Reviews: “Tales of the Waria” and “When Hainan Meets Teochew”

On Thursday, August 11, the Asian American International Film Festival presents LBGTQ (Lesbian, Bisexual, Gay, Transgender, Queer) Cinema Night at the Clearview Chelsea on West 23rd Street in Manhattan.  “Tales of the Waria,” which screens at 6:30 p.m., is a documentary about a community of men who live openly as women in Makassar, the capital of the Indonesian province of South Sulawesi.  It is followed by the 8:30 p.m. screening of “When Hainan Meets Teochew,” a farcical romantic comedy from Singapore about a “womanly” man, a “manly” woman, her ex-girlfriend and their families.

Of the six features I prescreened for the festival, “Tales of the Waria” is by far the best.  Directed by Kathy Huang, an emerging star in the documentary world, this hour-long film is an intimate portrait of four men who have lived as warias and their search for love.  According to Tiara, the most flamboyant of the four, warias are accepted in South Sulawesi because, before the arrival of Islam, crossdressed men took care of the king.  Although it is nice to know that this community is not being actively persecuted in Makassar today, the rest of the film demonstrates just how superficial this acceptance can be.

We hear repeatedly from disapproving family members, and we see how difficult it is for warias to find long-term and satisfying romantic relationships.  While Tiara has given up on finding a partner completely, Mami Ria was a “second wife” for 18 years.  During the course of the film, this relationship slowly disintegrated, and his desperate attempt to revive it by undergoing plastic surgery went nowhere.  Suharni was in a seemingly more stable relationship, but she eventually moved to Bali to pursue economic opportunities.  Meanwhile, Firman became convinced that the waria way of life was immoral; he prayed to God to make him a “real man,” and settled into a “normal” marriage with his wife.

Beautifully shot and edited, Huang brilliantly captures the humanity of the four subjects who courageously revealed not only their feelings about life as a waria, but also intimate details about their pasts and their love lives.  Despite the subjects’ hardships, “Tales of the Waria” is ultimately uplifting, giving audiences a glimpse of a thriving transgender community.  I only wish that it were a bit longer; I would have liked a more thorough exploration of the relationship between Islam as it is practiced in South Sulawesi and the waria community.

Written and directed by Han Yew Kwang, the absurdist and thoroughly entertaining romantic comedy “When Hainan Meets Teochew” revels in social awkwardness and the worlds of outcasts.  Its story begins when a bra belonging to the ex-girlfriend of Hainan Boy — the “manly” woman played by Lee Chau Min (“she” in the remainder of the review) — falls from a clothesline and lands on Ms. Teochew — the “womanly” man played by Tan Hong Chye (“he” in the remainder of the review).  After Hainan Boy cons Ms. Teochew’s landlord — a man who likes to talk to his doll — into letting her enter Ms. Teochew’s room to retrieve the bra, an altercation breaks out.  This leads the landlord to evict Ms. Teochew, and he moves into Hainan Boy’s spare room.  To complicate things even further, Hainan Boy’s ex-girlfriend dumps her new boyfriend and moves back into the apartment, creating hilarious scenes that essentially comprise “Three’s Company” on steroids.

Other memorable moments occur when Hainan Boy and Ms. Teochew negotiate between their own identities and the expectations of mainstream society.  While Hainan Boy is constantly dealing with ridicule from co-workers and looking for a fake boyfriend she can introduce to her ill mother, Ms. Teochew is wrecked by his inability to live up to either Confucian responsibilities or Western notions of manhood.  Specifically, he is haunted by his failure to “man up” and save his younger brother from the brawl that killed him 10 years earlier.

Han Yew Kwang’s film is a low-budget production, and he uses this lack of funds to his advantage.  He fittingly made no attempt to make the two lead actors glamorous, which might have been necessary if stars had been cast in those roles.  Similarly, the sparse walls and the slightly worn look of the apartment enhanced the claustrophobic atmosphere of the set.

“When Hainan Meets Teochew” is a funny and touching romantic comedy, but it makes no attempt to hide the challenges facing those who do not fit the normative gender and sexual identities in Singapore and elsewhere.  The film is, in short, the perfect nightcap for LBGTQ Cinema Night.

“Tales of the Waria” and “When Hainan Meets Teochew” screen at the Asian American International Film Festival in New York on Aug. 11. For ticket information, go to