Ali & Ratu Ratu Queens

Ali & Ratu Ratu Queens

Dept. of American Dreams


Ali & Ratu Ratu Queens, Netflix’s latest Indonesian acquisition, tells the story of 19-year-old Ali (Iqbaal Ramadhan) who leaves a somewhat provincial life in Jakarta to seek out his long lost mother in New York. There he meets the titular queens of Queens – Ance, Chinta, Biyah, and Party (Tika Panggabean, Happy Salma, Asri Welas, and Nirina Zubir) – who take him off the streets and adopt him as a part of their found family. What follows is a heartwarming, funny, and deeply thoughtful story about love, abandonment, and finding your place in the world.


Umapagan Ampikaipakan: I loved this movie. I really did. It is a simple story that is wonderfully written and beautifully executed.

This isn’t about one boy’s quest to find his mother. This is about what happens after he does. There is a nuance to this narrative that I wasn’t expecting. It isn’t happily ever after. Neither is it the darkest possible version of where this story could go. It is, instead, incredibly rooted in reality. 

Ali & Ratu Ratu Queens doesn’t shy away from the complexities of the story that it’s trying to tell. It embraces it, finds humour in it, while giving you a real sense of who these characters are and why they want the things that they do.

Bahir Yeusuff: It is also filled with an immense amount of heart. This is, of course, an Indonesian film, and every time I laugh in delight I’m reminded how this movie, from a neighbouring country, feels so familiar to my own reality. Even more so than the stuff we get coming out of Malaysia. And I say that both as an example of how cinema can cross boundaries and borders, and reach out to strangers across the world, and how so many Malaysian filmmakers don’t know how to look past what’s in front of them. 

Ali & Ratu Ratu Queens avoids all the Malaysian pitfalls of religion, and race, and nation building, and just tells a story that is true. There is so much here that I love. I can’t wait to recommend this to everyone I know with a Netflix account.

UA: Likewise. After watching this, I was already texting people and telling them to look out for it when it premieres later in the week.

Sinema Serumpun

Ali & Ratu Ratu Queens

UA: Watching Indonesian movies is always a very difficult experience for us. On the one hand, we’re always amazed at how well crafted so many of them are. On the other hand, we are absolutely heartbroken at how pale a reflection our local productions can be in comparison.

It’s interesting that you bring up religion, race, and nation building, because this movie does address all of those things, but in a way that is subtle and refined, by way of character and not pontification. There’s a throwaway line from Ali’s aunt telling him not to eat pork when he’s in America. Or when Ali’s mother downs a shot of whiskey after seeing him for the first time in years. Or when she comes to have dinner with Ali and “the queens” for thanksgiving and she brings a bottle of wine. A gesture that tells us everything we need to know about the life she’s left behind versus the life she’s married into. None of these moments are dwelt upon. They’re just there to show us character.

BY: Can I just say I love that line about not eating pork? I can see so many Melayu makciks saying that to their kids who are heading off to London for the first time. But I also find that line hilarious because Jakarta is just filled with places that have pork. The first time I saw pig on a spit was in Jakarta! There’s almost a double threat with what his aunt tells him. “Now that you’re going away don’t think that you can get away with doing things you weren’t doing back home.” I loved it.


UA: There are so many small moments like that throughout this movie. Fantastic directorial decisions and narrative choices that really showcase how great a director Lucky Kuswandi is.

BY: And it’s all done without any judgement. Not from Ali, the new arrival from Indonesia, nor the other characters. Okay maybe Ali’s aunt when she accidentally sees more than she’d like of Ali’s roommates in the middle of a video chat with him. But even that is played for humor. There’s never a conversation about religion or faith, or right or wrong. This movie is about the human things and experiences that we all have to get through.

Putting Story First

Ali & Ratu Ratu Queens

UA: In the middle of the movie, Ali and his mother, Mia, get together to go sightseeing in New York. But Lucky does away with the expected montage and moves right along into the difficult conversation that we all know is coming at the end of their day. What he does instead is feed that footage of the both of them wandering through Times Square as a coda to their conversation, using it to demonstrate Ali’s blindness to his mother’s flaws as well as his misplaced hope that everything will work out between them.

It is a moment that completely forgoes any and all exposition. It is just such confident filmmaking.

