The superhero tradition gets a radical makeover in a new movie, with its filmmakers squaring off against homophobia and conservatism in Indonesia today.
Under a bright spotlight, a white-haired, black cat-suited superhero strikes a fierce pose, her beautifully painted face solemn and sultry. Her manicured talons are enough to make you think twice about crossing her, but it’s her spike-stiletto boots that are the real concern.
Unexpectedly, the Lady Gaga-like dominatrix struts over and flops down beside me on the couch, where I have been watching, entranced and intimidated.
“My feet are killing me! I’ve had to wear this outfit every day for a month!” Underneath all that pomp and pleather is the lovable Aming, down-to-earth even in sky-high heels.
Aming is the lead in Lucky Kuswandi’s Madame X, produced by Nia Dinata, co-written by Agasyah Karim, Khalid Kashogi and Lucky, and starring Joko Anwar, Ria Irawan, Robby Tumewu, Marcel Siahaan, Vincent Rompies, Fitri Tropica, Saira Jihan, Shanty, Sarah Sechan and Titi DJ.
With such a stellar cast, a slew of pop culture nods, groundbreaking CGI effects, costumes by top designers Tania Soeprapto, Isabel Patrice, Jeffrey Tan and Lenny Agustin, and makeup by MAC, Madame X is set to turn cinemagoers heads – as well as open their minds.
In the film, shy hairdresser Adam finds himself in sleepy village Tanjung Awan (Cloudy Point), and is taken in and trained up by couple Rudy and Yantje to become Madame X, a cross-dressing, hairdryer-toting superhero. He’s their last hope to save Capitol City from a hostile takeover by the evil Mr. Storm and his trio of witchy wives. With a high-powered makeup bag and styling kit, Madame X seeks to take down Mr. Storm and his homophobic political party before they can “win” the election.
From Concept to the Cinema
Madame X was conceived years ago by Nia and Aming, who have been in “constant discussion” since working together on Berbagi Suami, in which Aming had a small role as a taxi driver.
“We were talking about ghost characters, why they were always played by women … and then we stumbled upon the issue of superheroes either being very masculine or, like Catwoman, very sexy. Why couldn’t we have a transgendered superhero as a character? ” Nia says.
The founder and head of the nonprofit Kalyana Shira foundation, established in September 2006 by a group of independent film industry professionals concerned by the lack of Indonesian films that advocate women’s human rights issues, embodies feminist femininity, in a breezy, one-shoulder striped dress, and a welcoming demeanor that warms up the room.
“It’s been a challenge to develop the story, because a character cannot stand alone. We discussed the matter with scriptwriters Aga [Agasyah] and Ogie [Khalid] – I produced their first film Soccer & Gambling – and finished the first draft of the script in 2007.”
However, the first draft was too serious, far from the “crazy, campy film” Nia had envisaged, so she decided to let it “marinate” for a while, before calling on French script supervisor Miguel Machalski.
“I tried to stress to Miguel that we wanted it to be campy and entertaining. If it’s too dark then people who aren’t LGBT wouldn’t be able to enjoy it … I want everyone to enjoy it because whatever the sex is, the character is still a superhero. We were able to come up with a workable second draft.”
Nia invited Lucky to join the team, impressed by his direction of At Stake, another Kalyana Shira project.
Lucky is proud his feature film debut will be Madame X.
“I’m attracted to difficult subjects … these are things that people don’t talk about out of ignorance or fear. We should create a discussion.”
Travelling with At Stake across Indonesia helped Nia and Lucky to enhance Madame X’s realism.
“We met many transgendered people at those screenings, which was an eye-opener. They are so honest and so happy-go-lucky – although they are very unhappy in reality,” Nia says.
The people they met were willing to share their stories, including how they had to supplement their incomes with prostitution, which has been incorporated into the story.
The film’s mix of bold subject matter and flamboyant execution has piqued international interest.
“We already have invites to international film festivals for Madame X, some that aren’t even LGBT-specific … I thought let us finish the CGI first!” Nia says.
Madame X is set to have impressive CGI effects compared to previous Indonesian films, but for Lucky, the visuals only play a supporting role.
“What makes this film work is that we haven’t tried to make it a Hollywood film, it’s not a blockbuster. We know the low-budget thing is kind of funny, like with the Batman series.“What I want is for people to really care about the characters.”
Indeed, the characters seem to have more stories than one film can contain. Lucky holds off on discussing sequels – “Let’s get this one done first!” – but Nia confirms a Madame X comic is in development, and will serve as a prequel.
“We’re also creating online games, like Madame X rescuing transvestites, as part of the marketing.”
Preaching to the Conformists
Madame X, though set in a parallel world, has an important message to deliver on the current situation in Indonesia.
“There are many groups in Indonesia trying to impose their beliefs on people by force. This movie speaks to those people,” says Joko, the well-known screenwriter and director who, in his first mainstream supporting role, plays Aling, Adam’s best friend and fellow transvestite.
