The Happy, The Sad, and The End: Why Endings in LGBTQ Films Matter
(Spoilers ahead for “Dear Tenant’ (2020)”, “Your Name Engraved Herein” (2020), and “Happy Together” (1997))
It’s no secret that LGBTQ films tend to end in the most heart-breaking ways where queer characters are left unfulfilled, alienated and rejected, or in the most extreme cases, dead. Frankly, I can’t even think of a LGBTQ film – Asian or Western – that has a happy ending until I Googled. Even then, the lists of LGBTQ films with happy endings that appear are dominated by Western films.
Where are the Asian LGBTQ films with happy endings? Well, they exist, but they’re films or television dramas that fall off the radar. Somehow, Asian LGBTQ films that are well-known tend to end sadly. This is unsurprising, considering how homosexuality and/or same-sex marriage are still criminalised in most Asian countries.
In fact, even Taiwan, the most progressive Asian country with respect to LGBTQ laws, still releases LGBTQ films with soul-crushing endings. A case in point is Dear Tenant, which recently swept three Golden Horse Awards, and its ending probably left many people broken-hearted. The ending of Your Name Engraved Herein seems to have gotten mixed reception – some people think of it as sad, maybe because the two could have had so much more, while some people think of it as happy, or at the very least, bittersweet.
That’s not to say that sad endings are absolutely unacceptable, or that good endings are all we need. Indulge in sad endings and we might contribute to a self-fulfilling prophecy that queer people can never attain happiness. Indulge in happy endings, and we might start ignoring that the world is rife with homophobic people and laws.
In any case, the ending of a film is important — this is true of every film, and definitely truer of LGBTQ films. Every opportunity at representing queer characters counts. If their on-screen presence are limited to deaths and tragedies by the end of the film, then what are these films suggesting of queer people’s ultimate fates? What do queer audiences take with them when they finish watching such films?
Living in a Sad, Sad World
What’s in an ending? Definitionally speaking, it’s where the story ends and when the credits of the film starts rolling. But of course, it’s more than that. It’s arguably the most symbolic part of the film’s narrative arc, where the mise-en-scene, the last strand of dialogue, the characters’ emotional states, all come together and potentially consolidate the film’s thematic explorations. It’s also where all the loose ends are tied up, with all important plot-related questions answered.
Most importantly, the way in which a film ends determines what emotions us viewers leave the film with. We witness the characters ultimate fates and experience their emotions vicariously. What we hope won’t happen to us, we hope the same thing of them too, especially the likeable characters. How the film chooses to end also shapes what we expect the characters’ lives will be like after the film ends.
Imagine a story where a gay character is struggling to accept his sexuality. When he falls in love with someone and finds a sliver of happiness, he contracts AIDS, and the film ends with him looking into the waning sunset. Imagine another story where a trans character is perfectly happy with themselves, but is unaccepted by their immediate friends. In the end, the trans character is driven out of their home, left with nobody to turn to for help.
The common strand of argument for such bleak, catastrophic endings is they are realistic portrayals of the discrimination that queer people suffer from. These endings then hope to evoke sympathy from the viewers and, in turn, seek reform and change the status quo.
Fair enough. This was actually one of the intentions behind the making of Dear Tenant. The director, Cheng Yu-chieh, expressed in an interview that “changing hearts and minds in some ways is more important than changing laws.”
And the film’s storyline reflects that. Its lead character Lin Chien-yi never faces institutionalised homophobia per se – he’s charged on accounts of drug usage and murder – but he does face prejudiced attacks from people around him. The parents of his piano students take their children out of his lessons when they learn of his sexuality. His late-lover’s brother refuses to let him take care of Yo-yu, his late-lover’s son, because the brother doesn’t want Yo-yu to grow up under “abnormal” circumstances.
Although Chien-yi isn’t criminalised for his sexuality, the police are hell-bent on associating his hook-ups with drug subculture, even when he is not a drug user in any way. In many ways, these incidents echo what Cheng remarked in his interview: “Do people understand and tolerate other ways of living and loving?”
