Saturday, January 17, 2009

Simon Chung ponders the meaning of gay cinema (BC magazine)

His second film spurs Simon Chung to talk about prejudice and what it means to make a gay film

You don’t need to be French to enjoy a French film, so you don’t need to be gay to enjoy a gay movie – right? The logic might be sound but unfortunately it doesn’t do much for the perception that anything gay is for gays only. Independent filmmaker Simon Chung should know. His second full-length feature, The End of Love, which is screening in the Lesbian and Gay Film Festival 2008, has been predominantly marketed at the gay community, even though he didn’t intend it to be so.
As one of the founding members of the independent film organization Ying E Chi, Chung has been making independent short films since 1996. His earlier works, Life is Elsewhere (1996), Stanley Beloved (1997) and First Love & Other Pains (1999) are mainly explorations of homosexuality among coming-of-age Chinese youth. Following his full-length debut Innocent (2005), which focused on the cultural shock experienced by a 17-old-year Chinese gay teen in Toronto, The End of Love touches on two other sensitive issues in Hong Kong’s gay community: drugs and prostitution.

The film centres on Ming, a young man whose mother committed suicide after an argument about Ming’s homosexuality. He turns to drugs as an escape and soon after starts selling his body for money. His boyfriend, Yan, disapproves and their relationship deteriorates. After Ming overdoses, Yan has him committed to a rehab centre where he meets recovering heroin addict Keung. Affection between the two grows and Ming moves in with Keung with disastrous results. Though Chung doesn’t pretend to any grand ambitions to make films that speak for the gay community – or any community, for that matter – he does consider independent film is a medium to tell the stories of people who are marginalized. Actors turned down roles in his film because they didn’t want to associate drugs with homosexuality, but Chung thinks that is a mistake. “If you care about the issue, what you make will not smear the image of the community. I think it is happening in reality so it is worth portraying life as it really is,” he says
While the director agrees The End of Love is obviously a ‘gay film’, he is careful about defining the label. “A lot of people don’t like that label, and I understand why,” he says. “It is not that they are in the closet, it is because that label will limit an audience’s reading of the film.” He cites Taiwanese master Tsai Ming-liang’s I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone (2006) as an example – while it is very gay, Chung says, “The film is actually about humanity – the caring of people. It is way beyond homosexuality.”

So, how do we define a film as gay? Is a movie in which two same-sex characters make out a ‘gay film’? From a filmmaker’s point of view, Chung believes the genre is about sensibility: “It is a way to see the world,” he says. He is particular impressed by the work of American director Todd Haynes – most notably Far From Heaven – and Alan Ball’s American Beauty. “They are about the heterosexual world but the attitude is gay – for example, their criticisms on marriage. That you grow up in a straight world and you see the hypocrisy in the straight world. It is more than men having sex with men.”

That is a perception far from the general prejudice that says only gays and lesbians would be interested in a gay festival, a prejudice that would immediately suspect a friend who says his favourite pastime is watching Queer as Folk. Chung, who graduated from film production school in Toronto, has worked in local films and television besides his own independent film endeavours. He says the prejudice is difficult to change, but smart filmmakers are able to break through it and attract straight audiences. “People often think if a film has a gay character then it is for gay people. You cannot do anything about it, especially with straight guys – they won’t come to a film like that,” he says. Brokeback Mountain, however, was a watershed that bears out Chung’s point: “Ang Lee demonstrates that with a good script, good cast and good marketing, people don’t mind watching a gay film at all.”

But even though there was an influx of films with explicit gay elements during the 1990’s – largely due to the decriminalization of homosexual acts in 1991, which shed some light onto the subject – Chung thinks they have not changed attitudes towards sexual orientation. Such films – like He and She (1994), Oh! My Three Guys; Boys (1996), Bishonen (1998) and Queer Story (1998) to name a few – were like gimmicks. And if one wants to talk about the change in local queer cinema in the last two decades, Chung thinks there is nothing to discuss. “There are too few gay films. People are still comparing [films to] Wong Kai Wai’s [Happy Together (1997)] and Stanley Kwan’s [Lan Yu (2001), Hold You Tight (1997)] and say there is progression. But there is actually nothing after those.”

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