It can be easy to forget that being gay means different things in different areas of the world. Time, place, culture and a host of other factors can all shape the way each person comes to terms with his or her sexuality. Sometimes it is joyfully or painfully familiar. Sometimes it is entirely alien.
Taiwanese director Yang Ya-che’s new film Girlfriend Boyfriend is a study in just how different the genesis of gay identity can be.
Most Canadian viewers won’t be familiar with the stern authoritarianism of a Taiwanese boarding school, the self-enforced silence of Chinese gay culture, or the tumultuous democratic reforms that took place in Taiwan in the 1980s. Luckily, none of this matters. This beautiful, personal, subtle film breaks through cultural barriers to remind us more of our similarities than our differences. The familiar, human moments in Girlfriend Boyfriend are all the more remarkable for their unfamiliar context.
Liam, Aaron and Mabel are three seniors at a rural Taiwanese boarding school, where they live in quiet rebellion against their harsh head teacher. Boyish and talkative Aaron is in love with Mabel, who in turn loves quiet and stoic Liam. Liam, however, is secretly in love with Aaron.
Mabel finally relents to Aaron’s advances, and Liam stays on as an awkward third wheel in their uneasy relationship. The three drift through the modernization of Taiwan, through democratic reform, student protests and military service, as well as fights and breakups, love affairs and reunions.
Finally, the three are drawn together again in Taipei and are forced to reconcile two decades of hurt and misunderstanding. There is no fairy-tale ending here, but neither is this another movie — such as History Boys — about how gay men can never be happy.
Despite gay themes, the stage unquestionably belongs to Mabel, played with breathtaking poise by Gwei Lun-Mei. Her performance will make you question and reconsider the cliché of the “fag hag” and relationships between straight women and gay men. Mabel and Liam’s understated chemistry is as touching as it is unsettlingly familiar.
Girlfriend Boyfriend is, at its heart, about the complexity and ambiguity of romantic relationships. The three characters share friendship, love and sexual attraction — but not always at the same time or for the same people. The film reminds us that we can love people we will never be attracted to, be attracted to people we don’t like, and every other variation.
This is not the first Taiwanese film to feature a three-way relationship and awkward sexual orientation problems. Girlfriend Boyfriend could easily be double-billed with Ang Lee’s adorable 1993 film The Wedding Banquet, about a gay Chinese American who marries a woman to satisfy his conservative parents.
Don’t watch Girlfriend Boyfriend if you can’t handle subtitles or if you’re easily bored — the second half of the film is slow, and you’ll need to concentrate a little to figure out what’s going on in the confusing world of 1980s Taiwan. And don’t see Girlfriend Boyfriend if you’re in the mood for a peppy romantic comedy — the nominally happy ending is more likely to leave you in tears than in stitches.
But go see it if you can. This is a movie to see with a few close friends, followed by a relaxing evening ruminating on your favourite moments with a bottle of wine and the Wikipedia article on the history of Taiwan. You won’t regret it.
Girlfriend Boyfriend opens Friday, Aug 3 at SilverCity Riverport in Richmond, and in Toronto at Yonge & Dundas 24 and at Kennedy Commons 20 in Scarborough. The film’s run just got extended on Aug 8 for another week.