GAY FILM REVIEWS BY MICHAEL D. KLEMM
Unrated, 100 minutes
Unrated, 94 minutes
Unrated, 99 minutes
Writing about foreign cinema has its challenges. There are no clear-set rules when making a film. Many of the world's greatest directors are renowned for having thrown conventional narrative out the window, for developing new visual languages, and for pushing the envelope when it comes to tackling taboo subject matter. A few titles that come to mind are Antonioni's L'Avventura, Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey and Greenaway's The Cook, The Thief, His Wife And Her Lover. The trick is to find a patient audience that is willing to exercise their brains and make the leap beyond commercial Hollywood blockbusters.
Working against many foreign films, for American audiences, are the often alien environments and cultures that permeate these cinematic offerings. A personal example: I couldn't make any sense of a revered Russian film - Parajanov's Shadows Of Our Forgotten Ancestors - until my partner, who is fluent in Russian, translated the songs in the background that weren't included in the subtitles, and further explained the traditions and folk tales that would have been taken for granted by its native audience. Lacking the cultural foundation, it is often difficult to write about such films within the constraints of a standard film review.
That said, I'd like to discuss some examples of LGBT Philippine, Taiwanese and Thai cinema - I hope that my ignorance of the countries' cultures, and each genre's full history, will not be too painfully evident.
(translation: Bronze) is a 2007 film shot on digital video, in Tagalog
with subtitles, by guerrilla Philippine filmmaker Crisaldo Pablo. The movie
was originally given an X rating, which would have prohibited its theatrical
exhibition, and the director challenged the Philippine government's film
board to have its rating reduced to an R-18. According to what I have gleamed
from online sources, this is not the first time that the director has fought
such censorship battles. Pablo enjoys a reputation in his homeland for pioneering
films shot on digital video. His previous films include Duda (Doubt
- 2003) and Bathhouse (2005) and frequently involve the theme of
Moreno deals with infidelity in a gay relationship and compares its consequences with the marital traditions of a poor village on the fringes of civilization. Cris Vicente (Pablo) is a documentary filmmaker who is experiencing relationship difficulties. His partner, Denver (Ray An Dulay), deeply loves Cris but feels the need to have lovers on the side - a lot of lovers on the side. In fact, let's say it, he's a slut. Denver drugs Cris at their anniversary party so that he can participate in an orgy with all of their male guests while his partner is unconscious.
|Cris leaves the next day for Lake Sebu where he has been hired to document the traditions of the T'Boli village. An old friend named Mawen (Ynez Veneracion) is a liaison between the film company and the natives. Her husband is also being blatantly unfaithful and her situation mirrors the cuckolded filmmaker's. Cris locks horns with his boss over his working methods and there also seems to be a bit of sexual tension between them. Cris is also aware of being cruised by one of the male villagers. While filming, Cris forgets that he is supposed to be objective and becomes personally involved in the lives of several young women who are betrothed, against their wills, to the Datu - the village patriarch. The Datu is allowed to have dozens of wives and so, again, the audience is presented with yet another unsettling and undesirable view of marriage. Two of these girls drown themselves rather than be wed against their wills.|
Moreno is a schizophrenic union of two vastly different films and the glue holding them together lacks cohesion. Quite simply, the juggler tries to keep too many balls in the air at the same time. The dynamic of Cris and Denver's toxic relationship is an interesting one that was worth exploring in greater detail. When the story shifts to the T'Boli village, it seems as if we are in another film. Cris, at first, repeatedly flashes back to the various memories of his lover's disloyalty and the viewer is treated to the slow disintegration of their marriage. These flashbacks are very effective but they vanish midway through the film and do not reappear until the film's climax. The story in the village isn't allowed to develop fully and we are left with what appears to be a very choppy documentary. Students of anthropology might be enthralled but I suspect most viewers would rather enjoy a structured story with fully rendered dramatic peaks.
The DVD box, and a common online capsule synopsis, which states that Cris is working on a news story about women whose husbands enjoy multiple partners, is very misleading and is perhaps even insulting to the young T'Boli women who are forced by their impoverished circumstances into a life of servitude.
