Arts & Entertainment
4 min

Korean SM and crossdressing Filipinos

VIFF brings queer Asian films to local screens

Credit: Xtra West Files

Though many gays and lesbians are no doubt familiar with the Vancouver International Film Festival’s (VIFF) array of underground art-house films, they may not realize what a rich collection of gay and lesbian films the festival offers each year.

Especially noteworthy is the last 17 years of queer East Asian programming, courtesy of respected British film critic Tony Rayns.

As programmer of VIFF’s extremely successful Dragons and Tigers series for nearly two decades, Rayns is a walking, talking history of East Asian films.

His deep love and appreciation of queer cinema has offered Vancouver audiences glimpses into the condition and progression of each nation’s queer acceptance (or in certain countries, lack thereof), while taking in world premieres of gay and lesbian cinema from South Korea, China, the Philippines and beyond.

“I feel strongly committed to gay artists,” explains Rayns, “and the kind of work that they are doing in adverse circumstances. I feel the need to support it.”

Historically, Rayns cites China as having “one of the world’s oldest gay traditions. There are gay chronicles recorded in China from a period where the Western world was still in caves.”

The Communist takeover in 1949 caused a significant change in the climate, with homosexual acts outlawed and gay executions commonplace.

“Only in the last 10 years has there been a breakthrough in gay cinema coming from China,” says Rayns, adding that the VIFF has premiered nearly all of the noteworthy flicks.

This year, Rayns is very excited to have a new film from one of China’s most important gay filmmakers in the festival lineup. “Cui Zi’en is the godfather of queer cinema in China,” he enthuses.

“He’s a professor at Beijing Film Academy, certainly the most prestigious film school in China. The irony is that he’s not allowed to teach there because he refused to give his word that he wouldn’t bring up gay issues in his classes. So he’s still on full payroll, still living in academy housing, but he’s not allowed to teach. That is one of the reasons he went into filmmaking.”

Rayns is proud to present the North American premiere of Zi’en’s Withered in a Blooming Season, which he counts among his queer festival favourites this year.

Vancouver was also host to “the first lesbian film to come out of China,” says VIFF’s Andrew Poon, referring to Li Yu’s 2001 film Fish and Elephant.

That film was clearly made without the government’s permission, says Poon. “I won’t get into the details of how we got the film, but it was an issue. We feared for her leaving the country. At the time, it was not just groundbreaking, it was a new generation of a very old establishment.”

Poon sees film as a rare forum where oppressed queer people can make their voices heard. “For places where you can’t exactly go to a newspaper and express your opinion, you can still channel your energy and voice into filmmaking.”

Rayns is delighted with the queer filmmaking emerging these days from South Korea. “Until quite recently, Korea was profoundly homophobic; one of the most homophobic places I’ve ever spent time in. Anybody who dared to even discuss these issues openly would face all kinds of violence,” he says.

“About 10 years ago I programmed the first Korean movie that talked about gay issues. This year,” he declares enthusiastically, “I’m showing the most daring and extraordinary gay film I’ve ever shown in Vancouver.”

Kim Kyong-Mook’s Faceless Things is a gay sadomasochistic film that “will disgust and shock a lot of people” Rayns cautions, a tad gleefully.

“Ten years after Vancouver debuted the first Korean movie that talked about gay issues, a young 22 year-old gentleman seems to have absolutely no problem at all about being gay,” he continues. “That is a measure of progress.”

Moving from underground to popular culture, the programmer was equally surprised to see the massive success in Korea of the overtly gay blockbuster The King and The Clown. The monarch/servant love story was a huge hit in Korea this summer, with 12 million people-one quarter of the entire South Korean population-seeing the picture.

“It is extraordinary that this film captured the attention of 12 million people in a supposedly homophobic country,” exclaims Rayns.

One of the most charming films in this year’s queer lineup comes from out and proud Filipino director Auraeus Solito. The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros won rave reviews at Sundance and is also this year’s Philippine Oscar submission.

The movie is entirely centered around an extremely fey crossdressing 12-year-old boy and his crush on a local policeman. According to Solito, there has been far less shame and homophobia in his Philippine upbringing than in many nearby regions.

“I get shocked when I go to other Asian countries and they are more conservative about things. Growing up in the Philippines, my mother accepted me, my boyfriend’s mom accepted him, our parents accepted us.

“In ancient times,” he adds, “Filipinos had gay shamans which were the best shamans. The word for gay in the Philippines-bakla-literally means two-spirited, combining the word woman and man.”

Solito is excited about the positive reception his film has received. “The film has so far been accepted everywhere, maybe because the protagonist is a young boy, you just love him. You see the beauty of being gay and being yourself, maybe that is why it isn’t hard for countries so far to embrace Maximo.”

Film festival director Alan Franey says he’s excited about this year’s crop of queer films too, but he’s saddened by the imminent stepping-down of Rayns, whose contributions he credits as crucial to VIFF’s groundbreaking queer East Asian programming.

“Tony has discovered talent in East Asia that has been represented here in premiere form as the first screenings in the West. With the developments in queer cinema in fairly conservative countries, we’ve been at the cutting edge thanks to his programming curiosity and diligence.”