LGBTQ+ films from East and Southeast Asia can often be difficult to track down, except for some classic works that have been widely released. Access to films produced more recently can be limited, while it can be daunting to navigate the multitude of streaming options. Nonetheless, there is a diverse range of films available online offering viewers a snapshot of current developments in queer Asian cinema.
East and Southeast Asian filmmakers working in the last decade have turned their attention to issues of legal recognition, especially in relation to civil rights and same-sex marriage, and have sought to challenge mainstream definitions of the family. Stories about queer women have proliferated. Stylistically, there has been growing interest in experimenting with genre storytelling, while behind the camera more female directors have come to prominence.
This selection includes LGBTQ+ films made in the last decade that are available to stream on UK platforms, by directors working in Japan, Taiwan, Indonesia, China, South Korea, Thailand, Hong Kong and the USA. Easy to access at home through rental or subscription, these films showcase the vitality of contemporary queer filmmaking in the region.
Golden Gate Girls (2013)
Director: S. Louisa Wei
Filmmaker and scholar S. Louisa Wei spent three years reconstructing the life and career of Esther Eng, a Chinese-American filmmaker born in San Francisco who worked in the USA and Hong Kong in the 1930s and 1940s. Known for dressing in a masculine style, Eng was an openly lesbian director who achieved prominence at a time when the industry was heavily male-dominated. Sadly, most of Eng’s films are no longer available, but through archived and newly found images and interviews, Wei’s documentary paints a rich, vivid picture of this largely forgotten queer pioneer, who succeeded in breaking gender and racial boundaries.
Available on: Vimeo-on-Demand (Women Make Movies), Cathay Play
In the Absence of the Sun (2014)
Director: Lucky Kuswandi
This lyrical exploration of female desire is directed by Lucky Kuswandi, known for the camp superhero caper Madame X. This is an altogether more restrained affair, unfolding over a single night in Jakarta and following three interweaving storylines, including one about a lesbian couple reconnecting after a period apart. As the characters travel around the city with its lively nightlife, contested spaces, and endless flow of people, In the Absence of the Sun examines how politics of gender and sexuality play out in contemporary Indonesia. The film is often very funny in its dissection of cultural tensions and hypocrisy, but it’s the melancholy, ambivalent perspective on romantic relationships that lingers in the memory.
Available on: FilmDoo
The Handmaiden (2016)
Director: Park Chan-wook
The Handmaiden is perhaps Park Chan-wook’s masterpiece, a psychological thriller set in Japanese-occupied Korea, inspired by Sarah Waters’ novel Fingersmith. A conman has a scheme to marry a wealthy heiress and steal her fortune, and to set this in motion pays a pickpocket, Sook-Hee, to pose as her maid. But as Sook-Hee develops a complex bond with her new mistress, she begins to question her loyalties. The film’s narrative is tightly designed and structurally complex, revisiting the action from different perspectives, so that we are never quite sure who can be trusted. Incorporating elements of the erotic thriller and gothic romance, The Handmaiden is a tense examination of sadism and repression.
Available on platforms including: BFI Player, Prime Video, Netflix, Curzon Home Cinema
Malila: The Farewell Flower (2017)
Director: Anucha Boonyawatana
Directed by Anucha Boonyawatana, one of Thai cinema’s most compelling LGBTQ+ voices, Malila: The Farewell Flower is about a terminally ill man who seeks solace in crafting Bai Sri ornaments, exquisite flower sculptures used in religious ceremonies in Thailand. Following a chance encounter, he reunites with his former lover, who is grieving after the death of his daughter, and the pair rekindle their relationship. What follows is a haunting meditation on mortality, articulated through some exquisite cinematography, with the beauty of the flower sculptures ultimately giving way to some startlingly violent imagery.