|While this might sound now like apologia, Moreno is not without its points of interest. Exotic locales can, in themselves, engage the senses and the scenes in the village featured lush photography of the unspoiled landscapes without being National Geographic travelogue. I found the film's first act to be quite engaging. It was also surprisingly explicit and featured much full frontal male nudity. Despite its obvious low budget, and its muddy night photography, I thought that director Pablo displayed a nice eye for the cinematic image. Compositions involving Cris and Denver utilized many visual devices that symbolized their separateness. I especially liked one Bergman-esque image that almost functioned as a split screen in which Chris sat, dejectedly, on one side of a wall while Denver lay in bed with another man on its other side.|
|The difference in the men's attitudes is also conveyed by their contrasting appearances. Cris' looks are average while the slutty Denver usually appears shirtless and sports a shaved head with a slight wisp of beard on his chin. An understated and ethnic musical score, usually consisting of a single repetitive note - not unlike the piano in Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut - effectively establishes the mood in each of the flashbacks. (Regular readers know how bad and inappropriate background music drives me mental.)|
Presumably this was very edgy stuff in the director's native Philippines but, even so, his talents as a filmmaker on the margins do not seem to extend to his ability to write a coherent and winning script. Aside from the tenuous, at best, link between the village polygamy and Denver's absent monogamy, there is a last minute twist involving Cris' boss that was just too much of a coincidence to be credible. Still, it is also possible that many cultural references, indigenous to the Philippines, soared right over this reviewer's head. Students of international queer cinema - especially those who are tired of tales involving fabulous club kids - may find much to enjoy.
|Right By Me, an adaptation of Rainbow Boys by Mexican-American author Alex Sanchez, is a 2005 film from Thailand that was directed by Thanyatorn Siwanukrow. This is a sweet little coming out film that covers familiar ground but will, nevertheless, be pleasing to most audiences.|
|Tat (Jackie) and Nat (Pimpong Isarasena na Ayudhya) are two gay best friends who attend school together. The academic Tat is an athletic member of the school's swim team. Nat is flamboyant, out and proud, and gets beaten up almost daily by bullies at school. For some time, Tat has harbored a crush on Ek (Palat Ananwattanasiri), the hunky star of the basketball team. His world is rocked one day when he and Nat attend a meeting of the Bangkok Rainbow Club and Ek unexpectedly shows up.|
|Right By Me traverses the usual formulas but adds a few fresh spins. Tat's conservative father dislikes Nat and wishes that his son wouldn't hang out with "that kind of kid." Nat is in love with Tat but Tat considers them to be just best friends and rebuffs his friend's sudden sexual advances because it would be like "kissing his little sister." Ek begs Tat not to tell anyone that he attended the LGBT youth meeting and Tat, sensing Ek's confusion, seizes this as an opportunity to become more acquainted without being pushy. Tat's gaydar keeps going off, especially when Ek rescues Tat and Nat from a pair of bullies. When Tat offers to tutor Ek in his studies, the sexually confused jock turns to Tat for advice. It's only a matter of time now, isn't it?|
|Each of the main characters are fully rounded individuals and each comes with a back story. Familial relationships aren't forgotten; Ek's coming out difficulties are obvious when his drunk father repeatedly insults his son by calling him a "faggot." Flashbacks fill in a few blanks and clarify the storyline. A scene in which Ek comes out to his girlfriend beautifully conveys both his awkwardness and the confusion she feels which gradually erupts into rage. The romance between Tat and Ek develops naturally and their big love scene comes, thankfully, without a bouncy song in the background and is accompanied simply by the sounds of the young lovers' breathing. Nat, predictably, pines over Tat but he gets the audience's sympathy vote. Nat is queeny and over the top but without being annoyingly so, and he provides much of the comic relief.|
|According to information that I have been able to gleam from the web, The Rainbow Boys books were popular amongst gay youth in Thailand. Fridae.com (a site dedicated to "empowering gay Asia") calls Right By Me "the first Thai film to treat gay men as full-fledged warm, complex, loving individuals." Previous cinematic portrayals consisted, for the most part, of stereotyped transvestites (or kathoey in their native tongue). While hardly explicit by today's standards, the love scene would have landed an R rating, even in this country, a decade ago. I'm a tad confused about the film's title; it was called Rainbow Boys: The Movie in its native Thailand and I am unsure how it came to be re-titled for its American release - especially since young readers would surely have connected it with the books.|
The feel of the film, despite the actors' ethnicity, is very Western. Unlike many other Asian films, my ignorance of the cultural references did not stand in the way of comprehending all the goings-on. (In fact, this is one of the first Asian films that I have seen that wasn't loaded with alien culture and Buddhist tenets.) Aside from a montage sequence set in a Thai street fair, Right By Me could have been set anywhere and differs little from American movie faire.