BY: Nothing in this movie feels gratuitous. The beauty shots of New York don’t feel out of place. They felt natural. The same way something like Master of None frames shots of every day New York. Ali it doesn’t feel like it’s showing off. It was the same with Layla Majnun. None of the montage sequences in that movie felt like a tourism board video either. God knows I can’t say the same for some Malaysian movies that are set elsewhere.


UA: I think it goes back to always putting the story first. Yes, New York is very much a character in Ali’s journey, but it is depicted in a way that supports the narrative. New York isn’t the reason his mother abandoned him to pursue her dreams. New York isn’t why he feels so displaced. A lot of movies, in trying to create a sense of place, too often get lost in it. 

I’ve always thought that Bernard Chauly did a good job in striking that balance. Both in Istanbul Aku Datang and Manisnya Cinta di Cappadoccia, he manages to avoid many of those common mistakes that end up resulting in your movie looking like a History Channel special.

BY: My issue with those two titles specifically is that other than the setting, they aren’t really all that different from a Malaysian production that’s set in Malaysia. It’s capital “D” Drama. It sometimes feels like Malaysians just can’t tell a nuanced story. This is a comedy but it isn’t slapstick. There’s drama here without having to be dramatic. There’s love in Ali without it ever being a love story. Istanbul Aku Datang is just filled with these melodramatic montage sequences telling you how to feel. The music and the aerial shots of the Turkish countryside are there so you know that the couple are falling in love. Ali just tells a story and you feel the joy, the love, the humanity, and the heartbreak. 

Show, Don’t Tell

Ali & Ratu Ratu Queens

BY: My favourite moment in the entire film is when “the queens” find out that Mia had shut the door on Ali, and they just suit up for a fight. There was so much emotion in that sequence of these four Indonesian women storming out for a beatdown. It was the Indonesian equivalent of taking off the hoop earrings. It was beautiful. I laughed so hard. But I also felt the love that they had for this boy who they just met. It was so great.

UA: The four of them are just brilliant. There is something so spontaneous about the relationship between Tika Panggabean, Happy Salma, Asri Welas, and Nirina Zubir. You believe that they’ve been friends all of their lives. You understand every glance they give each other. There is so much that is unspoken in their interactions. All of it is written (and performed) in a way that truly understands the depth of such friendships.

BY: And there was something so controlled about it too. These four, big, loud characters never devolved into a noisy ruckus. Which is a testament to the director’s control over the moment and the camera. They all shine together and separately. And you’re right, the four of them are so instantly recognizable that we never needed an expository back story to any of them. These four women are instantly familiar and that made the movie all the more comforting.

At first, I was concerned that the four women he meets were more New York than they were Indonesian. That Ali finds the typical lupa negara characters who have become too New York. Instead, Ali finds a slice of home there and that was wonderful. These women were New Yorkers, but they were also still Indonesians.


UA: Which goes back to that confidence I was talking about. These sorts of stories are becoming increasingly difficult to pull off in a believable way. In part because there are already so many immigrant, fish-out-of-water stories in cinema and on television. But also, in the age of the Internet, and FaceTime, and constantly being connected, how do you still maintain the sort of narrative tension that’s required to keep the audience engaged and invested? 

You do it with characters not caricatures. You do it by making the movie about the conflict that arises from having discovered what you were looking for all along and not about the search for it. 

When Ali posts a photo of his mother on social media and his aunt calls him and tells him off for being so thoughtless as to the feelings of his family in Indonesia, it is yet another great example of a fleeting moment in this movie that shows off cultural baggage without having to explain it. You get it immediately. It’s so beautifully underwritten.

BY: Everything about this movie is so beautifully underwritten. There is so much restraint and control. Nothing is done for the sake of it. Nothing is over-explained or unnecessarily elaborated. And I was never lost and always completely on board with Ali’s journey.

I however was a little disappointed when I read the description of this movie though. I don’t know why, but when I first heard the title Ali & Ratu-Ratu Queens I was expecting that Ali was going to New York to find his father, who had been banished when his family found out he was a drag queen.

UA: I swear to God I thought the exact same thing! I was so ready for that movie.

BY: I still want that movie. With these exact same characters, but as drag queens. That would be amazing.

UA: That’s a million dollar idea right there. Call us Netflix. You’ve got our numbers.

Ali & Ratu Ratu Queens premieres on Netflix, this Thursday, 17 June, at 3PM MYT.

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