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Friday, July 8, 2011

Asia's gay film scene opens Tokyo up to brave new experiences


Special to The Japan Times

Now in its fourth year, the Asian Queer Film Festival is an eye-opener for anyone who has thought that "queers" have a bad time in their quest for love and freedom in Asia.

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Stand by your man: "Bad Romance," a Chinese film about men and women of varying sexual orientations, is a must-see.

The AQFF is a small, two-weekend affair that opens July 8 at the Cinemart Roppongi theater in Tokyo and runs until Sunday, picking up again the following weekend.

With a total of six days and 26 programs (consisting of shorts and features), the AQFF may not have much notoriety, but it has amassed a staunch fan base and helped spread the news that Asia may be less uptight about liberal/gay issues than many of us had thought.

The Southeast Asian film industry clearly has an advantage over the north — Thailand makes up for a lack of big-budget films with great story lines and a relaxed, open attitude toward gay sexuality. Saratsawadee Wongsomphet's "Yes or No, So I Love You" is a case in point: An honest and insightful depiction of lesbian relationships at a Bangkok university, the story brims with girlish audacity and the confusing but joyous sensations that make up youthful desire. It helps, of course, that the cuteness level of its cast could sink the frontline battalions of AKB48. The girls here are stylish without effort, willfully separating themselves from both commercialism and male-dictated standards of femininity.

It's also a revelation to see gay films coming out of mainland China, which until only 10 to 15 years ago had banned sexually explicit everything. A must-see is the festival's closing film, Francois Chang's "Bad Romance." A tale of seven men and women and their migrating sexual relationships (culminating in many intriguing combinations), unfolding against the backdrop of an increasingly glamorous Beijing, "Bad Romance" has been described as an "orgasmic experience" by a Singaporean critic. Twenty-four-year-old director/writer Chang spent his childhood in France, and it shows in his characters' excessive ardor, offset by periods of near-silent ennui.

Another surprise is "When Hainan Meets Teochew," which hails from business-is-booming Singapore. A transgender comedy by Han Yew Kwang, its nonsensical plotline and sexual pranks/innuendoes will have you in stitches. For more sophisticated viewers, the story may seem a bit too naive; but when you consider that Singapore's film industry had been virtually nonexistent until the new millennium, it's a wonder that such a liberated piece of cinema has been released there at all. "When Hainan Meets Teochew" opens the AQFF on just the right note — preparing the viewer for the conviction that love can happen among men, women and those who fall in neither category.

A distinct notable is "The Secrets," by Israeli Avi Nesher. Addressing the issue of traditional religion within a (possibly) lesbian relationship, "The Secrets" is rich and dense, with an aftertaste of bitter chocolate. The story charts the emotional ups and downs of two young women studying at a temple in Israel, and their mutual secret admiration for a mysterious woman living across the street from their dormitory (portrayed by iconic French actress Fanny Ardant). This is quality entertainment with an underlying message about love and its many guises, tenderly construed by a seasoned filmmaker.

AQFF Director Miho Iri says the word "queer" in the festival's title is not a spoof or an indication of defiance but "a celebration of all sexual minorities including gays, lesbians and transgenders, and everyone who wishes to live freely, unhampered by conventions."

She hopes the festival will mature into a vehicle with a broader outlook, to include works from the Middle East, from immigrant Asian filmmakers working in the United States and Europe, or even from gay filmmakers who have come out about their identities but whose works aren't necessarily about homosexuality.

"People in sexual minorities have suffered under categorizations for so long," says Iri. "We hope the AQFF will in time become less about the title and more about relaxing restrictions of every kind."

Unfortunately, there are no Japanese films shown at AQFF. Iri says that in the festival's search for "queer films" across Asia, Japan finished last in terms of numbers. "There aren't that many Japanese queer films out there," says Iri.

She says also that Japanese films dealing with gay characters have a tendency to dwell on the subject's dark underside, or simply escape to stereotypes.

"We hope that the Japanese media will come to ditch the notion that being gay is condensed to the issue of coming out, and for us to see in-depth stories about everyday living, or loving relationships in a broader sense," says Iri.

In her opinion, the beacon of light in the Japanese gay film industry is Ryosuke Hashiguchi, who has the distinction of being a sexual minority working in a mainstream environment.

"But the burden is too heavy for just one person to bear," says Iri. "We need to see a lot more filmmakers like Mr. Hashiguchi."

The Asian Queer Film Festival runs July 8-10 and 15-17 at Cinemart Roppongi, Tokyo. All films have English and Japanese subtitles, unless the film itself is in English. Visit www.aqff.jp for program details.

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