Censored at home, acclaimed Malaysian film ‘Miss Andy’ wins fans in Taiwan

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Cinema and the visual arts are under particular scrutiny in Malaysia. A 2018 ruling by the Malaysian film censorship board reinforced earlier restrictions, ensuring that movie content concerning LGBTQ activity is likely to be deleted. As a consequence, films like “Miss Andy” that expose the sad reality of one of Southeast Asia’s most shunned communities can only be shown in foreign markets. 

“Miss Andy,” produced by MM2 Entertainment of Singapore, and directed by Teddy Chin, is one of the first Malaysian films to use a mak nyah (Malay slang for a transgender woman) as a protagonist. The film was released in Taiwan on January 8 to circumvent a likely ban in predominantly Muslim Malaysia, where the LGBTQ community still struggles for equality.

The film casts a light on the tribulations that LGBTQ people must face daily in one of the Southeast Asian nations that disregards them the most. In the film, 55-year-old Andy, played by Lee Lee-zen, completes her transition into a woman. But the sweet-natured Evon needs income from sex work to pay the bills, and her son and daughter cannot cope with the shame of having a transgender father.

In the Malaysian-Taiwanese film “Miss Andy” (2020), the character Evon (Lee Lee-zen), left, develops an attraction for her co-worker, Teck (Jack Tan), who is among the few people who treat her with respect.

If that was not bad enough, the degrading sex work that Evon must resort to in order to make ends meet turns grimmer and more violent day after day.

The film’s opening scene pulls no punches as we follow Evon from the street, where she is almost killed for refusing to service a client, to a police station where she is harassed and ordered to strip naked in front of a group of foul-mouthed Malay officers who want to body-search her.

The movie’s plot also incorporates the evergreen issue of illegal migration to Malaysia. Evon gets a chance to regain some balance in her life when she serendipitously meets Sophia (Ruby Lin), an illegal Vietnamese worker, and her son Kang (Kyzer Tou). Starving and on the run from Sophia’s abusive husband, the two gladly accept Evon’s assistance and end up becoming her housemates – a choice that leads to a new set of bittersweet consequences.

“Miss Andy” earned international acclaim at several movie festivals in 2020, including the Osaka Asian Film Festival, the New York Asian Film Festival, the Taiwan International Queer Film Festival, the Kaohsiung Film Festival, and the Hong Kong Lesbian and Gay Film Festival. But it is unlikely to receive a premiere in Malaysia, where LGBTQ themes are mostly embraced only by independent film producers.

“As a filmmaker, it would be amazing to see my work change public opinion and making a direct/measurable impact on larger society,” says Kuala Lumpur-based LGBTQ activist and filmmaker Justice Khor, whose short film “Lonesome” (2020) focused on Malaysian LGBTQ people’s experiences of the COVID-19 lockdown in what he describes as “a metaphor [for] LGBTQ’s oppressions & experience.”

“We were well aware from the start that the subject matter would have had its challenges in Malaysia and most other Asian territories,” said Jin Ong, the producer of “Miss Andy”.

“While it’s shot in Malaysia, the issues that plague the transgender community are common in a lot of other places, and Taiwan being one of Asia’s most LGBTQ-friendly countries made it the perfect launchpad for the film to highlight their plight,” he added.

This article, which first appeared on Nikkei Asia, has been edited for length and clarity.