Film Review: Ali and Ratu Ratu Queens (2021)

Loud garish neon headlines that signify a clear sign. CHANGE IS COMING SOON.

Iqbaal Ramadhan stars as our titular character Ali, a seventeen year old Indonesian youth who has just lost his father. Cast away from home through a series of self-made circumstances, he sets out for New York in search of his estranged mother, Mia, whom he hasn’t had contact with since the time he was a wee boy who doodled on walls instead of tablet screens. He planned to reconnect with Mia, who is now married to a contractor and has her own family all the way on the other side of the world.

With little knowledge of her whereabouts and little support from his relatives—who constantly bemoan his stubbornness and root for him to give up on the search—Ali very nearly gives up. However, his hope is rekindled in the form of four Indonesian aunties he soon meets: Chinta, Biyah, Ance, and Party (Mia’s ex-roommate, and easily the sweetest of the lot). They are a quirky band of ladies with vastly different talents, skills, and personalities, the Ratu-Ratu Queens plan to set up their very own restaurant selling local Indonesian dishes like nasi padang and rendang, which is incidentally also Mia’s favourite dish.

They’ve already got the location all picked out. The only thing that stands in their way is, of course, money…

…though they manage to convince Ali to hand over a sizable amount of his own personal funds (1,500 dollars, or 15% of their main goal) to cover his rent, food, and detective work on his mother. “Look at all this cash,” Biyah half-threatens, half-jokes. “I’ll snatch [the rest] when you’re asleep!” Stunned into silence, Ali’s hand trembles.

It’s the start of a beautiful friendship. While Ali might be the main protagonist of the plot, the Queens are the ones who really steal the show. Perhaps a lot of it has to do with their familiar camaraderie—they feel like everyday aunties you encounter whether in the pasar malam across the street, at the hawker centre or even just living next door—perhaps because they do somewhat play to certain stereotypes we hold towards the older generation (think dramatic, gossipy, but ultimately kind at heart). But to wave them off as just mere cookie-cutter cliches would be doing them a disservice.

Kind, funny, and loyal, they’re partially modelled after the Indonesian immigrant aunties that producer Muhammad Zaidy (Eddy) used to live in Queens with back when he was studying in New York City, with Screenwriter Gina S. Noer fleshing them out into the quirky, loveable characters you see now. A lot of the humour in their interactions comes from their verbal clashes, a testament to their brilliant onscreen chemistry, while also acting as a balancing scale to offset the melodrama of Ali’s personal tragedy.

Ance is a fierce, family-oriented lady whose bark is worse than her bite, despite her initial tough-woman demeanor. Chinta, on the other hand, is a slim lady with an inclination towards the spiritual, but underneath her svelte figure lies the strength of a lioness—which Biyah can testify towards. Biyah might come across as just another comic relief character on the surface, but she’s very self-aware and conscientious despite her actions. The “mom-friend” of the group, Party, might seem to be the only sane person holding the entire fort down, but she’s more than willing to go along with the others’ antics, even egging them on at times.

While initially apathetic to his plight, they eventually grow to like Ali, even pseudo-adopting him into their motley gang, to Ali’s delight. He feels more of a connection with them than with some of the members of his actual family—most notably his mother Mia, who also makes her awkwardness with Ali obvious throughout the film. She refuses to see him at first, thinking that he might ruin her relationship with her current husband and family, to the disdain of the Queens who disapprove heavily of her actions. While she’s made out to be a sympathetic character because of her circumstances, it’s easy to villainise her actions as cruel, because we’re viewing it through the lens of Ali's experiences alongside input from the Queens.

When she finally stops by their shared home and seems a little more interested in accepting Ali back into her life, it’s an incredibly tense reception, with Biyah even refusing to introduce herself properly in greeting. She doesn’t approve of Mia at all, and for good reason too. 

Throughout the entire show, the Queens have proven time and time again that blood isn’t necessarily everything—and that love, care, hope and respect can go a long way into forging even stronger, familial bonds between strangers. As director Lucky Kuswandi explains, Ali and Ratu Ratu Queens is a tribute to the concept of extended family through kinship, and an exploration of what a home is and could be. What is a home? Is it a place or feeling? Or something else entirely?

Home to one of the largest Indonesian diasporas in the world, Queens doesn’t just have a strong community, but also all kinds of support—and food!—so it seems fitting to have Ali navigate and make peace with his personal story here. “New York is one of the most diverse places in the world,” according to Lucky, “it’s a place where everyone can claim to be their home. It makes sense to tell this story in Queens and about Queens.”

The home of the Ratu Ratu Queens also points to a house well-lived, filled with joy and personality, from the floral patterned furniture to the messy structure of random magnets and other trinkets lining the walls. A peek into Ali’s rented room reveals layers of dust and a huge assortment of hoarded items lying around, further giving us more insight into their world. This is in complete contrast with Mia’s new home: perfect, polished marble with high ceilings and classic vintage decor, highlighting her elevated status in comparison to Ali. Though it lacks the visual clutter of the Queens’ home, however, Mia’s home feels more oppressive and impersonal instead, due to the lack of personal furnishings on display. Admittedly, a large part of it is also because Ali is never invited inside freely as a guest, which further emphasises the alienation between Ali and his biological mother.

In conclusion, if you’re a fan of heartwarming family movies featuring strong middle-aged female leads, a teenage male protagonist, and a side of romance (though not with the middle-aged female leads, sorry), Ali and Ratu Ratu Queens will fulfill every single one of those needs. However, this is also where the film’s largest shortcomings lie. There is an over-reliance on certain family-drama cliches and meet-cute tropes that weren't necessary in conveying the central theme of the show. I personally felt that the romance subplot was largely unnecessary, and while the actors did have some onscreen chemistry, their romance felt out of place overlaid atop the found family plot. Thankfully, this doesn’t play too large a role in the story and is mostly used as comic fodder for lighthearted ribbing from Ance.

Moral of the story? If there’s one thing South East Asians are good at, it’s recognising other SEAsians overseas. Whether in the streets of Mongkok, snug in Yunnan, or all the way in blitzy, glitzy New York City, SEAsians can count on other SEAsians to be family.  After all, family is built, not born—as the cast from Ali and Ratu Ratu Queens might testify. They've been there, after all.

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