Nia adds that as OTT as Madame X might appear, her plight and flight reflect the struggles of Indonesia’s disenfranchised, whatever their outlook.
“[The film addresses] a very relevant issue to Indonesia today, which I will only talk to The Jakarta Post about – I don’t want to talk to any other media. When we wrote this script we based it on the tendencies of the conservative militants. Adam is triggered by the injustice of the conformists,” she says.
“If you can stand up for yourself and defend the weak, then you are a superhero. You can fight with as many means as possible, from hairdryers to hairpins – very simple things from your own environment.”
Life Imitating Art
With the memory of the controversially cancelled Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex (ILGA) regional conference, due to be held in Surabaya, East Java in March this year, fresh in people’s minds, Madame X’s timing seems almost too perfect.
“We didn’t plan it! My God, it’s scary!” Nia says.
However, Nia is not worried by the public’s reaction. Her main concern is that the film will receive too restrictive a rating due to the subject matter.
“I think the film should be PG-13, because the violence is really mild … my 12-year-old watched Batman and Spiderman, this film is milder than those two. Teenagers especially need to learn to become tolerant.”
Madame X was originally intended to go on general release at the end of July, but will likely be delayed to avoid clashing with Ramadan, which will start on August 11.
Nia theorizes the film’s neutral title will keep it under the radar of disapproving groups.
“With Berbagi Suami [Love for Share] the militants did not pay attention to it because it had a nonthreatening title, we hope it will be the same with Madame X – it’s not called Transvestite X.”
Transgendered characters typically serve as comic relief in Indonesian cinema. It’s only been in recent years – with films like Arisan and Kala – that gay and transgendered characters have been depicted more three-dimensionally. Nia says Madame X will continue the trend, ensuring that while the transvestite characters are funny, they’re also powerful.
It may appear that Indonesia has been leading the way with LGBT films lately, many of which Nia herself has been involved with. Nia disagrees, saying it is a matter of perception.
“We don’t have many choices, so when a film with queer themes comes up, people focus on it … in Europe they have more choices, so the films float around, are less noticed. In the West, scholars and most academia often think Asian people are very introverted and polite … if something with an edge comes up, it’ll immediately become a focus of discussion.”
Lucky sees Madame X as more than a LGBT film, and hopes straight audiences will find plenty to enjoy and think about.
“If there was a Madame X in real life, the world would be a better place.”
The Many Sides of Aming
By the time Aming is ready for his interview, Madame X has vanished. With his square-cut glasses and smart-casual ensemble, the actor resembles a university student. His low tone of voice is almost deafened by the giggly antics of Vincent and Fitri as they pose for the camera a few meters away.
“Madame X is Adam’s alter ego. He always dreamed about being a superhero, fighting villains … fighting for minorities. Adam’s shy, a bit of a coward … he’s always hiding his inner personality from people,” Aming says.
So is Madame X Adam’s true self, his inner personality?
“One of his many sides,” Aming says.
“This movie isn’t just about gender issues – it addresses gender, politics, beauty issues. I think some people will respond badly, but I don’t care, because we don’t talk directly, we use metaphors, analogy.”
While he again stresses the discomfort of his costume – “If there’s a sequel, I want a different haircut and outfit!” – he says playing Madame X came easily to him, and was his best acting experience so far.
“Can you imagine getting to fly, jump? I love the theme, I love the story … I love everything about it.”
Still, Aming doesn’t want to only be known for playing offbeat characters.
“Maybe some day I will play a boy next door. I think when you play somebody who is ordinary, it’s a challenge for you to make it extraordinary.”
No Joko-ing Matter
Like Aming, Joko found playing a drag queen well within his range, although he hadn’t expected to be cast as one in the film. He had simply been determined to be involved, and had contacted Lucky requesting a role.
“I wasn’t actually expecting to get a big part. Aling is the Jiminy Cricket of the film, the conscience … she tells the hero/ine to stand up and fight the bad people,” Joko says.
Lucky is almost as surprised as Joko that the latter snagged the “second to main role”.
“The decision to try Joko in the role came quite late. He brings a lot of sass, which is great for the character.”
Robby Tumewu and Ria Irawan: The Not-so-Odd Couple
Next up are Robby and Ria, who play Madame X’s mentors Rudi and Yantje. Having only heard them referred to as a duo, I am unsure who is playing who.
My question provokes much laughter.
“That’s a good question!” Nia says.
“I play Rudi. I’m very charismatic … I’m a trainer of the president’s security force,” answers actor and fashion designer Robby.
“Yantje was the hairdresser of the first lady, and then he had a sex change. Then we set up an NGO that defends LGBT and moved to Tanjung Awan.”
Harder than escaping his acting comfort zone – Robby typically plays serious, Chinese characters – was the physicality of the role, as Rudi dances and fights, combining the two for Madame X’s signature battle style.
