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)

My Sorry Life (愛のくだらない, Kozue Nomoto, 2020)

A dejected, self-involved TV producer is forced into a moment of introspection when dealing with relationship breakdown and career setback in Kozue Nomoto’s ironic character study My Sorry Life (愛のくだらない, Ai no Kudaranai). Examining a number of social issues from women in the workplace to attitudes to LGBTQ+ people in contemporary Japan, Nomoto’s unflinching drama never lets its abrasive heroine off the hook even as she begins to realise that her own less than admirable behaviour has contributed to her present sense of despair and impossibility. 

Kei (Maki Fujiwara) has been in a relationship with former comedian Yoshi (Akiyoshi Okayasu) for the last five years, but it’s clear that she is beginning to tire of him. The couple are supposedly trying for a baby, but Kei has been taking contraceptive medicine behind Yoshi’s back while complaining that she doesn’t understand why he insists on getting pregnant before getting married when he hasn’t even met her parents. At work meanwhile she’s beginning to feel left behind, secretly jealous when a slightly younger female colleague reveals she’s been promoted to become the lead producer on a variety show and a little resentful when her idea for a programme focusing on the lives of ordinary people as opposed to celebrities is turned down by her bosses. The idea does however bring her to the attention of indie exec Kinjo (Takuma Nagao) who wants to bring her on board to produce a web series he’s about to launch along the same lines. And then, Yoshi drops the bombshell that he thinks he’s pregnant which is, to say the least, unexpected. 

Yoshi’s surprise announcement signals in a sense a reversal of traditional gender roles within their relationship with the man the nester and woman reluctant commitmentphobe. Kei is also the main financial provider, but on some level both resents and looks down on Yoshi for his lack of conventional masculinity having given up his comedy career to work part-time in a supermarket, obsessing over discount produce like the pettiest of housewives but often indulging in false economies such as reduced price yet still extravagant sake. Strangely, Kei goes along with Yoshi’s delusion taking him to a fertility clinic where she assumes they’ll set him straight but thereafter begins staying with a friend who ironically has an infant child and may be experiencing some difficulties in her marriage to which Kei remains entirely oblivious. 

Despite her journalistic desire to witness everyday stories, Kei is often blind to those around her never stopping to wonder if Yoshi is trying to tell her something through his bizarre pregnancy delusion or if her friend might need someone to talk to. She does something similar on spotting the office courier (Yukino Murakami) whom many of the ladies have a crush on using the ladies’ bathroom. Assuming the delivery guy is a lesbian she asks him about coming on the webshow, becoming even more excited when he explains that he’s a transman after inviting Kei to an LGBTQ+ friendly bar where he works part-time. Kei doesn’t realise that her throwaway comment that “that sort of thing is popular now” hurts Shiori’s feelings and leaves him feeling exploited as much as he would like to appear on the programme to raise awareness about LGBTQ+ issues. 

For her part, Kei is obviously not homophobic but does undoubtedly treat Shiori and his friends with a degree of exoticism, declaring that she’s never met anyone like them before while staring wide eyed in wonder as if these concepts are entirely new to her. Kinjo, the producer of the web series, is squeamish when Kei raises the idea, introducing her to a male scriptwriter who obviously already has his own concepts in mind, rudely ignoring Kei’s input while dismissively allowing his drink to drip on her proposal. The studio turn the idea down on the grounds that LGBTQ+ topics are “inappropriate” because there may be children watching and parents won’t want to explain words like “gay” or “lesbian” to their kids. Kei is rightly outraged, but she’s also a hypocrite because her intentions were essentially exploitative and self-interested. She wasn’t interested in furthering LGBTQ+ rights, she just wanted to chase ratings. 

Kinjo dresses up his personal distaste as a dictate from above but it’s clear that he doesn’t really value Kei’s input and continues to treat her poorly for the entirety of the project, blaming her for everything that goes wrong and expecting her to fix it on her own. There’s even an awful moment when Kei’s friend Tsubaki (Sayaka Hashimoto) shows up with her baby and one suspects they may be about to rope her in as a replacement guest, but the result is even worse as Kinjo stares into the pushchair and then throws the pair out while embarrassing Kei in the process. 

“Being busy’s no excuse for being unreliable” Tsubaki sympathetically tells her though it takes a few more setbacks before Kei begins to realise that she’s been unfair and to be honest generally unpleasant to those those around her. Feeling inferior, she makes a point of bumping into an elderly male janitor, treating him with contempt even when he stops to try and help her after she collapses in the office. Only through an ironic moment of emotional honesty which allows her to come to an understanding of her relationships does Kei begin to piece things together, reflect on her own mistakes and anxieties, and realise what it is she really wants. A contemplative reconsideration of accepted gender norms, Nomoto’s gently humorous drama never lets its heroine off the hook but does allow her to find new direction if only through confronting herself and the world in which she lives. 


