REGINA Karis was moved by Indonesian Film Festival selection, Lovely Man – a film showcasing the relationship between a daughter and her father, who happens to be a transvestite.
Directed by 37-year-old Indonesian screenwriter Teddy Soeriaatmadja, Lovely Man was one of the many fantastic films featured in Melbourne’s most recent Indonesian Film Festival.
On the surface, the premise is actually quite simple. Hailing from a small village, nineteen-year-old Cahaya (Raihaanun) arrives in Jakarta one afternoon with less than a day to complete one mission: to search for her long lost father. Armed with a blurring memory and a handwritten address, she finally locates him on the streets, expecting to see the man who left her when she was four.
Only the man is not what Cahaya is expecting.
Cahaya is met with a man all dolled up in a sparkly, indecently short red mini-dress and black stiletto heels.
Donny Damara, who plays Ipuy, a transgender sex worker, is hardened by his difficult life. He’s unhappy to see his daughter and he’s even unhappier when he finds out she’s there to see him and to get to know him.
It’s only after she accepts his deal that he concedes: he’ll stay with her just this one night if she won’t contact him ever again.
The duo’s relationship starts out roughly at first. Ipuy won’t budge an inch, hurling accusation after accusation at his daughter, not at all hesitant to yell at her in the middle of the street. Cahaya, for her part, meets him blow-by-blow with a relentless, dogged kind of patience he doesn’t actually deserve. We watch as Cahaya persists and Ipuy finally softens.
They slowly grow closer throughout the night, tentatively transforming into father and daughter right before your eyes.
But the gentle mood does not last long, with the night taking on a more sinister note as time passes.
It is soon revealed that Ipuy owes a 30 million rupiah debt to some gangsters who want the money back in full by the next day. After an almost deadly encounter with these gangsters where he is threatened and assaulted, Ipuy goes home to find Cahaya sleeping on the staircase of his apartment, waiting for him.
The ending is all kinds of heartbreaking.
In the morning Cahaya leaves Jakarta to go back to her hometown, bearing the promise to never seek out her father ever again, and Ipuy is left to deal with last night’s gangsters. To us, it’s clear what his fate is—and it’s not a happy one.
Raihaanun is a talented actress, able to evoke sympathy with well-timed tears and trembling lips, but it is Damara who truly steals the show. He bats his eyelashes, throws a flirty line or two, and the audience oohs in delight. As he speaks to Cahaya a little bit more gently, and gazes at her for a second too long, the audience aahs, completely moved. His performance as Ipuy is nuanced and layered, his facial expressions and mannerisms subtle yet expressive enough that we are pulled right back into his world.
Bathed in gritty neon lights reminiscent of Jakarta nightlife, Lovely Man bravely strides out of Indonesian cinema’s comfort zone and tackles the controversial issue of transvestite culture in the country, a topic most Indonesian films still turn their backs on. And on the rare occasions when the issue is addressed, it’s treated with misguided comedy.
Lovely Man provides us with an insight into the dark reality of transvestites and sex workers, and it does so proudly.