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)

They Call Me Jeeg (Lo Chiamavano Jeeg Robot, Gabriele Mainetti, 2015)

JEEGItalian cinema once had a hearty appetite for genre fare, but has long since abandoned the weird and wacky in favour of the arty or the populist. You wait years for an Italian superhero movie and then two come along at once. Following on from Gabriele Salvatores’ much younger skewing The Invisible Boy which perhaps owed more to Spy Kids than anything else, first time director Gabriele Mainetti brings us a bloody, R-rated yet humour filled look at the superhero genre filtered through Japanese manga and anime rather than US comic books.

The film begins with an aerial shot of Rome accompanied by loud panting which turns out to belong to petty criminal Enzo (Claudio Santamaria) who is currently running hell for leather away from the various policemen who are chasing him. Eventually he dives into the Tiber where he accidentally puts his foot through the lid of some barrels which have been dumped in the river and gets covered in some kind of gunk. After finally getting home he’s violently sick and shaky but probably thinks it’s just from being cold and wet or some other random thing picked up in the water.

At this point, he decides to sell his genuine rolex watch through a fence he knows, Sergio (Stefano Ambrogi), who currently works for a gangster named “Gypsy” (Luca Marinelli). Sergio ends up taking him on a job which is supposed to involve extracting drugs from inside a pair of dope mules but one of them is in a fairly bad way and Sergio’s refusal to take him to a hospital sees the other one grab his gun and shoot him. Enzo is caught in the shoulder and falls nine floors down to the street below but actually is pretty much OK. Later he realises his gunshot wound is healing surprisingly quickly and he’s apparently super strong too. With great power comes great responsibility? When you’re as isolated as Enzo, maybe not so much.

Enzo is 100% not a match for The Chosen One. He is totally disinterested in his fellow human beings and just wants to be left alone. In fact, the first thing he does when he figures out he has superpowers is steal an entire ATM (he didn’t know about the anti-theft dye) and use the cash to buy a fridge full of yoghurt and some more porn to add to his collection. He isn’t even really very bothered about his friend’s death except that he’d rather not attract the attention of Gypsy and his henchmen.

However, Sergio had a grown-up daughter, Alessia (Ilenia Pastorelli), with some kind of psychological condition which has her in an infantilised state where she’s obsessed with the 1970s Go Nagai mecha anime series, Steel Jeeg. After Enzo, against his better judgement, jumps in to save her from Gypsy she becomes convinced that he’s the real Steel Jeeg and tries to persuade him to use his powers for the good of all humanity.

The de facto antagonist of the story, Gypsy (real name “Fabio”), is a petty gangster and former wannabe reality TV star with grand ambitions. The deal that Sergio was working on was part of a larger collaboration with the Neapolitan mafia who are starting to wonder where all their drugs have got to and are just about ready to come looking for them themselves. Gypsy’s yearning for fame is further irritated by the presence of the so called “Super Criminal” who is already a star on YouTube and immortalised in graffiti all over the city. A violent psychopath with a taste for flamboyant outfits and cheesy music, these twin pressures are fit to send Gypsy way over the edge.

Mainetti ties in current social concerns with the constant TV news reports about large scale protests against austerity and a series of terrorist incidents which are later said to be a mass conspiracy perpetrated by the mafia to try and influence government policy (seemingly successfully). Conversely, he satirises modern society’s dependence on social media with everyone whipping out their phones to try and capture Enzo’s superhuman capabilities and Gypsy’s attempt to make himself a YouTube star with some superhero stuff of his own as well as frequently mocking his former attempt to become a big name celebrity through taking part in a TV reality show.

Ironically, the actress playing the difficult role of Alessia was herself a star of Italy’s version of Big Brother and this is her first acting role. It has to be said that her performance is nothing short of extraordinary as she perfectly captures the strange innocence of this wounded child woman who seems to have experienced a number of traumatic incidents in her past which have pushed her further and further into her anime themed delusional world. In many ways she is the heart of the film using her own superpowers of love and innocence to try and reawaken Enzo’s humanity and push him towards becoming a functional human being who is able to recognise the potential for good his new found powers may have.

Though filmed for an extremely modest budget, They Call Me Jeeg displays extremely high production values mostly concentrating on in camera effects backed up with inventive cinematography. Refreshingly opting for a more grown-up approach, the film doesn’t stint on blood or violence either but is careful to avoid becoming exploitative and is also frank in dealing with its difficult romantic subplot. An impressive debut feature from Mainetti, They Call Me Jeeg succeeds not only in providing action packed entertainment but also manages to mix in a fair amount of humour to its subtly melancholic atmosphere eventually climaxing in an unexpectedly moving finale.

Reviewed as part of the Cinema Made in Italy festival at London’s Ciné Lumière in March 2016 where it screened under the title They Call Me Jeeg Robot.

There doesn’t seem to be an English subtitled trailer around yet but this film is so much fun I can’t even tell you!