VAFF 2012 Review: Tales of the Waria (dir: Kathy Huang)
When talking about the LGBTQ community, one tends to hear of the abuse and atrocities committed by certain hateful individuals or groups and the pains with which the community combats these homophobic slurs. Tales of the Waria does tackle the prejudice and homophobia in a strictly Muslim society in Indonesia, but director Kathy Huang also infuses the film with love and heart. The four subjects in Huang’s film are warias – transgendered women – grappling with finding and keeping love within the dictates of their religion. Tiara, Mama Ria, Suharni, and former waria Firman highlights the struggle and joy of being a waria in Indonesia.
Huang tries to center the film by giving the viewers an indication that warias in Indonesia are somewhat accepted. Tiara, the successful entertainer, explains that warias used to be part of the sultan’s (king’s) entourage, to serve and service him. In a sense warias have a certain historical significance within society. Although there is acceptance — they are ubiquitous in the beauty and entertainment industry in Indonesia – society generally does not accept relationships between men and warias. The four subjects in Huang’s film tackle what love is to a waria.
What Tiara understands is that as a waria, she can never bewhat her lover wants her to be: raise a family and marry. These are things a waria cannot have. Although her break-up with her long-time love of seven years has left her pessimistic about her chances of finding love again, her cynicism is mitigated by her zest in life. She fills her days with work and mentoring a young waria to be an entertainer. She accepts that men will come and go in her life, never as anything permanent. What the film says about these women is that finding a man and loving him, however long that may be, is their goal. It may seem distasteful to western audiences to see this kind of subservience, but to a waria this is natural. To Suharni a waria does not have a full life if he doesn’t have man: “laki-laki asli.” She is in a stable relationship with a lover who accepts and loves her for who she is, even when she confessed to him that she was HIV positive. Suharni. On the flip side, Firman, a former waria, due to family and religious pressure, embraces a heterosexual existence. Although he insists that he is happy, he admits that he still imagines being a waria and occasionally desires men. His parents are happy that he has shed his waria mannerisms and raised a family. His wife believes that he is happy and loving and provides for them well. There are moments in the film when we see Firman’s struggle to be what everyone wants him to be, and his struggle to be what he needs to be.The matriarch of the group is Mama Ria. She has had a relationship with a married man for over 18 years. His wife doesn’t begrudge the relationship between Ria and her husband; rather, she sees it as a boon and considers Ria a second wife. However, with age comes the realization that beauty fades and Ria is worried that her husband will not feel the same way towards her. Inevitably, she undergoes cosmetic surgery to look younger. Despite having to do all of this, her relationship falters and ends and she becomes a divorcee to her friends.
Huang’s film encourages a different understanding on transgendered women, apart from asking why they want to be women when they’re men questions. She emphasizes on how these women are part of society and struggle to find love and their place in it. She highlights their philosophy about men, why they are necessary, and why they need affection.