10 great gay films from East and Southeast Asia

As our season on great Chinese cinema continues into September, we explore some of the best East and Southeast Asian gay films.

Alex Davidson
Updated:

Happy Together (1997)

Happy Together (1997)

In September, as our major celebration of Chinese cinema draws to a close, we will be joined at BFI Southbank by Victor Fan (King’s College London), who will chart the history of LGBT film in mainland China, Taiwan and Hong Kong. Although it wasn’t until as recently as 2001 that homosexuality was removed from the official list of mental illnesses in China, LGBT Chinese cinema has a fascinating history, from the queer artistic communities of the Shanghai Golden Age through to overt representations in recent Chinese independent film.

Chinese cinema is poorly represented on UK DVD, queer Chinese even more so. As such, we have broadened our list to include films from across East and Southeast Asia, including works from China, Hong Kong, Japan, Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand. Gay rights, and representation of gay men on screen, vary hugely from country to country, offering a rich diversity of fascinating movies. Films that would have made the cut had they been more easily available include Stanley Kwan’s romantic tragedy Lan Yu (2001), the flawed but fascinating Filipino crime drama Macho Dancer (1988), and two Japanese ‘pink cinema’ titles – Beautiful Mystery (1983) and I Like You, I Like You Very Much (1994).

If East and Southeast Asian films about gay men rarely make it to DVD, films about lesbians are rarer still. The groundbreaking Fish and Elephant (2001) is hard to find, Blue Gate Crossing (2002) is out of print, while All about Love (2010) and the award-winning Spider Lilies (2006) didn’t get a British DVD release. We hope that, with classic lesbian titles becoming increasingly successful, albeit at a shamefully slow rate, a future list on gay female East Asian films will appear in the future.

Funeral Parade of Roses (1969)

Director Toshio Matsumoto

Hold on tight, as Funeral Parade of Roses takes you on an outrageous journey through sex, drugs, drag and Oedipal horror, in a weird and rather terrifying walk on the wild side. The bananas plot is pure camp: transvestite performer Eddie (played by Peter, later the fool in Akira Kurosawa’s Ran (1985)) strikes up a fierce rivalry with another drag queen in Shinjuku Ni-chōme, Tokyo’s gay ghetto. Eddie tries to forget harrowing memories of killing his mother – and anyone who knows their Greek tragedy will second-guess the identity of the manager of a gay bar with whom he then shacks up.

A direct influence on Stanley Kubrick’s  A Clockwork Orange (1971), Funeral Parade of Roses gleefully subverts all notion of respectability, giving the viewer an unashamed snapshot of 1960s Japanese gay subculture on the way, as queers in Tokyo speak their minds to the camera.

Farewell My Concubine (1993)

Director Chen Kaige

The unrequited gay love story at the heart of Chen Kaige’s Palme d’Or-winning masterpiece is often overlooked, with critics concentrating their admiration on the incredibly ambitious scope of the film, taking in over half a century of Chinese history. It follows the friendship of two men, brought up through the strict training of the Peking Opera School. Dieyi (Leslie Cheung) has been trained in female roles, and plays the concubine to the King of Chu, played by his friend Xiaolou (Zhang Fengyi). Dieyi falls in love with Xiaolou, but the latter marries a prostitute (Gong Li, excellent), ushering in a complex saga of love and betrayal.

Cheung is remarkable as the tragic figure of Dieyi, a damaged and abused individual who resorts to dreadful betrayal when threatened by the Red Guards. Cheung, who came out as bisexual, was a hugely successful pop star in Hong Kong as well as an acclaimed actor, starring in several films by Wong Kar-wai, including Happy Together (1997). After years of suffering from depression, he killed himself in 2003.

East Palace, West Palace (1996)

Director Zhang Yuan

Power play is a major theme of this intense drama, in which a gay man is apprehended while cruising in a park and spends the night in a police station under the stern eye of the arresting officer. As the detainee tells the disapproving cop about his tumultuous life, it becomes clear he is subtly trying to seduce the masculine policeman. When the officer releases the gay man from custody, he refuses to leave, and things takes turn for the twisted. Jean Genet would have loved it.

The Chinese Film Bureau weren’t fans of this subversive work, and confiscated director Zhang Yuan’s passport. Opting to use a gay man to symbolise free spirits and a possibly homosexual guard to represent Chinese authority was a risky move, complicated by the former’s sado-masochistic declaration of love for his captor. Despite a low budget, it’s a beautiful and highly provocative work. The title is a reference to the parks flanking the Forbidden City, popular cruising grounds for Beijing’s gay men.

Happy Together (1997)

Director Wong Kar-wai

This is one of the coolest gay films ever made, a vivid and exhilarating depiction of two men from Hong Kong – Lai (Tony Leung) and Ho (Leslie Cheung) – in an intense on-again-off-again relationship, who travel to Argentina to visit Iguazu Falls, but end up repeating the cycle of infidelity and cruelty. After yet another break-up, Lai meets the handsome and possibly gay Chang, whose friendship jolts Lai into facing up to his responsibilities, and offers a chance of happiness and redemption.

Wong Kar-wai enjoyed an extraordinary string of success from 1990-2000, including Chungking Express (1994), the perfect date movie, and In the Mood for Love (2000), one of cinema’s greatest love stories. Happy Together, which won him the best director award at Cannes, is one of his best, with a terrific central performance from Leung as a young, insecure man yearning for romance. As so often with Wong Kar-wai, the last shot, accompanied by a brassy cover of the title song, is unforgettable.