The plot isn't anything new but the story is, nevertheless, exceptionally and entertainly told. What keeps it from turning into an Afterschool Special (the closest it comes is an Oprah-esque talk show that Nat and his television producer mother appear on together) are the realistic scenes between the leads, coupled with the knowledge that the gay theme is not as common in Thai cinema as it is here in the U.S. The mood of Right By Me is, for the most part, light and breezy with three cute and winning lead actors who help make the time pass quickly. A great date movie for those who don't hate subtitles.
|Next up is a pair of Taiwanese films, both directed by out lesbian filmmaker, Zero Chou. Both contain cultural elements which might be alien to Western audiences but, fear not, the language of love is universal.|
|Spider Lilies (2007) explores a love affair between a webcam exhibitionist and a gifted tattoo artist. Jade, the web girl, is played by Raine Yang and the DVD box lists her as being a pop icon in her native Taiwan. Jade is one of several young ladies on the menu of an erotic website. She decides, one day, that body art would increase her marketability and decides to visit a tattoo artist. She wonders if having one is like wearing clothes or being naked.|
|When Jade was an abandoned child, she developed a strong crush on a young woman named Takeko and her strongest memories invoke the elaborate pattern of golden spider lilies tattooed on her beloved's arm. Takeko (Isabella Leong) is now the proprietress of a tattoo parlor and Jade thinks that she recognizes her first love when she enters the shop but, because Takeko is wearing long sleeves, she can't be sure. Jade does recognize the same tattoo pattern of spider lilies hanging on the wall but, when she asks for it, she is told that it is not possible because "that flower leads to Hell; it is the flower of death."|
|Jade explains that she saw that same tattoo on a friend's arm when she was nine years old and Takeko warns Jade that childhood memories should never be trusted. She should know because her younger brother has no memory of a seismic boyhood trauma. The tattoo plays a major role; it is an important emblem for her family and she doesn't want to share the design with anyone else. Takeko is troubled by Jade, a ghost from her past, but doesn't identify herself... yet. Jade senses that she is playing hard to get and gives Takeko a card for her website/blog.|
|Against her better judgment, Takeko signs on to Jade's site that night but remains silent. Meanwhile, a young policeman who is part of a sting operation is also checking out the erotic site. He has fallen in love with the young dancer. Jade is much more childlike than the others on the site. She often plays with dolls and, after meeting Takeko, she begins to don the green wig that she wore as a child. The cop is drawn to her innocence. When he sends her a message, Jade thinks it's from Takeko. These confused identities do not lead to a Shakespearean comedy of errors.|
|Performing for her webcam, Jade will weave a few tales and sing a lilting song about jasmine flowers and these scenes are all the more poignant with the knowledge that she is not speaking to Takeko but to her unknown police paramour. Jade's website work is quite benign but that doesn't stop one of the cop's partners from making sexist remarks. One of them snarls that the web girls are just vain and that they should all be "disciplined". Will the lovestruck cop warn Jade before she winds up getting busted?|
|It is, of course, a foregone conclusion that the two women will finally connect. In the meanwhile, the viewer learns Jade and Takeko's back stories through a lovely series of flashbacks. The tragic tale behind Takeko's tattoo is revealed and it will be clear why she chooses not to ink Jade's arm in the same manner. The pain that comes with getting a tattoo will stand as a metaphor for the pain their lives. Both women have suffered traumas as youths. Takeko was hardened by her ordeal; as an adult she wears leather and drives a motorcycle while Jade is still, in essence, a child despite her participation on an adult website.|
|In addition to the vice cop, the cast includes Takeko's mentally challenged brother and the grandmother that raised Jade since she was a child. The scenes where Grandma disrupts Jade's work at the webcam are very funny. Flashbacks reveal the man who inked Takeko's tattoo and taught her the art. Finally there is Ah-dong (Jay Shih), a young punk who derives his strength from the samurai blades that Takeko has tattooed on his arms. He provides a bit of comic relief but his ultimate fate seemed more in line with a Kabuki play than the film we have been watching.|
|Memories can play tricks on people when they're not careful, and illusion can become more important than reality. Jade straddles this line and chooses to hide within a virtual world and behind a screen of memories that may or may not be real (as a child she pretended to speak to her absent parents on a toy cell phone). The policeman is also handicapped, in his case by a stutter. Spider Lilies is a film about cultural outlaws existing outside the margins of society and each is a rebel in their own way. Even the cop is torn between the responsibilities of his job and exercising a little empathy for a young girl who isn't really bad, just a tad misguided in her career choice.|
A few moments of overwrought violence disrupt the last act but the finale packs quite an emotional wallop. Spider Lilies is a beautifully crafted film that often lets its images tell the story. The effect is dreamlike and absolutely captivating. Director Chou is fond of colorful and arresting visuals; during one striking scene the lilies in the tattoo come to life. The symbolism of the flowers might hold more meaning to Chinese audiences but viewers of all stripes should enjoy the main story. Spider Lilies unfolds in complex layers and it is far from being your standard girl meets girl tale. There is drama, romance, heartache and passion.
