Representing six of the most important films your racist, homophobic grandfather has definitely not seen, Facets brings you the highlights of Queer Asian Cinema, a genre which speaks to the worldwide struggles of the LGBTQ community in a region frequently overlooked by Western viewers.
Never in the spotlight and often marginalized like those who identify as LGBTQ, queer cinema can be a daunting genre to explore, especially if you’re looking to do so through a foreign context. Though queer cinema has existed since the cameras started rolling in the late 1800’s, various taboos have held the genre back from the acceptance and widespread acknowledgement it deserves.
To help encourage the exploration of queer cinema we’ve accumulated a small list of chronologically arranged, must-see films that offer varied cultural perspectives on being queer in Asia. Though the films all have different countries of origin, plots and visual styles, all of them are united by a common theme of struggle and pursuit of a better life.
Funeral Parade of Roses (dir. Toshio Matsumoto, Japan, 1969)
Toshio Matsumoto’s experimental-ish film Funeral Parade of Roses holds up well since its debut in 1969. The film’s ability to capture the atmosphere and emotions that made up the volatile underground gay community of Japan’s Shinjuku district is impressive. Made up of crazed scenes of uninhibited sex and dance parties among those of drug use featuring interviews with transgendered individuals and short surreal explosions mingled in between, Funeral Parade of Roses encapsulates the feeling of revolt, both political and sexual, that defined the time. Known to be a visual inspiration for Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, Funeral Parade of Roses takes the Oedipal tale of a transsexual nightclub worker and turns it into a work of art.
Macho Dancer (dir. Lino Brocka, Philippines, 1988)
The short answer to that question: definitely. Lino Brocka’s Macho Dancer follows the up-and-coming call boy Pol as he journeys into the sexual underground of Manila in order to support his family. Guided by Brocka’s cinematic male gaze and the experienced macho dancer Noel, Pol slowly learns that the nightlife of Manila isn’t all easy money and erotic onstage bubble baths. Each night in the sex trade leaves Pol a little less naive, as drugs, sexual slavery and abuse, corruption, and murder wear down the appeal of Manila’s nightlife. Brocka’s Macho Dancer is more than just two hours of mancandy, but rather a hard look on the corruption of the Marcos regime in the Philippines, as well as the daily struggles faced by those in the sex industry.
Fire (dir. Deepa Metha, India/Canada, 1996)
When Fire debuted in India, the cinemas in which it played were met with vandalism and protest by Hindu fundamentalists. Recognized as one of the first films from India to blatantly show a lesbian relationship as the result of oppressive patriarchal tradition, it is not quite a film about homosexuality but rather desire and choosing to go after what makes you happy rather than what you are expected to do. Sisters-in-law Radha (Shabana Azmi) and Sita (Nandita Das) find love as they attempt to escape their routine and unfulfilling lives. The movie makes clear the story’s relation to popular Hindu myth, most notably Sita’s (the Hindu Goddess, not the character in the film) submission to trial by fire to prove her purity to her husband. On the whole a brave film about female empowerment and desire that, like the characters in the film, carries on despite the pressures of culture and tradition.
Happy Together (dir. Wong Kar-wai, China, 1997)
As a cinematic translation of the idiom “the grass is always greener on the other side,” Wong Kar-wai’s 1997 drama Happy Together is a film about happiness perpetually out of reach for its two main characters, whose obsession with starting over repeatedly inhibits the progress necessary to maintain a relationship. Perhaps misleading at first, the title, like the song it’s named after, refers to an idyllic future as opposed to a contented present – life sucks for on-again-off-again lovers Lai and Ho as jealousy and infidelity threaten their rocky relationship, but once they reach the paradisical Iguazu Falls everything will be alright. In theory, at least. Released a week before the nauseatingly derelict yet inexplicably attractive Gummo, Happy Together is a similarly ugly story about forcing mismatching puzzle pieces into place and the different reaction each character has to their situation’s heartbreaking refusal (and ultimately the irrelevance of gender stereotypes in films of its genre) all told through an incomprehensibly beautiful lens.
Tropical Malady (dir. Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thailand, 2004)
An atmospheric film that chooses in every instance to show rather than tell, Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Tropical Malady is a beguiling film in two parts that will lure viewers into thinking they’re safe, only to shift dramatically into it’s seemingly unrelated second half. A tale of budding romance between the soldier Keng and his love interest Tong, which unfolds in nearly real time, the film meanders slowly toward Tong’s acceptance of his admirer. Once he finally begins to reciprocate romantic feelings toward Keng the film shifts suddenly in its second half, exchanging the slow burn romance for a mystical nighttime quest after a Shaman-turned-tiger through the film’s only constant, the oppressive Thai jungle. While the parts seems as different as night and day they are more accurately mirror images sharing common themes of pursuit and desire.
I Don’t Want To Sleep Alone (dir. Tsai Ming-liang, Malaysia/Taiwan, 2006)
Shot in the uniquely docufictitious style of Pedro Costa, I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone looks more like a compilation of chronological uncut CCTV footage than a scripted film. With a palpable atmosphere of decomposition (both physical and mental), Tsai Ming-liang’s 2006 cinéma du paint-dry masterpiece feels like a dreaded return to Vanda’s room (complete with scene of unwatchable coughing fit) where unthinkable living conditions leave little more than companionship as a motive for survival. Less an example of queer cinema than of lonely cinema, the film implicitly projects the alienation conjured up in conscious deconstructions of the genre over the entirety of a quickly-decaying Malaysian slum.
Authors: Stacy Gerard, a graduate of The University of Central Arkansas’s Digital Film program, is a filmmaker and avid cinephile with an interest in all things likely to blow her mind. She is currently the Social Media Marketing Intern for Facets.
Mike LeSuer is a freelance writer with a focus on film, music, and media studies. His work has appeared in Bright Lights Film Journal and Flyway Journal of Writing and Environment, and he currently holds the position of Editorial & Media Archivist Intern at Facets.