Screens at CIFF: 10/12 & 10/14 & 10/16
World premiere: 7 October, 2010, Indonesia

Here is a place that I don't think any of us expected the present superhero movie wave to to end up going: a transgender crime fighter in a shiny leather catsuit fighting a conservative Islamic presidential candidate who wants to turn Indonesia into a fundamentalist world of burka-clad women and rigidly enforced traditional sexual identities. I give you Lucky Kuswandi's Madame X.

There's not much more plot to it than I just gave you, but for the sake of form: Adam (Amink, which I take to be a stage name) is a drag queen who has pulled herself up from a life of sorrows to be one of the finest hairdressers in all the land. Meanwhile, Mr. Storm (Marcell, ditto), the leader of the National Morality Party, is calling for a return to simple life and Godly values; one of his three wives, Bunda Lilas (Sarah Sechan) is a psychic who has discovered that some hairdresser out there might be a threat to their plans. One run-in with the anti-gay gang BOGEM later, Adam has escaped to the home of Auntie Yantje (Ria Irawan), a sort of transsexual fairy godmother, and her husband Uncle Rudi (Robby Tumewu), little suspecting that her rescuers have been preparing for the arrival of a hero to take on the role of fighter against oppression and defender of everybody's right to their own happiness and sense of self: they shall transform Adam into the superhero Madame X.

Happily, the film strikes a fine balance between camp for camp's sake on the one hand, and genuinely sharp, even savage, social satire on the other. Madame X isn't just a goofy lark about drag-themed Batman tools - though it is that, and it is at times hilarious - it's also a cutting attack on Indonesia's crummy record on gender issues, one that understands as well as any satire of recent vintage that the key to taking down enemies with more power and influence than you is through pointed mockery. And just for good measure, the film has a thick lump of humanism underpinning both the camp and the satire - Adam is an inordinately sweet and likable character, and her travails are genuinely touching, while the cartoon characters on both sides - from her best friend and later angel Aline (Joko Anwar) to Dr. Storm's three supervillain wives, caricatures of stereotypical femininity - are always played as humans, more than the sum of their jokes. It's a genuinely pleasant movie, and that is maybe another important thing the film understands: in the face of people who hate you, don't hate back, just be genuine and open and nice.

That said, Madame X is not just a queer superhero movie, it's a queer superhero origin story, and if there's one thing we've learned from the last decade of comic book adaptations, from X-Men down the lumpy Thor and the idiotic Green Lantern, it's that getting us up to speed on a superhero is not remotely as much fun as watching the superhero doing their superheroism. And Madame X is goddamn lousy with backstory - Auntie Yantje and Uncle Rudi don't even show up until well past the one-third mark, and for over an hour, the film is more about Adam's reluctance to be anything but a fantastic hairdresser and lover of pop culture than it is about anything else. 100 minutes of this movie is really too much, given how slight the concept is at heart, and only the last 35 minutes or so, from about the time that Aline's spirit appears to Adam from the sea (a wonderfully comic scene) are absolutely on fire. Not that the film is boring, necessarily, before that; but it is significantly less interesting and there's only so many ways you can stage the scene "hairdressers are catty" before it loses its comic zing.

By all means, Madame X is a worthwhile movie; it's just a slightly long and wandering worthwhile movie. I am ecstatic for its sequel hook, and I pray such a thing gets made (and getting made, is ever made available to us Yanks), for such things usually go well. In the meantime, there is still the lovely central characterisation, and Kuswandi's bubbly use of color and deliberately cheesy effects to keep Madame X bright and entertaining; when it works, it's fun, agreeably wacky, heartfelt, and wacky, and when it doesn't work, it's still not nearly so serious that it's hard to watch. I'd have preferred it worked more than it does, but an intermittently frustrating camp epic is better than a shrill and strained camp epic like the ones we tend to get in America these days.