Hong Kong Film Festival: Transvestites, Muslims and a ‘Lovely Man’

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Heat is a priceless commodity for a film in a festival, where hundreds of movies fight for attention in a very brief time span. At the 36th annual Hong Kong International Film Festival, the Indonesian movie “Lovely Man” is one that is sizzling.

This provocative and powerful film, part of the indie showcase here, is a father-daughter story unlike any you’ve seen. She’s 19, a devout Muslim, hoping to reconnect with the father who abandoned her and her mother when she was 4. He’s a fixture in the Taman Lawang area in Jakarta, Indonesia’s capital, where transvestite hookers ply their trade in the midnight hours. Both father (Donny Damara) and daughter (Raihaanun) are at turning points in their own personal crises.

There is a lot to be sorted out in writer/director Teddy Soeriaatmadja’s sixth film. The indie director has been making movies steadily since 2005. But “Lovely Man” may be the one that finally puts him on the international map; it has certainly emerged as one of the hot tickets in Hong Kong. His keen eye and intimate storytelling earned him a best director nomination at this year’s Asian Film Awards. (The prize went to Asghar Farhadi, the Iranian writer/director of ‘A Separation,’ which won the foreign language Oscar last month.)

Soeriaatmadja has essentially created a conversation between the two that unfolds over one night when the daughter takes a train from the countryside where she’s grown up to the city, in hopes of just seeing him. What she finds is nothing like the memories of a man blowing soap bubbles with her as a child -- instead he’s a vamp in a beaded red miniskirt and black stilettos working prostitute’s row. It’s hard to tell who is more shocked, the girl or the father who thought his secret would be safe from her forever.


Both actors are excellent as they move through a range of emotions and their characters figure out how they feel about each other, what they owe each other and whether, even though joined by blood, they can cross the huge cultural divide that would separate a transvestite and a devout Muslim in Jakarta. He is essentially a modern-day untouchable; she is basically an innocent. But in Soeriaatmadja’s hands, nothing is quite as it seems, and that is what keeps pulling you through the film. That and Damara’s incredible performance.

The actor, who earned his own Asian Film Award nomination for his turn in ‘Lovely Man,’ is mesmerizing as he flirts with potential johns and fights with his daughter. Words are the main weapons he’s been given to defend himself in a world that is exceedingly cruel to transgender people. But you see his vulnerability in the toss of that long hair courtesy of a wig, or the way he runs his finger under his eye, as if making sure the makeup is just right. These small gestures let you glimpse all the turmoil inside.

Ultimately, Soeriaatmadja has given us a moving one-act play on human connections and the power of love and forgiveness to change lives. It’s a stripped-down story about empowerment, and there’s nothing there that isn’t absolutely needed -- including that red-beaded mini.


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--Betsy Sharkey, Los Angeles Times Film Critic, reporting from Hong Kong