Facing insurmountable hurdles, Chien-yi can’t uphold the promise he made to his lover, which is to take care of Yo-yu. The film ends with him losing custody of Yo-yu, even though he already had permission from his lover’s mother that he could adopt Yo-yu. Probably wracked with guilt and sadness, Chien-yi weeps upon hearing a record of Yo-yu playing the piano and singing to a song that he – Chien-yi – composed. Yo-yu sings about wanting to return to Chien-yi’s side, where his home truly is, where happiness lies.
Such a heart-breaking ending of Chien-yi’s weeping figure, his lonesome self – a kind of loneliness that might haunt him forever – highlights how laws may have progressed in Taiwan, but prejudices against LGBTQ people still remain unchanged. And he hardly did any wrong to the people around him. I can’t speak for everyone, but seeing how much Chien-yi has suffered made me think about how many queer people in this world are in the same plight. Nobody deserves such hopelessness and grief, especially when all Chien-yi wants is to love and take care of Yo-yu.
The Legacy of ‘Bury Your Gays’ Trope
Cheng definitely has good intentions in making this film. However, in a way, he has also unwittingly pandered to a trope historically associated with LGBTQ films – the ‘Bury Your Gays’ trope.
Depriving queer characters of their happiness, especially with circumstances out of their control, has its roots in this narrative trope. It first began in the 19th century, when any representation of gay characters in literature had to be portrayed negatively in order for the book to be published in England. Additionally, to signal to the readers that homosexuality was undesirable, gay characters were killed off, or at least, punished severely. This was the only form of visibility that gay people could afford during an era when homosexuality was still criminalised.
This trope carried over into 20th century films and literature, and even 21st century television dramas, even though homosexuality wasn’t criminalised anymore in certain countries. Queer characters were still expendable, killed ahead in the story whereas the straight characters survived; the AIDS/HIV crisis contributed to a new era of stories where gay characters contracted AIDS and were doomed to die; lesbian characters also died rather easily in television dramas, as though they functioned merely to propel the plot forward.
Where do we see the ‘Bury Your Gays’ trope in Dear Tenant? Chien-yi’s late lover, Wang Li-wei, dies tragically from altitude sickness after he gets into a fight with Chien-yi. His only purpose in the film, as I see it, is to die and set the events in motion. We don’t really know his character or personality, except that he is a loving father who probably loves trekking in the mountains.
One can of course argue that Li-wei’s death is so important that without it, the film wouldn’t have happened. In which case my response is, if a queer character’s death is more important their life, what does it say about their function in a story? And by extension, what does it say about their place in society?
The ‘Bury Your Gays’ trope is not as prevalent as it was decades ago. In 2016, the movement ‘Preserve Your Gays’ was started in hopes of raising awareness that queer characters are more than expendable in films and literatures. Even so, the ramifications of the ‘Bury Your Gays’ trope can still be felt in today’s films.
I think about how Chien-yi has lost everything he once held dear. He has lost his lover to altitude sickness, he lost his lover’s mother to an extremely unfortunate and untimely accident, and he lost Yo-yu. Except for his lover’s death, which he may have accidentally caused, the other two losses seem to be entirely out of his control.
LGBTQ films are still heaping misfortunes onto queer characters, as though queer characters cannot escape misery and suffering. Whether it’s intentional or not, such films end up communicating to queer audiences that they are powerless against their circumstances.
So what can we turn to? Happy endings, of course. Bring out the champagne and sappy music while the credits roll.
Catching the Train of Happiness
There’s something powerful about happy endings. Maybe it’s that they can offer a kind of feel-good comfort amidst a scary world, almost like you’re drinking hot Milo while watching a thunderstorm outside of your house. It’s the kind of escapism that people crave when watching Hollywood rom coms. You know such happy endings don’t come easily, but you still watch it to feel some semblance of bliss anyway.
Or maybe happy endings can be revolutionary because, well, happiness is revolutionary. So much of films nowadays are about the struggles and hardships of life. What if we show an ending where queer characters survive their ordeals and come out happy?
Moreover, we’ve come to associate queerness with suffering and hopelessness so much that seeing queer people happy is an anomaly. Some people might even hate seeing queer people happy because they are the ones contributing to their suffering.
