Monday, November 12, 2012, 00:00
No more tears
It was only a few years ago that the Hong Kong Lesbian and Gay Film Festival (HKLGFF) opened with a Thai film, Bangkok Love Story, that sadly had the audience in stitches for most of its run time — and it was a crime melodrama, not a comedy. Mixing noir thriller with tragic romance, the film aimed for Bound territory but was cursed with every LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) stereotype imaginable. Needless to say, it had a tragic ending.
Cinema by, for and about the LGBT community is, for lack of a better word, growing up. Though unsavory tropes still exist — characters destined for early, unhappy graves, gays and lesbians employed as ultra-fashionable personal assistants, penchants for serial murder — they are quickly falling by the wayside. And it’s about time. While LGBT filmmakers in Europe, North America and Australia have pushed the boundaries on how LGBT characters are written and portrayed, Asia has some catching up to do. That’s precisely what the HKLGFF is focusing on.
This year’s opening film is Two Weddings and a Funeral by South Korea’s most prominent gay activist and artist Kimjho Gwang-soo. A romantic-comedy about two friends — one gay, one lesbian — that decide to have things their way by marrying each other while maintaining a life with their respective partners is the type of kooky, gently comic story that’s been told a million times in heteronormic cinema. The characters are successful, happy, fulfilled professionals. It may seem petty, but this is a major step forward for queer cinema in Asia. “[The film] is a complex interplay of different themes such gay bullying, attitudes towards gay people in Korea, friendship and gay relationships. As such, it is also highly relevant to our own society in Hong Kong,” explains HKLGFF director Joe Lam. “I think part of the reason queer cinema is breaking out of those stereotypes is because people are bored of those unhappy characters. Gay society and gay people are becomingly increasingly accepted in Asia, and so we want our f
ilms to reflect our real lives.”
Lam is quick to point out that festivals from around the world use HKLGFF as a source for their own programing, and so it’s crucial that Lam and his crew let everyone else know things are changing in this part of the world. “We are the biggest LGBT film festival in Asia and as a result many LGBT film festival programers look for Asian films though our website. HKLGFF is a platform to showcase Asian LGBT films outside Asia after Hong Kong,” he states.
To that end, this year’s festival has one of the strongest programs of shorts and features ranging from comedy to drama to documentary in its history. In addition to Weddings, the festival kicks off with Thailand’s Yes or No 2: Come Back to Me by Saratsawadee Wongsomphet, about two young graduates struggling with the demands of career and long distance romance. Closing out the festival this year is Cloudburst (Canada) by Thom Fitzgerald (Three Needles, The Hanging Garden) starring Olympia Dukakis and Brenda Fricker, a classic road trip movie about two elderly women who trek across the border from the US to get married, finally, after 30 years together, and the quasi coming-of-age tale It Gets Better (Thailand) by Tanwarin Sukkhapisit, about three men in various stages of life and love.
In between HKLGFF has a line-up of films that do indeed speak to the LGBT community by LGBT artists, but in a sign of maturing programing and maturing filmmakers, many of the films speak to anyone living in this world right now. HKLGFF’s content touches on issues of politics and conflict, religious duty, the freedom found in gender reassignment, addiction and immigration — as well as family, marriage, love and the simple joys of life. “Good films are good films, regardless of their subject matter and regardless of their country of origin,” states Lam bluntly.
Elsewhere in the line-up are Keep the Lights On (USA) by Ira Sachs, who made a splash with Forty Shades of Blue in 2005, a gripping drama about two men whose relationship is informed, influenced and ultimately defined by one’s drug addiction. Lights is a strong a dissection of dependence as any film from the last decade, and Sachs won a Teddy at Berlin in 2012 for his work. Anyone who saw Eytan Fox’s charming and affecting Yossi & Jagger will take note of Yossi (Israel), which follows Yossi’s one-time IDF officer as he builds a new life. From Iran comes Facing Mirrors by Negar Azarbayjani, about two women from vastly different social circumstances that practice their own brand of quiet rebellion.
On the documentary front, the must-see standout is Vito (USA), about The Celluloid Closet author and activist Vito Russo. Known for his media analyses of gay and lesbian representations in Hollywood, Russo shot to broad international fame in the 1980s when he became the first and most vocal advocate for AIDS awareness, education and research with ACT UP. Vito is particularly current given the past week’s defeat of a gay rights proposal in LegCo. Nonetheless, Lam is cautiously optimistic. “Attitudes have definitely changed. Even in the past few years, we’ve had increasingly vocal support for equal rights across Asia. We have Gay Pride, we have an LGBT radio show on RTHK 3, we have Slow Beat. After the conservative backlash against the decriminalization of homosexuality in the late-’80s/early-’90s, we’re seeing a tide turning in the opposite direction. I hope that one day in Hong Kong, and in the rest of Asia, we’ll see the same level of integration of the LGBT community.”
Taiwan, long a queer cinema vanguard in Asia, is conspicuously absent from the program (one short film excepted), but a thought-provoking trio from China, Hong Kong and Macao represent the Chinese experience. Mama Rainbow, a doc featuring parents of LGBT kids that are forcing radical rethinking of family bonds in China, I’m Here, Macao’s first lesbian coming out doc, and Lopsided, a challenging short about a magical pill that can “cure” homosexuality are timely works that suggest HKLGFF is making good on its mandate — both political and entertainment wise. “HKLGFF is a film platform for sure … Our films have an LGBT slant, but they are first and foremost films that tell a story, and hopefully make our audiences think — as every good film should,” Lam points out. “We want audiences to enjoy the films that we screen, but at the same time we want to show production companies in Asia that LGBT cinema is an important market globally, so that more directors, actors and producers in traditionally conservative Asia w
ill feel empowered that their work will find a market not just here but around the world.”
The 23rd Hong Kong Lesbian and Gay Film Festival runs November 16 through December 4 at PALACE IFC, The ONE TST, Broadway Cinematheque and AMC Festival Walk. For program and ticketing information refer to www.hklgff.hk.
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