Gohatto (1999)

Director Nagisa Oshima

‘Gohatto’ means ‘taboo’ in Japanese, and here the forbidden subject is homosexuality. In 19th-century Japan, a young and beautiful swordsman (Ryuhei Matsuda) joins a group of samurai. Although homosexuality is forbidden, he immediately arouses the attention of his fellow warriors, including the stern vice-commander (Takeshi Kitano). Sexual jealousy inevitably rears its head, and violence ensues.

Unorthodox erotic obsession permeates the best-known works of Nagisa Oshima, notably the ultra-controversial Ai no corrida (1976), with its graphic scenes of unsimulated sex, and the homoerotic atmosphere of the prison camp in Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (1983). Gohatto is especially interesting given Oshima’s criticism of the work of Akira Kurosawa. A world away from the male bonding of Seven Samurai (1954), Gohatto’s world without women is vicious and destructive. The last scene, set by a lake, is incredibly beautiful.

Tokyo Godfathers (2003)

Director Satoshi Kon

A funny and moving reimagining of John Ford’s western 3 Godfathers (1948), Satoshi Kon’s animation follows a trio of homeless people – an alcoholic man, a former drag queen and a young female runaway – who discover a baby in a pile of rubbish. They embark on a journey to track down the child’s mother, and reveal details of their past lives as they traipse through snowy Tokyo.

It’s unclear in the story whether Hana is a cross-dressing gay man or a trans woman. Either way, Hana is a fantastic character, who dreams of bringing up a baby and shows the most kindness of the threesome. Even Hana’s one moment of cruelty, when Hana deliberately humiliates the alcoholic man in front of his daughter, is done out of perverse kindness. The bond between the three is seemingly unbreakable, and together they form the tightest of units, reinventing the concept of family. A queer fairytale.

Tropical Malady (2004)

Director Apichatpong Weerasethakul

On the festival circuit, Apichatpong ‘Joe’ Weerasethakul has established himself as Thailand’s leading director, having scooped multiple prizes at Cannes, including the Palme d’Or for Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010). Homosexual themes suffuse much of his work (Weerasethakul is gay himself), manifesting as out and out camp in the outrageous The Adventure of Iron Pussy (2003). But best of all is Tropical Malady, one of the most mesmerising and surreal gay love stories ever told.

A soldier and a country boy fall for each other and pay regular visits to the Thai jungle. So far, so unremarkable. Then one of the men is spirited away and the narrative whirls into a different world. The soldier appears to be on the trail of an apparently shape-shifting entity which may or may not be his departed lover. It’s utterly bizarre and utterly beautiful – a shot of a tree lit up by fireflies is astonishing, as is the hypnotic final encounter between the hero and a tiger.

The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros (2005)

Director Auraeus Solito

A gay Filipino kid with a penchant for drag is the subject of Auraeus Solito’s funny but gritty coming-of-age film. Young Maximo, whose family make their living through petty thievery, lives in a poor area of Manila. A police officer investigates the family’s crimes, and Maximo develops a deep crush on him. The two form a tight if unusual friendship, which is jeopardised as the officer’s duty threatens Maximo’s family.

Nathan Lopez gives a wonderfully guileless performance as Maximo, who grows from the dizzy kid dressing up as Miss World at the start of the film to the mature adolescent who walks off to a brave new future at the end, in a knowing to The Third Man (1949). The film deservedly won the Teddy award, celebrating the best LGBT cinema, at the Berlin Film Festival.

I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone (2006)

Director Tsai Ming-liang

Gay characters appear throughout the work of Malaysian director Tsai Ming-liang, from the suicidal homosexual man in Vive L’amour (1994), the hopeful horny Japanese guy cruising the cinema in Goodbye, Dragon Inn (2003) and the father and son in the bleak The River (1997). Sadly few of his greatest films are available on DVD, with the exception of the beautiful I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone.

In his first feature made in Malaysia (his previous work was filmed in Taiwan), Ming-liang regular Lee Kang-sheng stars in two roles – as a comatose man cared for by a woman, and as a migrant worker in Kuala Lumpur who is beaten up and cared for by a gay Bangladeshi man. The latter falls for his patient, despite their different languages. The film uses many of the tropes of Ming-liang’s previous works – long takes, a slow pace, themes of longing and loneliness – to create a beautiful and unclassifiable work.

Soundless Wind Chime (2009)

Director Kit Hung

In this globe-trotting semi-autobiographical debut feature from Kit Hung, Ricky, a delivery boy working in Hong Kong, falls in love with petty thief Pascal (Bernhard Bulling), who pinches his wallet. The two start a passionate relationship, but tragedy strikes. Numb with grief, Ricky travels to his lover’s native Switzerland, and meets Ueli (Bulling again), who looks exactly like Pascal. They, too, begin a relationship. But is Ueli’s resemblance to Pascal mere coincidence?

The non-linear narrative can be tricky to follow, and the film demands more than one viewing to tease out its mysteries. It’s an enigmatic film with some gorgeous flourishes (check out the yodelling-backed scene in the Swiss bar), and a hugely impressive first (and hopefully not last) feature. Speechless (2012), another strange romance filmed in China, shares similar themes and is available on BFI Player.

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