Lilies did well in its native Taiwan, and it won the Teddy
Bear award for best feature film at the 2007 Berlin International Film
|Chou's next film, Drifting Flowers (2008), examines identity through three interlocking tales. Connecting the triad's elements are dreamlike images of strangers on a train, intercut with moving footage of tunnels and speeding tracks to symbolize their individual journeys. Characters reappear in more than one segment and the action isn't tied down to a single time frame.|
|Let's begin with Diego (Chao Yi-lan), who dominates the opening and closing episodes. Diego likes to wear her hair short and dress like a man. When we first see Diego, she is smoking a cigarette and playing the accordion in a night club. Her gender is almost ambiguous, especially compared to Jing (Serena Fang), the blind singer whom she accompanies. Jing's little sister, May (Pai Chih-Ying), sits at a table and does her homework. May is unable to take her eyes off of Diego and suffers the first pangs of puppy love. As the first tale, titled "May," begins, Jing and May are as close as two sisters can be but problems develop when they both fall in love with Diego.|
|"Lily," the second segment, begins with a sham wedding between Lily (Yi-Ching Lu) and Yen (Sam Wang). Lily is really with another woman named Ocean and Yen has a boyfriend. The story flash-forwards several decades. Lily is an old woman with Alzheimer's and lives in a community for the elderly. Yen appears, to check in on his old friend, and Lily thinks he is Ocean. Yen has AIDS and has stopped taking the cocktail because of the severe side effects. A very touching relationship grows between the two; their story is amusing and poetic with just a little bit of quirkiness to save it from becoming a shameless tear-jerker.|
|Finally, we're back with Diego again, and the final episode is named after her. This segment moves back into the past rather than the future. Diego is in high school and her frustrated mother labors in vain to get the young tomboy to wear dresses and a bra. Her family is a troupe of street performers who mount traditional puppet shows. Diego's best friend is Yen, now seen as geeky student. Yen takes Diego to see a rival, and more high-tech, puppet show. A beautiful young woman performs a sexy dance and invites Diego onto the stage with her. The dancer's name is Lily.|
|Gender identity, especially butch-femme roles, feature prominently in each of the segments. In the first, May is unsure whether Diego is a boy or a girl. In the second, a young girl asks the very effeminate Yen if he is a girl and, in the third, Diego is given an odd look by an attendant in the ladies' washroom. Diego's disgust with wearing a bra is both funny and heartfelt. There is a striking moment when the delusional Lily still thinks that Yen is her beloved Ocean and becomes panicky because Yen is dressed "too butch" and her father will get suspicious. Yen reluctantly submits to a feminine makeover and feels humiliated dressed as a woman. Near the film's conclusion, Diego drives off with Lily on a motorcycle and they enjoy a steamy tryst. When Diego initially hesitates, Lily asks "Don't you like girls?" and Diego replies that she doesn't like being a girl but doesn't want to be a boy either. "Can a girl love a girl?" she asks, timidly.|
|In each of the tales, traditional and iconoclastic values are in collision. The appearance of Diego disrupts the relationship between two loving sisters. May was happy to lead her blind sister and acted as her guardian until she felt that Diego had come between them. When Jing is forced to let a foster family adopt her younger sibling, May feels doubly betrayed and abandoned. Lily and Yen are married but do not live together until the ravages of age, illness and mutual need bring them together. In the last segment, the family's business is to be divided between Diego and her homophobic brother who insists that he will provide grandsons and that she isn't entitled to a dowry unless she gets married.|
Drifting Flowers, like Spider Lilies, is beautifully filmed and many of its images are filmed with a painter's eye for composition. The music choices are particularly interesting. Much of the soundtrack is dominated by the accordion which, despite the oriental milieu, infuses the film with a Parisian and French New Wave feel. The acting is exceptional and, in the case of the second episode, it is a delight to see the aged depicted realistically and not as daffy or over-sexed buffoons as is often the case in Hollywood blockbusters. Chou is a young filmmaker but not from the MTV school of overkill; Drifting Flowers is poetic and haunting, and directed with skill. Like her countryman Ang Lee's The Wedding Banquet (1993), Western viewers can enjoy a good story with a taste of Taiwanese tradition and culture. Adventurous filmgoers should eat it up.