their trauma, the heroes attempt to find a way out of their guilt and shame but are perhaps confronted as much by themselves as by a witch hellbent on justice as they try to find escape from the traumatic past. 

Hanif (Ario Bayu) and his wife Nadya (Hannah Al Rashid) have foregone their planned holiday to Bali to visit the man who ran the orphanage where Hanif spent much of his childhood who is now apparently close to death. This comes as a surprise to their three children who hadn’t realised their father was adopted or really ever thought about kids who don’t have parents, and though they are perhaps annoyed to have missed out on their holiday they are also a little excited to be going somewhere so unusual. Unfortunately however, the family’s cheerful mood is broken when they hit what they assume is a deer on their way to the orphanage casting an air of foreboding over their journey. 

Though it appears Hanif has been “open” with his wife about his past, the same is not necessarily true for his “brothers” Anton (Tanta Ginting) and Jefri (Miller Khan) who have also brought their partners to meet Mr. Bandi (Yayu A.W. Unru), Jefri’s wife Lina (Salvita Decorte) complaining that she knew nothing about any of this until they were already in the car on their way over. Far from a happy reunion, however, the brief sojourn at the orphanage begins to highlight the strain on each of the familial relationships, Lina apparently experiencing a kind of body dysmorphia and preoccupied with her weight while Anton’s wife Eva (Imelda Therinne) is constantly applying moisturiser to guard against a mysterious rash she was convinced was down to flesh eating bacteria but others feel is simply “dry skin”. These will however be the least of their worries as the men vaguely hint on voicing their anxiety that Mr. Bandi’s biological children may sell the estate to developers unsure of “what they’ll uncover”.

This perhaps implies that the now grown up men know more than they’re willing to admit about the dark secrets the orphanage hides, something which Hanif has in any case not shared with his wife who has only a rosy picture of his childhood with Mr. Bandi who eyes her with nervous suspicion even on his death bed. Nevertheless, the men have each been drawn back to the source of their trauma and now find themselves unable to escape without a reckoning, recalling a similar occasion that they tried to run only to find themselves mysteriously brought back as if by some supernatural force. There are indeed dark, other worldly forces in play but also a healthy dose of patriarchal violence, entrenched misogyny, abuse of power, and as the villainess had hinted a wilful tendency not to see especially when it comes protecting the most vulnerable members of society, children without parents who are easily manipulated in the knowledge that, as Hanif originally puts it, they would otherwise die abandoned. 

Justifying a particularly ironic part of her revenge plan, the witch reveals that the orphans may in fact be better off dead than raised by a man like Bandi, something which Hanif himself echoes if not quite with the same intent. Creating her hell, she forces her prey to harm themselves and each other with a variety of weapons ranging from kitchen knives, scythes, and comparatively more modern projectile weapons to insects literally choking the guilty from the inside. The orphanage itself is a place out of time, frozen as it was during Hanif’s childhood, one of the two orphans to have remained behind as mystified by Hanif’s inquisitive son Haqi’s (Muzakki Ramdhan) references to such things as “the internet”, “wi-fi” and “streaming” as he is by the “scary” VHS tape she shows him featuring actual footage of his father and a mysterious figure of legend. Yet even in realising they have allowed themselves to serve poor masters, deceived by a man they trusted, there is a sense the men at least, absent from the final frames, may never be able to free themselves from their guilt, forever haunted by the spectre of those they have unwittingly harmed. An eerie, gory, dread-propelled voyage through human cruelty to supernatural retribution, Queen of Black Magic positions the evil that men do ahead of that performed by vengeful witches looking for spiritual justice as its misused heroes attempt to find accommodation at least with the traumatic past.  


The Queen of Black Magic is available to stream via Shudder in the US, Canada, UK, Ireland, Australia, and New Zealand from 28th January.

Trailer (English subtitles)