Lovely Man: Hong Kong Film Festival Review

Hong Kong International Film Festival
Familiar tale of rediscovering family ties elevated by an engrossing central performance.

Anchored by an outstanding turn by Asian Film Award-winner Donny Damara and bathed in an appropriately seedy neon wash, Indonesian indie writer-director Teddy Soeriaatmadja’s Lovely Man is, in a word, lovely. Working with well-worn material about family relationships and father-daughter bonds that is never once in danger of falling into cliché this layered two-hander unfolds over the course of one enlightening and bittersweet night. Soeriaatmadja’s astute script and Damara’s sensitive, nuanced performance grab viewers from minute one and remain compelling throughout.

The film’s relatively brief running time (a scant 75 minutes) will make traditional distribution tricky, but Lovely Man will make its way onto most festival radars. In a perfect world it would see at least an art house release in Europe and North America, even though its steady, tolerant hand also desperately needs to be seen in Asia. The film could find space in newer outlets like VOD and perhaps premium cable.

Proper, devout 19-year-old Muslim woman Cahaya (Raihaanun) arrives in Jakarta from what can be assumed is her small town home just as the sun is setting. Armed with a piece of notepaper and a few rupiah, she’s in the city on a search for the father she hasn’t seen since she was four. Asking neighbors and shopkeepers in the area he lives in for Saiful gets her blank stares in return. When they finally figure out she means Ipuy, they point her in the right direction and say he’s “working” around Taman Lawang. Cahaya, naturally, goes looking for an office building or store.

When she locates Ipuy (Damara), she finds a transvestite prostitute plying her trade on the streets. In the initial minutes after encountering each other, both are shocked at the turn of evens. The innocent Cahaya is crushed at her father’s choices; Ipuy is horrified to see the daughter he willfully left behind.

And this is where things get interesting in Lovely Man. Soeriaatmadja plays with our expectations and perceptions of who Cahaya and Ipuy are while systematically dismantling those perceptions. Both are on a steep learning curve, and as the night wears on assorted buried truths and insecurities and come to light. Each makes their own specific sacrifices in order to connect with the other, however briefly, and each subtle revelation lends itself to reinterpretation of the characters.

This isn’t a cutting edge narrative by any stretch of the imagination, but as with Shakespeare, the themes don’t have to be new to be engaging. In the less flashy role Raihaanun matches Damara step for step as the daughter trying to reconcile the aggressive besequined streetwalker with her memory of a gentle man blowing bubbles with her as a child. It runs both ways though: Cahaya has her own demons, and Ipuy wrestles with the disconnect he discovers between what she shows him her life to be and what her life really is.

But it’s Damara’s show. With his square jaw and heavy brow, Damara jettisons excessive mannerisms for little details (playing with his eyelashes, fidgeting with his wig) and stays respectful of Ipuy. He uses words as weapons and comports himself in a way that makes clear the status transgender people hold in the world. When he finally relates to Cahaya as Saiful, his ruggedly handsome features carry a melancholy that speaks to what happens after the film is over. Ipuy is in trouble with some local gangsters and after he sends Cahaya home with a promise never to contact him again, it’s clear how the story truly ends.

Sales Karuna Pictures
Production company Karuna Pictures
Producer Indra Tamorron, Teddy Soeriaatmadja
Director Teddy Soeriaatmadja
Cast Donny Damara, Raihaanun, Yayu Aw Unru
Screenwriter Teddy Soeriaatmadja
Executive producer Millan Rushan
Director of Photography Jaisal Tanjung
Production Designer Richard Sibuea
Music Bobby Surjadi
Costume designer Ve Verdinand
Editor Waluyo Ichwandiardono
No rating, 75 minutes