My Sorry Life streams in the US until Sept. 2 as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

First Night Nerves (8個女人1台戲, Stanley Kwan, 2018)

First night nerves posterStanley Kwan returns to the director’s chair after a lengthy hiatus with a cheeky piece of self-referential meta comedy revolving around two “stage sisters” and their parallel quests to seize the spotlight in the increasingly competitive and celeb obsessed Hong Kong entertainment industry. As implied by its Chinese title “Eight Women, One Stage”, First Night Nerves (8個女人1台戲) is an almost exclusively female affair in which straight men barely feature, but for as much as it heartily embraces the cattiness of backstage life it is also keen to affirm the many ways in which women support and nurture each other even if it is clear that the arts are not always as liberal as one might expect them to be.

Kwan begins in high camp as the diva actresses square off during a tense press conference for an upcoming play which marks the long awaited comeback of veteran actress Xiuling (Sammi Cheng Sau-man) who abruptly retired some years previously, notably playing opposite the slightly younger starlet, Yuwen (Gigi Leung Wing-kei), many accuse of stealing her spotlight (and thereby forcing her off the stage). The behind the scenes gossip makes Two Sisters the hottest ticket in Hong Kong, which is all very good news for Xiuling’s sister-in-law Cong (Angie Chiu) – a wealthy Shanghainese heiress and theatrical impresario producing the play, some say, as a personal favour following the death of her brother in a recent plane crash which has become a minor scandal seeing as he died alongside his American mistress.

A canny business woman, Cong is not above pitting her two stars against each other as a means of getting bums on seats but she also needs to make sure the show goes on which is difficult when Yuwen, still insecure in her star billing, is intent on proving she’s not playing the second lead by constantly upstaging her co-star. Yuwen, it has to be said, is the less sympathetic of the pair – cast early as a divaish upstart who finagled her way into showbiz with sex appeal, while Xiuling remains the dignified, wounded star laid low by life. The truth is, of course, more complex as the two women circle around each other before reaching a kind of equilibrium born of mutual understanding and a healthier professional rivalry.

Before that, however, the two stars occupy two very different camps each with their own retinues. The assistants – Mainlander Nini (Qi Xi), a relative of Cong, and former pool hall girl Yilian (Catherine Chau), support their respective mistresses in different ways but are each responsible for and reflective of their emotional difficulties. Yilian, in a heartfelt conversation with the otherwise perspicacious Nini, explains that she puts up with Yuwen’s sometimes divaish antics and is happy to act as an all purpose maid because Yuwen has also been loyal to her – supporting both herself and her son even after she became famous, making plain that Yuwen is, deep down, a sincere and caring person. Xiuling, meanwhile, is cast as somewhat cold and distant, keeping Nini at arms length and the relationship professional despite Nini’s, as it turns out, entirely accurate characterisation of her strangely intense friendship with adoring lesbian heiress “Master” Fu Sha (Bai Baihe).

Despite the supposed liberality of the arts, Xiuling is not the only one to experience mild discomfort with homosexuality even if her coming around to a surprise announcement from her son eventually gives hope to the lovelorn Sha whose confused grandmother has offered a vast bounty in the hope of hooking a prime son-in-law in a ripped straight from the headlines subplot. Transgender playwright An (Kam Kwok-Leung) encounters frequent transphobic slurs passed off as an extension of divaish lovey banter and is never fully accepted as a woman by her colleagues, subtly hinting at the extent to which LGBTQ issues still struggle for mainstream acceptance.

Underneath the high camp and beautifully pitched melodrama, Kwan makes space for subtle barbs towards the creeping influence of the Mainland in Hong Kong cinema as Yuwen irritatedly admits she’s considering learning Mandarin while outraged that producers on a previous film had the audacity to dub her dialogue and insisting everyone stay in Hong Kong to watch the Cantonese version. Behind all the bitchiness and backstabbing, there is real affection for the Hong Kong entertainment industry if tempered by a mild anxiety for its future as exemplified by the strangely warm closing scene in which the two divas sit shoulder to shoulder appreciating the beauty of Victoria Harbour while acknowledging their own small role in ensuring it survives.


First Night Nerves screens as the opening gala of the 2019 Chinese Visual Festival at BFI Southbank on 2nd May where director Stanley Kwan will be present for a Q&A.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Tracey (翠絲, Jun Li, 2018)

Tracey PosterHong Kong has often sought to present itself through its cinema as an ultramodern, cosmopolitan city, claiming a kind of cultural freedom from Mainland oppression. In truth, however, there are areas in which it may disappoint itself. Jun Li’s debut feature, Tracey (翠絲), is in many ways an empathetic attempt to redress the balance in making plain the destabilising effect emotional repression can exert across an entire society, causing nothing other than the mutual unhappiness which provokes one person to oppress another in service of nothing more than conventionality.

