2017 is being heralded by GLAAD as the breakthrough year for transgender representation in television and film. Despite a plethora of popular Western trans movies in recent decades, including the heart-wrenching movie Boys Don’t Cry and the cabaret extravaganza Priscilla Queen of the Desert, there is an array of outstanding foreign projects just waiting to be discovered. Here are five transgender-oriented films that ought to be added to every cinephile’s watch list.
2004 | France | Dir. Sébastien Lifshitz
A rare project in Lifshitz’ back catalogue of mostly documentaries, Wild Side is a rich character exploration into the life of transsexual prostitute Stéphanie as she moves to a rural town to care for her sick mother, with her two lovers in tow. Beyond the expected themes of gender expression and sexuality, Lifshitz beautifully juxtaposes the tension between Stéphanie and her mother with the ménage à trios in which she finds comfort. Intercut with segments of Stéphanie in her youth as an androgynous child, Wild Side is a portrait of the emotional pitfalls of transgenderism and vacant parenting. With Agnès Godard’s signature cinematography executing every shot like a John Constable painting, backdrops overflow with the nuances of the characters’ inner conflicts. Lifshitz’ previous work in documentaries turns the movie into something raw and powerful, making for an immersive experience.
Bad Education (La mala educación)
2004 | Spain | Dir. Pedro Almodóvar
It would be impossible to make this list without featuring the work of Pedro Almodóvar. We go beyond the usual culprits like All About My Mother and The Skin I Live In to present a lesser-known but equally powerful movie. Bad Education is first and foremost a meta-murder mystery. While two friends (and ex-lovers) reunite to make a film about the sexual abuse they experienced as children at the hands of Catholic Priests, director and former lover Enrique no longer recognizes his old friend Ignacio, who now goes by the name Ángel. The film that the characters make begins to intertwine with their story into a haunting depiction of the lasting effects of sexual abuse upon victims, and the power that directors have over the stories they tell. With transgenderism just one of many themes in the film, Bad Education is a refreshing narrative that doesn’t exploit its characters for story. The characters just happen to be trans.
My Dearest Senorita (Mi querida señorita)
1972 | Spain | Dir. Jaime de Armiñán
Double Academy Award winner Jaime de Armiñán delivered the first Spanish film to explore a queer subject openly. A twisted black comedy, My Dearest Senorita follows Adela, a woman in her forties who discovers that her depression was a symptom of being assigned the wrong gender — for Adela feels whole as a man. Undergoing gender reassignment and moving to Madrid as Juan, he eventually falls in love with his maid. Although by today’s standard it could be considered a conventional transgender movie about the hardships of transitioning and being accepted by society, Armiñán’s project occurred during Francisco Franco’s fascist, totalitarian regime where homosexuality and transgenderism were far from accepted in society. A bold stroke of filmmaking combining Armiñán’s theatrical influences, this is a quirky yet thought-provoking film.
My Life in Pink (Ma vie en rose)
1997 | Belgium | Dir. Alain Berliner
My Life in Pink explores the idea of gender expression through childhood innocence. Following Ludovic, we see the struggles as her family, school, and greater community try to accept her gender expression. This lands her in various compromising situations in which she is rejected by friends and relatives. One powerful scene comes when her mother forces her to act as a boy in a pitiful moment of desperation, cutting her hair short. Despite dark moments of abuse and attempted suicide, Berliner achieves a wonderful portrait of a defiant nonconformist, superbly acted by the delightful Georges Du Fresne and a powerful supporting performance by on-screen mother Michèle Laroque.
Beautiful Boxer (บิวตี้ฟูล บ๊อกเซอร์)
2004 | Thailand | Dir. Ekachai Uekrongtham
If the tagline “He fights like a man so he can become a woman” isn’t alluring enough, Uekrongtham’s first feature film explores gender expression as a means of survival. A biopic following the life of famous Thai transwoman, Muay Thai fighter, actress and model Parinya Charonephol, it tears apart gender conventions as the Western world knows them. Set in the testosterone-fueled environment of martial arts, it handles the subject with grace and humility while commenting upon the binary of physical and mental strength across all gender expressions. Despite criticism of him being cast as a trans-woman, cis-gendered actor Asanee Suwan does an outstanding job as Parinya in the physically and emotionally challenging role.
Up and Coming
In Production | China | Dir. Zhang Wei
Zhang Wei’s exciting filmmaking portfolio is known to make political commentary on China’s contemporary social climate, most notably how autistic children are often sidelined in the country’s educational system in 2016’s Destiny. His latest project, The Rib delves into the country’s underground LGBT society and the struggle of being trans in a deeply Catholic community. There’s no doubt that a trans narrative in the context of China’s communist rule will be harrowing yet eye-opening. With Wei’s ability to switch between black comedy and compelling drama, there’s no doubt that The Rib will be one film to watch out for.