Taking on a subject as broad and multifaceted as queer Asian cinema is a tricky thing. The national cinemas of Asia are as diverse as the cultures themselves – what shocks in Japan might not raise an eyebrow in Thailand, and what’s considered controversial or appropriate for the screen also differs dramatically. Sexuality and identity are deeply individual but also inexorably tied to culture and context. The relationship a nation’s filmmakers have to queer themes and the way those films are received at home and abroad is also extremely varied.
Hong Kong’s best known queer film is undoubtedly Wong Kar-wai’s Happy Together , the story of a tumultuous romantic relationship between two men from Hong Kong who go to Argentina in the hope of reviving their relationship. The film was critically-acclaimed and Wong Kar-wai won the best director award at the 1997 Cannes Film Festival, but the film did not do well theatrically in Hong Kong, in large part due to the controversial content and the fact that the film received a Category III rating – the equivalent of a US NC-17 or X-rating, usually reserved for films that contain gratuitous or excessive violence or sex.
Alongside Happy Together , one of the other best known queer films by an Asian director is The Wedding Banquet , Ang Lee’s 1993 film about a gay man who agrees to marry his tenant in order to satisfy his nagging family. Though the film is about a Taiwanese couple, it takes place in New York and was a Taiwan-US co-production. The light comedy normalizes its gay leads for mainstream audiences by showing them as sympathetic and easy to identify with, but never engaged in any explicitly sexual activity.
In Japan, Nagisa Oshima’s 2000 film Taboo , which stars Takeshi Kitano and approaches queer themes from the perspective of a society in which adherence to tradition and deep repression are the norm. While Taboo takes place in the Shogun era, the taboos it violates have more to do with modern Japan than the historical samurai setting in which the film takes place. However, in spite of Oshima’s reputation for seeking out controversial and provocative issues and pushing the envelope in terms of his own work, the film is anything but explicit and treats the gay samurai relationship with a dispassionate reserve and subtlety. The film went on to win several Japanese film awards and was nominated for the Palme d’Or.
In contrast, Kankuro Kudo’s 2006 film Yaji and Kita: The Midnight Pilgrims takes the gay samurai concept and takes it on the road. The comedic/musical romp takes a surreal approach to similar themes, and by dealing with them in an extremely cartoonish way, avoided much controversy and became a hit. The film was released in three Tokyo theatres to start, but soon expanded to 160 nationwide and grossed about $7 million.
In Thailand, where certain aspects of LGBTQ identity are very much out in the open, films featuring gay characters are relatively more common. On the art house side are films like Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Blissfully Yours from 2002, a romance set on the Thai-Burmese border. The film won the Un Certain Regard prize in Cannes but was heavily censored in Thailand because of its graphic sex scenes. On the other side of the spectrum is 2003’s The Adventures of Iron Pussy , a wacky comedy about a drag queen secret agent, and was also co-directed by Weerasethakul. Iron Pussy is modelled on a Thai cinematic heroine from the 1970s and the film plays as a loving parody of the films of the time. In Thailand, where “ladyboy” (or Kathoey, in Thai) is an accepted transgendered identity, films about transvestite heroines do not have the same kind of shock value that they might in cultures where gender identity is more rigidly defined.
At this year’s Reel Asian Film Festival, Kim Kyung-mook’s Stateless Things was the latest South Korean entry into the annals of queer cinema. The unusual narrative tracks the story of a North Korean migrant and a young gay hustler, as their fates slowly converge. In a recent interview for a Korean film news site, the director stated that he sees a connection between the two protagonists because they’re both social minorities – the North Korean defector and the gay man.
In South Korea, Wong Kar-wai’s Happy Together was almost banned because censors felt its explicitly gay subject matter could be harmful to the social customs of the nation. By 2006, only a few years later, Ang Lee’s gay romance Brokeback Mountain opened at number one at the Korean box office. Indeed, the relatively universal success of Brokeback Mountain seemed to prove that a shift toward acceptance of gay-themed romance was taking place worldwide. At that time, the Korean film The King and the Clown , a period drama set in the 16th century about a king who falls in love with his (male) jester took the number two box office slot. In the decade since Happy Together nearly didn’t make it to screens, times had obviously changed in South Korea, opening the territory up to young, independent directors such as Kim Kyung-mook to explore sexuality and sexual identity much more freely.
In many of the examples cited above, films often avoided censorship (or box office failure) by resorting to a campy and cartoonish portrayal of LGBT characters, but there does seem to be a significant change taking place. On the one hand, mainstream audiences are more accepting of queer films. On the other, filmmakers are incorporating LGBT characters into stories that aren’t exclusively about queer themes, further normalizing the very idea of a multiplicity of sexual and gender identities.
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