Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

"Delicately performed and quietly magical, this film is something special."

If you were to believe the popular press – at least in the UK and US – you’d imagine that trans women couldn’t go anywhere or do anything without some sort of scandal following them. In real life, as Ismael Basbeth’s gentle drama shows, people generally try to empathise with each other and figure things out – just as they do when dealing with unrequited love, or bereavement, or any of life’s other challenges. This sensitively observed film, screening as part of Queer East, finds beauty and understanding and small moments of joy in even the most difficult situations.

Many years after leaving to build a life for herself in the city, Sara (Asha Smara Darra) returns to her remote Indonesian village, a place only accessible by boat. Her father has died and, although it subsequently emerges that they were estranged, she wants to do right by him and by her elderly mother Muryem (Christine Hakim). When she arrives, the villagers are engaged in a religious chant, washing the body, which is wrapped in a brightly patterned sheet. They chant Muslim prayers as they carry it away and she is led to join the women by her best friend, Ayu (Mian Tiara), who has only just learned of her transition but is sympathetic when Sara explains that she was afraid to talk about it before.

The bond between the two young women is tight, and it soon becomes apparent that there was a time when Ayu was in love with Sara, as she presented herself before. Still unmarried, she might have been waiting for her, and it’s not easy for her to accept that it’s never going to work out. Still, the same feelings compel her to stand by Sara’s side as they attempt to deal with a more urgent problem; since the loss of her beloved husband, Muryem has done nothing but lie in bed, and has stopped eating and drinking.

Forced into the position of carer, though she desperately wants to get back to the life she chose, Sara does her best to support the ailing woman, who manages to get back on her feet but has no memory of what has happened. She doesn’t know who Sara is, believing her only child to be dead, and she becomes more and more upset as she worries about her husband’s absence, wondering when he’ll come home. Eventually Sara is driven to take desperate action, yet it is not so much this but their small interactions in which the film finds its power. Sara discovers a side of herself that she never knew about before – one which, in this particular cultural context, might be seen as a deeper aspect of her femininity – and a connection develops which has the power to restore her.

Along the way, Basbeth immerses viewers in the rhythms of life in this sleepy but enchanting place, where the influence of nature is omnipresent and everyone looks out for everyone else. Sara’s change is a shock to some people but beyond an initial bit of passive aggression we see very little of this. The local imam, looking out for her, says that it’s just a matter of taking time to adjust. The doctor in the municipal hospital also urges patience, saying that Muryem may recover or she may not. It takes Sara a while to fully understand what they are trying to communicate: that life is full of uncertainties, and that’s okay – it’s not as difficult to cope with as we might assume.

Delicately performed and quietly magical, this film is something special. In spite of all its characters’ struggles, it succeeds in reminding viewers just what a wonderful adventure life is.

Reviewed on: 18 Apr 2024
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A trans woman returns to her remote village upon her father's death to find her traumatised mother in desperate need of her help.

Director: Ismail Basbeth

Writer: Ismail Basbeth

Starring: Asha Smara Darra, Christine Hakim, Mian Tiara, Jajang C Noer, Landung Simatupang

Year: 2023

Runtime: 99 minutes

Country: Indonesia


QueerEast 2024

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