“During the shoot he screamed before every take, ‘my goodness, why did I choose this role?!’” Nia says.
As Yantje is wheelchair-bound, Ria was spared Robby’s hijinks, but says acting as a paraplegic had its own challenges.
“It was difficult to keep my legs still,” she says.
Playing a man playing a woman came more easily to the gay icon and transvestite beauty contest judge.
“She’s actually a transvestite born with a woman’s body … seriously!” Nia says.
Ria expects Madame X will shock, but believes that will help effect positive change. She points out Berbagi Suami, in which she starred, indirectly led to women being allowed to divorce their husbands in Malaysia, as women’s rights NGO Sisters in Islam used the film to illustrate the pitfalls of polygamy.
Madame X’s ‘Silent’ Partner
Vincent, done with hamming it up for his photo shoot, strolls over and begins cracking jokes that cannot be repeated here. He’s Din, the Q-like inventor responsible for Madame X’s lethal beauty kit. Mute in the film, he gamely makes up for lost time.
“I’m the main talent … the hero … I’ll sing it,” he quips, bursting into Mariah Carey’s chart-topper.
Ria notes Vincent’s verbosity was one of the reasons they had to keep doing retakes.
“He always came in for the readings, even though he didn’t have any dialogue!” Nia adds.
After very graphically elaborating upon – and demonstrating – why Wonder Woman is his favourite superhero, Vincent pulls down his pants and waddles off.
The Virtuous Villain
For all his naughtiness, Vincent is one of the good guys – at least in the film. The soft-spoken Marcel Siahaan on the other hand, is the sinister Mr. Storm. I find it hard to believe he could summon up villainy as he shakes my hand, smiles winningly and thoughtfully describes his character.
“I head this organization that dreams of making a better society, free from drugs, casual sex … but actually I’m a big hypocrite,” he says.
“But in the end, you will sympathize with him, because of what you find out about his childhood. He had a very controlling father.”
Perhaps Mr. Storm’s daddy issues resulted in him assembling a harem of women to fight his battles – Sarah Sechan, Shanty and Titi DJ play his three wives, each with their own superpowers, ranging from witchcraft to knife-throwing.
Marcel says he was very comfortable working with the three, as they were already his friends.“The trick was treating them as wives … I couldn’t stop laughing, especially Sarah the second wife … she tortured us with jokes.”
For Marcel, the appeal of the role lay in the creative challenge – it’s his first time playing a bad guy – and working with Kalyana Shira.
“It’s not just about making movies, but opening people’s minds.”
The Cherry on Top
When Marcel gets up, Fitri plops herself in his place. Everything she says or does has the room roaring with laughter, but I manage to pin her down on a few points.
The popular television presenter is Cun Cun, Aling’s lesbian mechanic sister, who invents the Madame X-mobile.
“In every movie, you need eye candy … someone beautiful … with inner beauty … my part is the cherry on top,” Fitri says grandly, trying to keep a straight face.
Lucky had been a fan of Fitri from TV and approached her for what would be her debut feature film role. She accepted immediately, having no qualms about possibly being typecast as a lesbian.
“I didn’t even know how to act like a lesbian. Nia taught me how a buci [butch lesbian] would act … I learned by doing,” she says.
Her priority was working with actors and filmmakers that she admired, she says in a rare serious moment.
“Are we done?” she asks.
We are. It’s been a long day. Within moments, the small studio is dark and empty, with not even a deadly hairpin left behind by the stylish superheroes who plan to change the world, one closed mind at a time.
Madame X will premiere October 6, with an open-to-the-public midnight showing September 25 and general release October 7. All screenings will have English subtitles.
The cast and crew reveal the heroes they look up to.
Nia: When I was small I liked Superman, the Christopher Reeves one … it’s very interesting to see him being very weak in the office, and then taking off the glasses and becoming this very strong hero. I also liked the idea of his father being from a different planet. Now, I love watching films like Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, I like Michelle Yeoh’s character … she’s a fierce fighter.
Robby: I like Robin Hood, I always wanted to be him. I don’t care about the films, just the timeless character. His glass is half-full, he helps people.
Ria: From Western ones, I like Superman because he’s a journalist and he can fly. That used to be my ambition – I was a journalist before and now, I just dream I can fly. For the local, I like Srikandi because she has a sexier bustier than Wonder Woman.
Lucky: When I was little I loved Sen Seya [Japanese anime], this group of superheroes that used the power of horoscope. Sen Seya was a Sagittarius … his costume could turn into a centaur.
Vincent: Wonder Woman … she always turned me on when I was a kid.
Marcel: I love superheroes who retain their human side, ones without superpowers, ones who overcome an accident, like Iron Man, who becomes Iron Man because he’s rich and smart – it’s not magic. And Batman, because he’s a ninja.
Fitri: I like Power Rangers … the yellow and pink ones. And Sailor Moon, because of the costumes and girl power!
Aming: Madame X – she’s stronger than any other superhero!