A married, 50-something father of two grown up children, Tai-hung’s (Philip Keung) conventional, ordered life is disrupted when he receives a phone call telling him that a treasured childhood friend, Ching, has been killed while working in Syria as a war photographer. Unbeknownst to anyone, and not quite admitted even to himself, Ching had been the love of Tai-hung’s life and his death finally forces him into a reconsideration of the feelings which are now, perhaps, a lost opportunity. The sense of loss is doubly brought home when he collects Ching’s partner, Bond (River Huang), from the airport and discovers that he had been legally married to another man in the UK though the pair’s marriage certificate is not valid in Hong Kong which presents a problem in trying to repatriate Ching’s ashes.

Bond, himself from Singapore where homosexuality is at least technically still illegal, knew of Ching’s love for Tai-hung and Tai-hung’s unrealised attraction to Ching but struggles with Tai-hung’s decision to not to embrace his sexuality, preferring to marry and have children in pursuit of a conventional life. Despite having grown up in an arguably even more oppressive society, Bond is 20 years younger and has perhaps benefitted from an increasingly liberal world in which greater awareness has afforded him the vocabulary to process Tai-hung’s complex identity with a delicacy that was not available to Tai-hung in his youth, nor to his quasi-mentor Brother Darling (Ben Yuen) – a performer of Chinese Opera who specialised in female roles and confided to Tai-hung that he identified as a woman but is unlikely to have ever come across the term “transgender” let alone claim it as an identity.

Nevertheless, Bond’s arrival begins to push Tai-hung’s long repressed longing to the surface even if his first attempt to explain to Bond that he too identifies as a woman is met with mild derision as Bond misunderstands him in assuming his claiming of a female identity is an attempt to reject his homosexuality. What Tai-hung tries to explain to him is that he does not see himself as a gay man but a straight woman and therefore felt that pursuing his love for Ching, a man who loved men, would never have been a possibility. Fearing his gender identity would never be accepted by anyone, Tai-hung kept his true self hidden even from his closest friends and unwittingly placed a wedge between himself and the man he loved.

Bond pushes him still further with the perhaps unfair charge that his entire life has been essentially selfish and founded on the continued deception of his wife and children. Despite its seeming conventionality, Tai-hung’s family life is not altogether happy. His wife, Anne (Kara Hui), is a fiercely conservative sort who prizes nothing so highly as respectability as she proves by rifling through the maid’s room in search of evidence of sexual indiscretion which she later uses as grounds to suggest firing her. As the couple’s son Vincent (Ng Siu-hin) points out, there is also an unpleasant racial component to her puritanical morality which objects to her Indonesian maid having a right to a private life, fearing that she will bring “disease” into the house by sleeping with another “foreigner”. This is perhaps why she objects to her pregnant daughter’s (Jennifer Yu) desire to divorce her highflying lawyer husband when she discovers that his serial philandering has resulted in a sexually transmitted disease which he has passed to her and which has thankfully been detected early enough to avoid harming the baby.

Despite Anne’s pleas with her daughter that you don’t reject someone for turning out to be different than you assumed them to be, she is obviously not ready to accept Tai-hung’s authentic self despite having been aware that there was always something slightly amiss within their marriage which prevented it from being a true and total union. It is perhaps this sense of nagging incompleteness and unhappiness which has pushed Anne’s need for respectable conventionality into overdrive, as if a superficially successful adherence to the rules could be a substitute for emotional fulfilment. Her own suffering then seeks to push her daughter into the same space as a self-sacrificing housewife who has exchanged personal happiness for the cold comfort of social respectability. 

Thanks to reuniting with a now elderly Brother Darling and finding himself accepted by the younger Bond, Tai-hung begins to find the courage to embrace his true self and discovers that many of his friends and relatives are more supportive than he might have assumed even if some of them may need time to get over the initial shock. As his mother tells him, the important thing in life is learning to find one’s peace of mind – something which could only be helped by abandoning the outdated Confucian ideas which continue to define the social order in favour of something warmer, freer, and fairer built on mutual acceptance and compassion.


Tracey screens as the closing night gala of the eighth season of Chicago’s Asian Pop-Up Cinema on April 24, 7pm, at AMC River East 21. It will also be screened in London as the closing night of this year’s Chinese Visual Festival on 9th May, 6pm, at BFI Southbank where members of the cast and crew will be attendance for a Q&A.

 Original trailer (English subtitles)