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)

Gundala (Joko Anwar, 2019)

“If we see injustice before our eyes and do nothing then we’re no longer humans” the idealistic father of a future superhero instructs his young son, trying to impart a sense of humanitarianism as a basic moral good. It’s a lesson the boy will find himself unlearning and resuming later, his innocence well and truly destroyed by an often cruel and cynical society only to be reawakened to the idea that it doesn’t need to stay that way. Among the most recognisable names of Indonesian cinema, Joko Anwar turns his hand to the creation of a local comic book cinematic universe, adapting the 1969 comic Gundala by Harya “Hasmi” Suraminata for the present day filtering contemporary Jakarta through classic Gotham. 

Operating as an origin story for the titular hero, Gundala opens with the young hero Sancaka (Muzakki Ramdhan) unable to prevent his father’s (Rio Dewanto) death due to his fear of electrical storms when he is first set up by a duplicitous factory boss and then assassinated while leading a protest for fair pay and conditions. Soon after, Sancaka loses his mother (Marissa Anita) too after she is forced to go to the city for work and never returns. Ending up a ragged street kid, he’s saved from an attack by a rival gang by an older boy (Faris Fadjar Munggaran) who teaches him how to protect himself physically and mentally by convincing him that the only way to survive on the street is keep his head down and walk on by even if it looks like others are in trouble. 20 years later the adult Sancaka (Abimana Aryasatya) is an aloof young man working as a security guard at a print house where his sympathetic mentor Agung (Pritt Timothy) begins to remind him of his father in his conviction that “living is no use if you stop caring and only think about yourself”, while he also finds himself defending the woman next-door, Wulan (Tara Basro), and her young brother Teddy (Bimasena Prisai Susilo), from hired thugs sent to intimidate them because of their involvement in a protest against the forced redevelopment of a local marketplace.  

Events seem echo around him. The major villain Pengkor (Bront Palarae) is also an orphan but on the opposing side as the son of a cruel plantation owner murdered by his not altogether ideologically pure workers whose desire for fair pay and conditions he had resolutely ignored. According to cynical politician Ridwan (Lukman Sardi), Pengkor became a union organiser of his own, leading an uprising at the abusive orphanage he was placed into by a cruel uncle hoping he’d die and free up the inheritance, thereafter becoming a kind of godfather to the fatherless with a thousands strong army of eternally grateful orphans he saved acting as sleeper agents for a coming revolution. 

Pengkor’s nefarious plan involves fostering a conspiracy surrounding contaminated rice said to make the unborn children of the women who eat it turn out “immoral”, a generation of psychopaths unable to tell right from wrong. Fairly unscientific, it has to be said, but playing directly into the central questions of the nature of “morality” in a “immoral” society. Can it really be “moral” for bosses to exploit their workers and get away with it, for politicians to cosy up to gangsters and remain complicit with corruption, and for a man like Pengkor to be the only hope for orphaned street kids otherwise abandoned and ignored by a wilfully indifferent society? Pengkor decries that hope is the opiate of the masses, but that’s exactly what Gundala eventually becomes for them in his “electric” ability to resist, eventually rediscovering his humanity as he designates himself as the embodiment of “the people” pushing back against the forces of oppression and seeming at least to win if only momentarily.  

Young Sancaka’s fear of lightning is, in essence, a fear of his power and his social responsibility something he is quite literally shocked into accepting. In a world of quite striking social inequality, he finds himself the lone defender of the oppressed whose very existence spurs others, including previously cynical politician Ridwan, into rediscovering their own humanity in the resurgent hope of a better future. As someone puts it, peace never lasts long but you keep fighting for it because every moment is precious. Not so much a battle of good versus evil as a battle for the meaning of good, Anwar’s Gundala recalibrates the anxieties of the late ‘60s for the modern era and creates an everyman hero not only to resist them but to foster a spirit of resistance and humanity in the face of heartless cynicism. 


Gundala streams in Poland until 6th December as part of the 14th Five Flavours Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)