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Queer Films for the Straight Taiwanese

Written by Siu Heng Tell a Friend

While homosexuality is nothing new to arthouse cinema, one can hardly find another place like Taiwan where queer-themed youth movies have earned such great mainstream popularity, following the successful formula of youth idol dramas. From the latest Spider Lilies to earlier releases like Eternal Summer, Formula 17, and Blue Gate Crossing, this gay youth film genre has been gaining momentum in recent years in Taiwan. Strictly speaking, not all of these titles fall under the category of "gay and lesbian film", which requires a close examination of sexual orientation on a personal, social, or even political level, but the prevalence of same-sex relationships in Taiwanese cinema already constitutes a noteworthy and interesting phenomenon.

Hong Kong's commercial cinema saw a rise of queer themes in the mid-1990s with films like Swordsman II (1992), I Wanna Be Your Man (1994), The Lovers (1994), and He is a Woman, She is a Man (1994). However, these titles, like Ang Lee's The Wedding Banquet to be discussed below, carefully reinforce heterosexual themes instead of directly depicting same-sex relationships like in the Taiwanese films mentioned above. There have also been some acclaimed Chinese films centering on same-sex relationships, such as Chen Kaige's Farewell My Concubine (1993), Wong Kar Wai's Happy Together (1997), and Stanley Kwan's Lan Yu (2001), plus many more independent works. But these titles, however well known, have remained in the realm of arthouse, as opposed to the recent Taiwanese queer films that are emerging as a popular trend.

A discussion on Taiwanese queer cinema should perhaps start with renowned writer Pai Hsien Yung's literary works. Born in Taiwan, Pai moved to the States in 1963, and taught at University of California, Santa Barbara until he retired in 1994. His literary works carry abundant queer elements, and it is actually the 2003 TV adaptation of his Crystal Boys that started the current trend of idol-starring queer-themed youth dramas and films.

Crystal Boys, Pai's only novel among his many short stories, uncovers the hidden gay community centered around Taipei's New Park (renamed the 228 Memorial Peace Park in 1996) in the 1970s, from the viewpoint of a gay teenager who runs away from home. It was first made into a film titled The Outsiders by director Yu Kan Ping in 1986, but the focus was shifted from underground gay culture to the protagonist's rebellious character and an old gay man's friendship with his female friend. As martial law still ruled over Taiwan before 1987, any potentially subversive issue, be it political or social, was by and large muffled.

Queer films began to proliferate in the post-martial law era when censorship became less strict, but they were still limited to the arthouse, such as films by Tsai Ming Liang. Tsai's second film Vive L'Amour (1994) foregrounded Xiao Kang's (a character recurrent in all of Tsai's films, portrayed by Li Kang Sheng) homosexual desire, which had been more subtle and ambiguous in Tsai's debut feature Rebels of the Neon God (1992). His third film River (1997) even shocked the audience with an incestuous gay sex scene. I Don't Want to Sleep Alone, the latest film from Tsai, also contains a subtle homoerotic bonding. However, Tsai's films, always classified under Taiwanese alternative cinema, do not appeal to the general masses despite their critical acclaim.

Ang Lee's The Wedding Banquet was perhaps the first film about gay relationships to enter mainstream Taiwanese cinema. Winston Chao stars as a Taiwanese American living with his gay lover; urged by his conservative parents (Lung Sihung and Kuei Ya Lei), he fakes a wedding banquet with his female tenant (May Chin). The film situates the repression of homosexual love in East-West cultural differences, and offers an apparent happy ending which conceals all the undercurrents about sexuality. In The Wedding Banquet, one can see that ample calculations have been made in the serious examination of queer politics to please gay and straight audiences from both Chinese and Western cultures, much different from the recent upsurge of queer-themed youth films which focus only on the individual experience and appeal to local audiences.

More than a decade later, Taiwan-born Ang Lee's gay film Brokeback Mountain earned him the Best Director award at Oscars. While the film can hardly be called a "Taiwanese film", Taiwan President Chen Shui Bian at the time used the film as an analogy to describe his vision about US-Taiwan relations in a speech promoting bilateral commerce in early 2006. Setting aside his political purpose, President Chen's unusual appropriation of a gay film for rhetoric might still be quite telling. Taiwanese politicians have become in recent year more liberal on social issues to enlist public support, amidst the polarized political divide made possible by the end of martial law. Such socio-political changes refine the backdrop for staging more queer-theme films and TV dramas, which find their roots in the gay literary tradition pioneered by Pai Hsien Yung.

Pai's Crystal Boys was again adapted in 2003 for television, with up-and-coming young actor Fan Zhi Wei taking center stage, alongside veterans Tou Chung Hua and Ko Chun Hsiung. Broadcast on Taiwan's Public Television Service (PTS) channel as a "literary drama", the critically acclaimed series could hardly be considered an idol drama, but it went on to attract the attention and media coverage usually reserved for idol productions. The Crystal Boys TV drama also groomed quite a few new actors from the supporting cast, such as Joseph Chang and Tony Yang who would play other gay characters in the years that followed. With the success of Crystal Boys, director Tsao Jui Yuan adapted another short story by Pai into the TV drama Love's Lone Flower in 2005, with Anita Yuen, Angelica Lee, and Suzanne Hsiao enacting two same-sex romance relationships.

