Unseen Perspectives Take Centre Stage – Queerness Represented in Asian Films
June is Pride Month and this is usually the time when solidarity events are held in celebration of the LGBTQ+ community, advocating for inclusiveness and the freedom to love. But we’re living in a much different world now, where the danger of COVID-19 constantly looms over us, making a home in the back of our minds.
Commemorating Pride Month the usual way isn’t feasible this year, so many are turning to virtual solutions to keep the spirit alive. Pink Dot, for example, is organising Singapore’s first virtual LGBTQ rally at the end of the month. Now’s also the perfect time to check out some gems from the expansive world of Asian queer cinema. The industry has been around for ages, and is still growing to this day. Here are just some of my personal picks of films that give a voice to and celebrate queer identities.
Alifu, the Prince/ss 阿莉芙
Director: Wang Yu-lin
Cast: Utjung Tjakivalid, Li Pei-zhen, Wu Pong-fong
Runtime: 91 minutes
Alifu, the Prince/ss is a compassionate exploration of minorities and their difficult circumstances in a world that is still trying to reconcile traditional cultures and modern identities. Taiwan tends to be seen as the more progressive nation in the continent, with the nation being the first in Asia to legalise same-sex marriage in 2019. Yet, this kind of tolerance isn’t easily accepted and internalised by everybody. There’s an unfathomable quandary that comes with being a minority within another minority group.
Alifu (Utjung Tjakivalid) is born as the son of the chief of the indigenous Paiwan tribe, but identifies as a woman. She has left her town and moved to the city, working several jobs in order to save money for gender reassignment surgery. However, she is called back to her hometown and to take up her father’s mantle as the new tribal chief. While women can inherit chieftainship, Alifu’s father (Ara Kimbo) holds parochial attitudes and is occupied with keeping his family’s reputation traditionally respectable.
The film is a thoughtful study of gender identities and sexual orientations. On top of that, Alifu the Prince/ss imbues a touch of humour that is heart-warming even in the face of conundrums. Ultimately, what sets the film apart is that it gives a voice to the minority of an already small community. Queer people aren’t represented as much as they should be, and much less are those in aboriginal cultures. Director Wang Yu-lin portrays the unique and difficult position that those in indigenous communities have to simultaneously preserve their tradition while recognising their position in a modern landscape.
How to Win at Checkers (Every Time) / พี่ชาย My Hero
Director: Josh Kim
Cast: Iirah Wimonchailerk, Thira Chutikul, Jinn Jinna Navarat
Runtime: 80 minutes
How to Win at Checkers (Every Time) is a poignant drama about social and systematic disparities that afflict Thai society. Based on writer Rattawut Lapcharoensap’s popular short stories, “At the Cafe Lovely” and “Draft Day”, the film revolves around orphaned brothers Oat (Iirah Wimonchailerk) and Ek (Thira Chutikul) as they grapple with the realities of life.
In Thailand, 21-year old men have to go through a lottery whereby the chosen ones are conscripted into the military. Should Ek be conscripted, he would have to leave his younger brother Oat behind, with whom he shares an especially close bond with. This system is supposed to be objective, where everyone is at the hands of luck. But, as with almost all institutions, the system is easily corrupted. You can buy your way out of conscription as long as you have enough money and know the right people. And at only 11 years old, Oat resorts to criminal activity in order to not be separated with his brother.
Director Josh Kim, however, sheds light not only on political corruption but contemplates on issues of self-discovery and sexuality. One particularly striking scene is when Oat accompanies Ek to a gay bar, where Ek offers himself for sexual favours. While Oat has always been accepting of Ek’s homosexuality because he is his only brother, Oat has to deal with the loss of his childhood innocence as he confronts what ‘alternative’ sexual and gender identities really entail.
The thematic concerns in How to Win at Checkers (Every Time) are heavy and complex, which can easily lend itself to offensive portrayals of the realities of real people. But Kim’s narrative and direction is nuanced and thoughtful, neither romanticising nor condemning this society. Instead, it’s a sensitive and carefully executed portrayal of the LGBTQ and the disadvantaged community. Not to mention that the film is also beautifully and tastefully shot.
The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros / Ang Pagdadalaga ni Maximo Oliveros
Director: Auraeus Solito
Cast: Nathan Lopez, Soliman Cruz, JR Valentin
Runtime: 100 minutes
Aureus Solito’ 2005 film The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros is perhaps my personal favourite entry on this list. The story and characters are personable and affable, making it easy for us to root for and immerse ourselves in the world of our protagonist. The film is funny and down to earth, but also doesn’t let his audience forget about the realities of life in the slums of Manila.
Maximo Oliveros (Nathan Lopez), also known as Maxi, is unapologetically flamboyant, and not afraid to wholeheartedly show his queerness. Living with his austere father and being the youngest of three sons, Maxi is surrounded by traditionally masculine values. His father refuses to accept the fact that his son is gay, but still expects Maxi to fulfill the supposed “feminine” role in the household, like cooking and cleaning.
It’s your usual coming-of-age story, but for those who are usually neglected on-screen. Maxi falls head over heels for Victor (JR Valentin), developing a crush on the hunky policeman after he saves Maxi from a bunch of hooligans. They develop an affectionate bond, with Victor shrugging off Maxi’s attention as that of someone looking for an older friend and role model. Eventually, Victor realises that it may be more than just that, and this revelation is tactfully done. Maxi’s queerness is also respected as a character trait, and not made to function as a clumsy narrative device.
This is precisely where the film’s strength lies – its subtle and thoughtful writing is difficult to describe. Solito authentically examines what his Western contemporaries are usually averse to. Preteen sexuality and gender identities can be delicate subjects, and rightfully so, but Solito tells it how it is. It’s a genuine portrayal of a boy’s journey to discovering gender and sexual identities, without being inappropriate or making a caricature out of his protagonist.
As someone who is more versed with Western cinema, these films gave me a new perspective on queerness and personal discovery. Queerness in Asian cultures sometimes holds different weight than in the West, so these films were a refreshing and insightful experience. And yet, there’s so much more identities and experiences, that are yet to be explored. Asian Queer Cinema, to this day, are continuously on the pursuit to showcase these voices.