Available on platforms including: BFI Player, Prime Video, Apple TV
Of Love and Law (2017)
Director: Hikaru Toda
Fumi and Kazu, two openly gay lawyers in a 15-year relationship, run Japan’s first LGBTQ+ law firm in Osaka, where they represent various clients fighting for civil liberties and freedom of expression. Filmmaker Hikaru Toda follows the couple in their professional and personal lives, offering a critical examination of Japan’s systemic dysfunctionality in protecting marginalised groups. Of Love and Law is a powerfully emotive portrait of the couple’s ground-breaking struggles in advancing human rights causes. While obstacles persist, the film also underscores the importance of collective agency, offering some hope that change may soon be coming to Japan’s LGBTQ+ citizens.
Available on platforms including: BFI Player, Prime Video
Dear Ex (2018)
Director: Hsu Chih-yen and Mag Hsu
Mag Hsu made her transition from TV to film with this comic drama about the conflict that develops between a deceased man’s wife and his gay partner. Dear Ex was a huge success in Taiwan, resonating massively with the public debates that culminated in the island’s legalisation of same-sex marriage in 2019. It’s powered by two outstanding performances: Roy Chiu impresses as struggling theatre director Chieh, while Hsieh Ying-hsuan’s riotous turn as the long-suffering, insufferable spouse won her a Golden Horse award. By focusing on the young boy caught up in the battle of the warring exes, this irresistible film asks timely questions about the legal entitlements of LGBTQ+ couples.
Available on: Netflix
A Dog Barking at the Moon (2019)
Director: Zi Xiang
This elegant family drama is the feature debut of Zi Xiang, and won her the Teddy Award at the Berlinale. Examining male homosexuality from a female perspective, A Dog Barking at the Moon is stylistically innovative, making use of extended unbroken takes and surreal imagery. The story begins with expat writer Xiaoyu, who heads to China to visit her family, but the focus soon shifts to her parents’ longstanding conflicts. This darkly witty film examines how Chinese attitudes towards sexuality have changed across the generations – but there is a twist in the tale. Na Ren-hua steals the show as the stubborn mother, delicately capturing the contradictions of the family’s predicament.
Available on platforms including: Prime Video, Apple TV
All in My Family (2019)
Director: Hao Wu
Hao Wu, a gay Chinese filmmaker living in the USA, documents his family’s reaction when they learn about his sexual orientation, same-sex partner and their decision to have children through surrogacy. Offering an intimate, 40-minute insight into his private life, Wu includes footage of his conversation with family members, and offers a frank snapshot of cultural attitudes, generational divides and ingrained traditions. All in My Family is a heartfelt depiction of family dynamics that will resonate with many LGBTQ+ people across the world who still face similar struggles in their everyday lives.
Available on: Netflix
Dear Tenant (2020)
Director: Cheng Yu-chieh
A compelling performance from Mo Tzu-yi forms the backbone of this drama about Lin, the gay tenant of an elderly woman who raises her grandson as his own child. As events take an unexpected turn, director Cheng Yu-chieh uses flashback storytelling to gradually reveal the truth about the mysterious Lin and his connection to the family. This award-winning film was shot in the port city of Keelung, which provides an atmospheric setting for what is often a desperately sad exploration of sacrifice and loss. Released shortly after the legalisation of same-sex marriage in Taiwan, Dear Tenant exposes the enduring discrimination faced by many LGBTQ+ people, and queries conventional understandings of family.
Available on platforms including: Prime Video, Apple TV, Bohemia Euphoria
The Half of It (2020)
Director: Alice Wu
Sixteen years after her acclaimed debut feature, Saving Face (2004), writer-director Alice Wu returns with a queer retelling of Edmond Rostand’s classic play Cyrano de Bergerac. The Half of It follows Ellie Chu, a smart yet socially awkward Chinese-American teenager who agrees to write love letters on behalf of a high-school classmate to his crush, Aster. But things become more complicated when Ellie falls for Aster herself. A fresh take on the coming-of-age genre, the film explores lesbian desire from an Asian American perspective that is rarely represented in mainstream Hollywood cinema. Its talented cast perfectly capture the yearning and messy innocence of youth.
Available on: Netflix