In 2002, a few months before the release of Crystal Boys, director Yee Chin Yen's Blue Gate Crossing had already indicated the commercial potential of queer-themed titles. The film places equal emphasis on a naive high school swimmer's (Wilson Chen) crush on a girl (Guey Lun Mei), and the girl's confusion about her own sexual orientation. In a style similar to most coming-of-age films, Blue Gate Crossing neither highlights nor suppresses the role of homosexuality in the process of growing up. The film prepared the acting careers of the two inexperienced leads, especially Wilson Chen who would later participate in more well-known blockbusters. Chen, incidentally, also appears briefly in Crystal Boys.

Following the box office success of Blue Gate Crossing and the high ratings of Crystal Boys, director Alice Wang made Love Me, If You Can in 2003, starring TV actress Ariel Lin in her silver screen debut. In the film, Ariel Lin's character has a longtime crush on a fishing village girl, played by Alice Wang herself, whom she believes to be her predestined love. The story refers to the old Chinese "butterfly lovers" legend, about a girl who cross-dresses as a man to attend school and falls in love with her classmate. This classic folk tale has inspired many pieces with queer elements, and Love Me, If You Can is just one of them. (Another recent example is perhaps Denise Ho and Endy Chow's musical drama Butterfly Lovers.) The film also features Duncan Chow, who would go on to lead the cast of another gay title, Formula 17, in the next year.

Gay romantic comedy Formula 17, director DJ Chen's first feature-length film, stars Tony Yang from Crystal Boys as a 17-year-old gay youth who travels from a rural area to metropolitan Taipei in search of love. He crashes at his friend's (King Chin, also from Crystal Boys) place, and soon falls for a well-known playboy in the gay circle, portrayed by Duncan Chow. In this fairy tale-like movie, perhaps too sweet to be true, none of the characters faces any problems because of their sexual orientation as, remarkably, not a single woman appears in the film. In the fantasy world of Formula 17, the prince and the other prince can live happily ever after in a gay utopia consisting of only men!

The 2006 film Eternal Summer returns to the coming-of-age formula, spotlighting an ambiguous relationship between long-lasting friendship and homosexual love. Joseph Chang, again from the supporting cast of Crystal Boys, teams up with idol drama actor Bryant Chang and Hong Kong actress Kate Yeung, whose earlier role in 20 30 40 experiences a vaguely lesbian bonding with a female friend played by Angelica Lee. Director Leste Chan's second film, Eternal Summer opens with an elementary school kid ordered by his teacher to befriend an undisciplined classmate. The two grow up together as best friends, sharing every episode in their lives until a lonely girl complicates their enigmatic friendship. Bryant Chang's character often grapples with himself whether or not to confess his feelings for his best friend, who is too insensitive to detect the sexual ambiguity in their friendship.

Films like Blue Gate Crossing and Eternal Summer concentrate on personal struggles over sexual orientation, and avoid the issues of social oppression and family opposition portrayed in Crystal Boys and The Wedding Banquet. Formula 17 avoids even the personal struggle, deliberately taking away all questions about sexual orientation by simplifying the world into one gender. Spider Lilies arguably takes it even one step further as, despite the film being promoted as a lesbian film, lesbianism is simply irrelevant to the story. Lesbian director Zero Chou, whose partner Hoho Liu serves as the film's cinematographer, has made her name in Taiwanese queer cinema, in particular with her Golden Horse-winning Splendid Float about drag queens and now Spider Liles.

Starring popular Taiwanese idol singer Rainie Yang and Hong Kong's Isabella Leong from the award-winning Isabella, Spider Lilies revolves around the lesbian love between a webcam girl and a tattoo artist whom the former remembers to be her childhood crush. Meant to be a commercial film targeted at the young market, the film also features Jay of Taiwanese duo Awaking and John Shen of Genki Boys. Without any psychological confusion (even at the age of nine!) or social opposition faced by the protagonists about sexual orientation, the film concerns more with the notions of holding on and letting go of past memories, particularly the devastating 9.21 Earthquake that struck Taiwan in 1999. While it is only briefly mentioned in Eternal Summer, the disaster takes on even greater significance than the lesbian relationship in Spider Lilies.

For a film industry that is known for being almost stubbornly uncommercial, queer films have not only found mainstream box office approval, they have helped to revitalize Taiwanese commercial cinema. The theme of queerness has evolved from a tabooed issue that has to be distracted by male-female friendship in the 1986 Crystal Boys, to a carefully manipulated cultural and generational gap story that pleases both gay and straight in The Wedding Banquet, to the idol-starring Spider Lilies in which same-sex relationship has become just another form of romance, no different from heterosexual ones. In two decades' time, queerness metamorphoses from a tabooed subject into a selling point. Titles on such topics have also moved from arthouse and alternative cinema to the core of Taiwan's idol-driven entertainment business. Thanks to the region's queer literary tradition and unique socio-political background, queer cinema has been able to permeate the general audience, making Taiwan more embracing towards what fails to proliferate in other Chinese communities.

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Published June 11, 2007

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