At the end of Richard Fung’s Re:Orientations (2016), a continuation of his influential educational documentary video Orientations: Lesbian and Gay Asians (1984), Professor Ju Hui Judy Han critically reframes the contemporary conversation around the community organising under the unifying rubric of Asian. How useful would it be to be grouped under that umbrella today, asks Fung. “We need to imagine a different kind of gathering, and a different kind of coming together, […] I don’t think that kind of identity-based politics is all there is,” Han offers after tracing her – and her Queer Asian-American peers’ – effort to radicalise community-building in the past. Han’s words become even more resonant inside the echo chamber that is today’s society, which is brimming with self-labelling and identity quotas. 

Re-Orientations (2016)

Elsewhere in the video, another interviewee – the social justice activist Mary-Woo Sims – comments on the differences between the new vanguard of young queer people, who mostly “don’t want to be boxed in or labelled anymore”, and the old generation who, in the 80s and 90s, sought a sense of community amid a hostile society.

Fung’s Re:Orientations is in itself a testament to these generational tensions. Made 32 years after the first Orientations, the video seeks to check in with seven of the original participants and to include new voices and perspectives, which contribute to critically contextualising the previous work and looking at how society has changed. Both videos were part of a Richard Fung double bill presented at the latest edition of Queer East Film Festival, which continues a welcomed and much necessary rediscovery of Fung’s work in the UK (previous programmes and focuses have screened at Alchemy Film and Moving Image Festival and Birkbeck Institute for the Moving Image in 2021).

Quite significantly, Orientations was not meant to be seen widely. The video, shot by John Greyson – a prominent Canadian multimedia artist and activist – was conceived as a consciousness-raising tool for the Canadian Asian queer community and was born out of Fung’s involvement with activist organisations (he was among the founders of Gay Asians of Toronto, a group formed in 1980 to support gay and lesbian Asians through shared lived experiences and exchange of information at a time when LGBTQIA+ people were still fighting to achieve human rights protection). 

Orientations: Lesbian and Gay Asians (1984)

Eventually, Orientations was picked up for distribution and screened at the Grierson and Flaherty seminars, both important forums for filmmakers, curators and scholars. At its core, the video is a quite straightforward talking-head documentary, whose low-key editing and funky synth tunes make for a nostalgic educational watch. The topics discussed encompass, but are not limited to, the racism present in both Canadian society and the gay community at large, coming-out stories of the participants, as well as their first contact with solidarity groups and a quick look at the 1984 Toronto Gay Pride, which occupies the tail end of the documentary. The conversational tone is guaranteed by an incisive editorial approach that prefers thematic coherence to tie various sections together. 

The same approach characterises Re:Orientations, in which additional topics stemming from the lived experiences of some of the returnees are discussed throughout the film – marriage, in particular, sparks contrasting opinions. In Re:Orientations the generational divide is invoked in various instances. From a brief account of how racism has invaded queer digital hookup spaces like Grindr – where ‘no Asians’ (or other non-white ethnicities) virtual signs are justified as preferences rather than being condemned as racism (in response to the #BlackLivesMatter movement in 2020, Grindr decided to remove its ethnicity filter from subsequent releases) – to a nod to how younger generations of queer people actively practice healing and self-caring.

(Tending) (to) (Ta) (2021)

One such advocate for ethics of care and collaboration is April Lin 林森, an artist-filmmaker whose work has been featured extensively in Queer East’s programmes since its inaugural edition in 2020. (Tending) (to) (Ta) (2021), Lin’s sole feature-length film to date, screened in its single-channel version in the festival’s artists’ moving image programme last year. The epistolary film follows the evolving relationship between the two protagonists – each living across a parallel dimension to one another – until they can meet in a shared world of imagination. 

One reality is dominated by a capitalist concept of time where individuals are controlled by rigid structures of gender, class and race, and where subjective, nonconforming thought is discouraged. The other is a bucolic space in which Earth’s systems gently nurture the mutual interconnectedness of beings. Here, one protagonist lives in contact with Ta – a more-than-human, immanent and ever-changing consciousness. Ta borrows their name from tā, a monosyllabic sound that encompasses all third-person pronouns in Mandarin Chinese, which, when written in the Latin alphabet, has been adopted as a gender-neutral alternative within Chinese-speaking queer spaces and beyond. 

Through ritualistic practices of self-care and proximity to nature, the two protagonists progressively learn how to transcend the distance between them and open portals to a new reality where togetherness and mutuality become the new cyphers of their existence.

TR333 (2022)

A similar call to reckon with the space we occupy within the Earth’s ecosystem – and our failings in dealing with the current environmental crisis – takes centre stage in Lin’s latest short video, TR333 (2021), a speculative documentary merging 3D animation and found footage. The film introduces us to TR333 (assigned name ‘Cladis meliora’), a new species of tree engineered to thrive in an irreparably damaged terrestrial landscape of the near future. Amid ecological destruction, TR333 attempts an overview of their own intricate ancestry while subtly upending the colonialist and patriarchal practice of naming things, places, cultures and people. 

In this way, the film also gestures to our individual and inherent right to determine who we want to be (in identities and names, specifically) and carve out a space for ourselves in our oppressive society. By looking at the rebalancing power of queer ecologies, and by advocating for a gentle utopia of relaxed rhythms and rest, perhaps Lin is manifesting for us all the right kind of coming together.

The Queer East Film Festival runs at cinemas across London, including BFI Southbank, from 18 to 29 May 2022.