Miss Andy (Taiwan/Malaysia, 2020) [OAFF 2020]

The human heart can be the most powerful and dishonest thing as it always burns with the embers of hope for love, companionship and empathy even when it seems a return on such feelings are impossible. That is what links all humans. Miss Andy is all about that hope in the face of such awful loneliness so that its story becomes universal.

This Malaysian-Taiwanese co-production was directed by Teddy Chin, a director, actor and screenwriter. He turns in a handsomely shot film, slightly sentimental, slightly melodramatic, mostly melancholy, as a transgender person simply seeking some human connection in modern-day Malaysia seemingly finds it with other victims of persecution. Together, they hope for better days amidst dark moments but the hope for human understanding betrays them.

When the film opens, we meet Evon (Lee Lee-zen), formerly known as Andy, going through one of the most humiliating periods of her life. Just picked up by the police after a desperate attempt at sex work goes dangerously wrong, she endures dehumanizing treatment that culminates in a degrading strip search. Surviving this loss of dignity, Evon then loses her best friend in violent circumstances and this leaves her reeling as she finds herself alone in the world. As we learn more about her backstory we understand her life has been one of loss. Having transitioned late in life whilst married and with two kids, Evon ended up losing her family and steady employment and now she finds herself really struggling.

After spending the opening documenting some of the ostracisation and violence that transgender people endure the narrative offers Evon a meeting with people in even more desperate circumstances, a Vietnamese illegal immigrant who goes by the name of Sophia (Ruby Lin) and her cute boy named Kang (Tou Kyzer). The two are fleeing a violent relationship and haven’t got a place to stay, food to eat or any citizenship papers which means they need Evon’s help. Empathetic after losing everything, Evon’s kindness is easily won especially by little Kang’s cuteness and innocence as he accepts her without question and this unthinking ability to accept others gives the film its heart.

The majority of the second act is devoted to showing the three tentatively forming a family of sorts. Little acts like offering a place to stay, cooking food and eating together warms the screen and provides the salve of kindness needed for each person to endure ever-precarious situations. It stands in contrast to the unfulfilled emotional needs and desire for security felt by characters who are exploited and rebuffed by others including family. The film never becomes maudlin and it moves at a gentle pace that allows us to get to know how the characters feel, the pain and the slow warming up to a human connection. The mere sense of belonging in a relationship where kindness is shown brings light to the dark world they inhabit and we are always aware due to the strong directorial style exhibited by Chin as he foregrounds the actors and conveys their emotional lives.

A lot of attention goes into the lighting with strong blocks of warm colours like red or deep blues lighting up the characters in the throes of happiness and dejection respectively. Most of the shots are mid or close-up so we view their faces and physical interactions quite intimately. The Taiwanese leads are solid in their roles. Singer/actor Lee does a fine job as Evon. He resists being showy and goes for stoicism and restrained, thwarted desire, while allowing the hurt to be etched into his long face and the need for human contact feeling very real. It is a strong central performance that others can form around. Lin in the role of Sophia doesn’t quite stick as a maternal figure despite doing her best to be deglammed but she gives a sense of a survivor. This makes her duplicitous actions that crown the film feel real and allow for a sad denouement that suggests that an absent of love due to abuse and exploitation ruins a person.

Most of the story is by the numbers but well done so we become invested in their connection even as we are aware that the characters may not get synchronized into the archetypal feel-good patchwork family. Chin’s direction centers the faces of the actors who do well to tell the story of their emotional ups and downs, how a lack of empathy leads to cruelty and, finally, heartbreak. Yet conversely, these bad moments show how hope nourishes the human soul regardless of physical body and legal status.

Miss Andy was shown at the Osaka Asian Film Festival on March 11 and 13.