This seems to be the case for Your Name Engraved Herein. In the film, one of Chang Jia-han’s, the lead character’s schoolmate who is openly gay is constantly bullied by other classmates, such as the horrific toilet scene where he is almost beaten up with a baseball bat. That student is unabashedly proud of his sexuality. He swears that he will never change, even after experiencing so much physical abuse from his schoolmates. No wonder his schoolmates bully him, determined to make him weak, fearing the strength he has gained from being happy with himself.
In contrast, Jia-han and Birdy, the other lead character whom Jia-han is in love with, are unhappy with their sexuality. They live in an era and society where queer people are doomed to suffer from homophobic attacks. They understand that people are constantly watching them, disallowing them to be in love with each other.
In an article by TIME, the director of Your Name Engraved Herein, Liu Kuang-hui, confessed that while the 2019 legalisation of same-sex marriage in Taiwan is a cause of celebration, he inadvertently felt sad. The reason he “felt a little bit sorrowful [is] because for the people from [his] generation – who were born in the ‘70s, for example – it may be too late for them…to catch the train of happiness.”
Perhaps this is why Liu chooses to fast-forward the film several years later, when Jia-han and Birdy are much older. Missing the train of happiness doesn’t mean they’ll never get on it. If they missed it earlier, then Liu makes sure they catch it by situating their reunion in an era where homosexuality is generally more accepted.
In the ending scenes of the film, when middle-aged Jia-han flies to Quebec, Canada to pay respect to his school’s band conductor and priest, the late Father Oliver, he chances upon Birdy in a pub. Jia-han almost missed his chance at reconciling with Birdy – out of shyness? out of uncertainty? – but thankfully, Birdy notices and approaches him, and they reminisce about the past.
In the ending scene, as both of them walk together back to Birdy’s lodgings, they see the ghosts of their past selves singing and strumming to a bittersweet tune. There’s no clear indication that they will get together, but Jia-han’s flirtatiousness towards Birdy – and Birdy’s lack of resistance – definitely hint that they may be romantically involved in the near future. It promises renewal of a relationship that was once denied by them due to circumstances.
More importantly, the ghosts of their past selves seem at ease with each other, jostling and laughing. They finally seem at peace with their sexuality, despite the angst and trauma they’d suffered for a majority of the film. Happiness is not within reach yet, but it’s foreseeable. There is hope for all of the queer people watching the film — that as long as they endure and fight, they might be able to catch the train of happiness as well.
Re-evaluating ‘Happy’ and ‘Sad’ Endings
Can we consider the ending of Your Name Engraved Herein a benchmark of what a happy ending is for LGBTQ Asian films? Nah. Not really.
One may even argue that the film still ends sorrowfully. The very fact that the reconciliation happens in Canada, rather than Taiwan, seems to me that happiness in Taiwan is still not achievable. And what happened to the openly-gay student who was physically abused? I definitely cared more about his well-being more than those nasty bullies who reappeared at the class reunion.
I’m not trying to undermine the happiness that Jia-han and Birdy finally get after years of separation. But I do think that the other gay characters are entitled to their happiness as well. By forgetting about the other gay characters, Liu ends up undermining his own hopeful ending.
Besides, it’s necessary to rethink what happy and sad endings mean. So much of what we know about happy endings for romance and drama films take after the Hollywood trope of ‘Happily Ever After.’ But surely happiness is more than romantic relationships. Coming to terms with one’s sexuality, after years of self-loathing, can just be as rewarding. Being accepted by one’s family can also be another form of happy ending in Asian queer films.
Along the same vein, sad endings aren’t necessarily bad as well. We usually equate sadness with hopelessness – which seems to be the case for Dear Tenant – but what about sad endings that embrace some semblance of hope? An ending which shows a character refusing to let their circumstances define them, or reconciling with their losses and starting a new life rather than wallow in self-pity, can be harrowing yet optimistic. Off the top of my head, I think the ending of Wong Kar Wai’s Happy Together (1997) falls under this category.
And perhaps it’s unfair of me to categorise endings into ‘sad’ or ‘happy’ only when there are countless ways to end a film. Which is why it seems like such a pity that we condemn LGBTQ films to mostly sad, tragic endings. Maybe one day we’ll have more thoughtful, ambiguous endings that show how strong queer people are in the face of adversity, rather than crippling them for sympathy points.
For now, I’m good with cringey happy endings.