Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

"To demonstrate so clearly that an intersex body can be a source of pleasure and joy, in a context shaped not by pornographers but by intersex people themselves, is nothing short of revolutionary."

There’s never an easy time to get one’s first period, but it’s particularly unfortunate when it happens whilst swimming. Especially if one is in the company of a girl one is keen to impress. And especially if – up until that moment – one thought one was a completely ordinary boy.

In the immediate term, Adam’s (Gold Azeron) parents do all the right things. They remain calm. They are practical and matter of fact. They remind him that he’s loved and they tell his school that he’s ill and won’t be able to go in the next day, giving him a bit of time to adjust. After that, however, there begins a journey which intersex viewers will regard with dread – one in which every aspect of Adam’s identity is called into question.

For some viewers, Adam’s situation will be as mysterious as it is to him, so it’s worth saying, briefly, that the neat categories of male and female which most of us are raised to consider absolute are not biologically consistent. That is, some people are born with, or develop at adolescence, a mixture of characteristics associated with each, or characteristics which don’t quite match what’s expected of either. Most intersex people are perfectly healthy but social and religious pressures often lead their parents to make drastic decisions about what’s best for them. As Adam’s father is a pastor, see earlier proclaiming that God made people male and female, it’s clear that there’s a risk of the teenager’s own concerns being overridden, denying him the chance to figure out for himself how he feels about being different.

In the very first scene, Adam appears wearing a yellow t-shirt trimmed with purple – the colours of the intersex flag – so it’s clear that the film is informed by the movement for intersex bodily autonomy. It’s not simply focused on sending a message, however. Azeron, who is intersex himself, is impressive in the role, presenting us with someone who is first and foremost a teenager like any other. Adam is not politically sophisticated nor even very interested in talking to most adults. He doesn’t have the attention span to focus on the subject for very long, and whilst he worries about fitting in and begins to question his gender – or at least way that his peers suggest a boy ought to behave – he’s easily distracted by other concerns.

Every teenager has to reckon with body issues, and Adam is adapting to awareness of his difference at the same time as he’s beginning to experiment sexually and expand his social horizons. Whilst his parents are concerned about him being intersex, they pay only fleeting attention to the fact that his girlfriend is nine years his senior; they don’t even notice that he’s taken up smoking or that he has what may be a mutual crush on an older man in a position of power over him. Like most young people, he muddles through, enjoying a fair amount of good luck and balancing out the pain of mistakes with the joy he is beginning to find in his changing flesh. A scene in which he experiments with masturbation may make some viewers uncomfortable because of his age, but it’s hard to express how important it is to have reached a point in cinema where this is possible. Intersex narratives have been controlled by doctors for centuries, later to be framed in terms of suffering and pity. To demonstrate so clearly that an intersex body can be a source of pleasure and joy, in a context shaped not by pornographers but by intersex people themselves, is nothing short of revolutionary.

There’s an echo of this at the end of the film when director JE Tiglao makes the decision to show Adam’s body in full. This will doubtless be controversial within the community. Intersex bodies are not there to be gawped at, to satisfy others’ curiosity. The impact of this decision, however, is powerful. In the context in which it appears, it situates Alex very plainly as a normal boy who just happens to have different looking genitals, the latter not shocking or weird (or, here, even sexual) but just a natural part of the body they belong to. It’s a bold act of demystification which combines with Azeron’s performance to make a powerful statement – and does so without in any way disrupting or diminishing the story.

Adam’s experiences are shaped in many ways by his cultural circumstances. It is noted, briefly, that had he grown up in the West his story would have been very different. In the Philippines he has been free to reach adolescence without interference, but that doesn’t mean that the society around him is free from problems. We see the homophobia rife in his school. We watch poor people queueing up to see a visiting doctor, dependent on charity for medical care. We see how his mother is affected by illiteracy, still a common problem in her generation, and how dependent it makes her on his father. There’s a general sense that life is improving, but that in itself raises a question: can the Philippines figure out how to treat people like Adam humanely before ‘progress’ imposes a medical approach on what is not necessarily a medical problem, or a problem at all?

An important contribution to the growing body of intersex cinema, Metamorphosis screened as part of Newfest 2021. It’s a well made, engaging piece of work with the potential to be enjoyed by a wide audience, and one of the best Filipino films on any subject for several years.

Reviewed on: 25 Oct 2021
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Metamorphosis packshot
An intersex boy comes of age and explores the ambiguities of his identity and desires.

Director: JE Tiglao

Writer: JE Tiglao, Boo Dabu

Starring: Gold Azeron, Iana Bernardez, Dylan Ray Talon

Year: 2019

Runtime: 98 minutes

Country: Philippines


Newfest 2021

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