CIFF 2011: Madame X (2010)

Director: Lucky Kuswandi

2011 Chicago International Film Festival

By Marilyn Ferdinand

If you’re looking for a pick-me-up after taking in some of the somber fare at this year’s festival, or if you want to add a genuinely funny satire to your DVD collection, Madame X is the movie for you. This Indonesian comedy based on a character created by its star, comedian Amink, pits a would-be transsexual hairdresser against the forces of puritanical morality, taking every cliché of the spy/superhero genre and tailoring them to the clichés of drag life. Unlike the title character of the 1966 American women’s film of the same name, this Madame X doesn’t suffer in silence—she kicks ass!

The film opens with a disheveled drag queen named Adam (Amink), her falsies popping out of her mini-dress, getting screamed at by a truck driver who found her sprawled in the bed of his truck. He calls her names and then reluctantly decides to give her a ride back to the capital city. Once inside the truck, he demands that she give him a blow job, but tosses her out when she puts a little too much tooth into it. The film flashes back to show us how she ended up in the back of the truck and sets up what will happen for the rest of the film.

Adam is working in a hair salon, celebrating her birthday, and dishing about the news blaring from the TV. Aline (Joko Anwar), a large and sassy drag queen, worships a Paris Hilton knock-off, Kinky Amalia (Shanty), who has been married 11 times in her alleged 22 years on earth; Adam, on the other hand, thinks she’s a skank and uses magic to maintain her youthful looks. She doesn’t know how right she is. Kinky and Bunda Lilas (Sarah Sechan), two wives of Dr. Storm (Marcell), the mysterious leader of a morality party, are driving around looking for a homosexual hairdresser who is celebrating a birthday; Bunda Lilas, a second-rate psychic, thinks this person is a danger to their diabolical plans. When she finds Adam, Bunda Lilas blows some animated red dust from her magic ring on Adam and her birthday cake, which looks cool and vaguely evil, but doesn’t seem to do much of anything.

When Adam, Aline, and the rest of the gang go out to celebrate her birthday at a gay disco, they are raided by the paramilitary gay-bashing organization BOGEM, and herded into the back of a truck. Aline escapes, does a victory dance in the street, and is promptly run over by a truck. Adam, infuriated, attacks her attackers and is thrown over a viaduct, which is how she landed in the bed of her rapist’s pick-up and eventually ends up in hiding at a dance studio run by former special ops fighter Uncle Rudi (Robby Tumewu) and his transsexual wife Auntie Yanje (Ria Irawan). (Note that despite the subtitles, Auntie Yanje is the only transsexual character in the film.) They teach Tari Lenggok, a martial arts dance form they invented, and Adam, learning of their secret spy operations, becomes their chosen crusader for the forces of freedom and equality when Mr. Storm and his wives kidnap the female dancers to be used as sex slaves in Thailand. Adam dons their black-leather, cone bra superhero suit, takes up their modified curling iron, blow dryer, hat pin weaponry, and becomes Madame X.

The trajectory of the plot is standard action hero stuff, circa 1965, mixed with special effects that are minimal and played for laughs, vaguely tracking with those that can be found in Big Trouble in Little China. The film is also liberally sprinkled with entertaining musical numbers that add to the enjoyment of this buoyant film. Two things make this film stand out as more than a cheap parody—the troubles it addresses are real, and its drag queens have none of the hyperflamboyant hostility found in so many American films. Gay bashing and the gay community’s fear and rebellion as depicted in the film are real; Madame X offers a positive, if lighthearted attitude to fighting the powers of conservatism. These strengths are a tribute to the writing, which provides character touches without exaggerating them, and the acting, which dignifies each character with a well-realized interpretation, no matter how cartoonish some of their behaviors may be.

The set pieces in the film are brilliantly executed without resort to 3D, CGI, casts of thousands, or any of the other extravagances of modern action films. It was a kick to watch Madame X wail on the baddies with cartoon starbursts saying POW and BAM in Indonesian. Adam’s showdown with the three wives—one played by pop singer Titi DJ is an opera star with, of course, a concussive high C—allows each of these characters to be broadly comic women, not robots who are pure evil because the script doesn’t want to deal with their humanity, arguing for dominance and jumping to their deaths in pursuit of a real crocodile designer handbag Madame X has thrown over the railing. In a hilarious scene, Adam is running on a beach when a vision of Aline rises over the horizon, illuminated with an angelic halo. The pair chitchats a bit before Aline gives the obligatory “avenge my death” order and then sinks with a quick slurp back into the sea. I can’t commend Joko Anwar enough for his comic panache in this role.

Adam is an incredibly appealing character—sweet with just a bit of sass, sincere, and for a drag queen, amazingly free of affectation. She is who she is, moving from a part-time whore for her worthless boyfriend to someone who finds the heroine within and a cause worth fighting for. Flashbacks to her childhood show her wearing a dress in the bedroom of her boyhood friend Hamar, who received a beating and an “x” marked with a machete on his chest by his homophobic father. Hamar breaks with Adam, blaming him for the abuse that will go on to warp and wreck his life. Sweetly, however, the film ends with a memory of the two youngsters sitting on a roof and enjoying each other’s company, a good feeling the film generates about the homosexual community that makes Madame X’s crusade one we hope will succeed.

Madame X will screen Wednesday, October 12, 1:45 p.m., Friday, October 14, 10:15 p.m., and Sunday, October 16, 4:10 p.m. All screenings take place at the AMC River East 21 Theatres, 322 E. Illinois St.

Previous coverage

Southwest: A haunting, beautifully photographed journey of discovery, as a young woman who dies in childbirth gets a second chance to live to old age, but only one day in which to live it. (Brazil)

On the Bridge: Moving documentary about the torments of posttraumatic stress disorder suffered by Iraq veterans and the failure of the VA medical establishment to help them. (France/USA)

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    25th/09/2011 to 10:18 pm

    “Unlike the 1966 American women’s film of the same name, this Madame X doesn’t suffer in silence—she kicks ass!”

    Indeed Marilyn, as you convey throughout this amazingly candid piece that tells it like it is. I know the Far East’s attitude towards the transgendered is relaxed, if not fully accepting. Yep, I’m all for this crusade to succeed as well, and look forward to this film’s release here in theatres and/or on DVD. Boy that opening reminds me of the second scene in FEMALE TROUBLE with Devine playing both the role of the drag queen and the pervert mechanic.

    Anyway, terrifically passionate piece here.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    26th/09/2011 to 8:33 am

    Sam – This film is a comedy with a message, but the comedy comes first. The 60s inspiration for the story melds with melodrama, musical, and action forms. Great stuff.

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