How many of these queer East Asian films have you watched?

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Yi Wang became active in queer film events soon after arriving in the United Kingdom seven years ago to study abroad. He noticed that only one to two LGBT+ themed films from East and Southeast Asia were shown at LGBT film festivals. This initial realisation gave him the inspiration to launch the Queer East Film Festival (QEFF), which aims to reduce the gap in understanding between queer lives on the two sides of the Eurasian plate. Although South Asian film festivals have been hosted in Europe, QEFF is the first event to focus on East and Southeast Asian LGBT+ themed films.

The inaugural Queer East Film Festival launched in the late fall of 2020, spanning several months from Covid-19 delays. It was initially planned for a summer launch with fully equipped in-person screenings at London theaters. However, with the organizer’s creativity, the first festival was transformed into a quasi-online film festival offering both on-demand online screening as well as limited in person screenings at select theatres. QEFF is organised to feature a country in focus each year.

Yi Wang, who is the director and programmer of the Queer East Film Festival.

This fall featured Taiwan, a fitting choice given the country’s recent progress on LGBT+ rights as the first and only Asian nation where same-sex marriage is legal. After legalising same-sex marriage in May 2019, Taiwan has also seen progress following that when the national judiciary in Jan 2021 approved steps to eliminate certain barriers for couples in transnational marriages. (Other unresolved issues include adoption of non-biologically related children.) 

Despite an electoral backlash against marriage equality fueled religious groups in Nov 2018, general public support is high for protection of same-sex couples. This trend is also consistent with patterns in the U.S., as public perception improved after the legalisation of same-sex marriage.

In showcasing Asia’s long awaited first legalisation of same-sex marriage, QEFF selected 10 feature films and eight short films to highlight to Europe the stories of Taiwan’s struggles and advances in LGBT+ equality. The festival opened with the screening of Blue Gate Crossing (2002, directed by Yee Chih-yen), the coming of age love triangle story including Golden Horse best leading actress Gwei Lun-mei and a male classmate played by renowned idol Chen Bolin.

Blue Gate Crossing was Chen’s debut film and marked the beginning of his super star status throughout the Chinese speaking world. Gwei is also still best known for her role in this film. Despite the film’s release at a time when social awareness around same-sex relationships in Taiwan was not as widespread as it is now, the European response was overwhelmingly positive. Over 100 people attended with Covid-19 social distancing restrictions in place. The general mood throughout the European screenings was of curiosity of Taiwan’s decades-long struggle for gay rights, with a local non-Asian participation ratio of over 60%. The audience was made up of primarily self-sponsored ticket purchases.

Among those interviewed, many were particularly intrigued by the news of the arrival of same-sex marriage in Asia through the court decision in Taiwan. Wang noted that a local British mother in the audience of Girlfriend Boyfriend (2012, directed by Yang Ya-che), also a coming-of-age romance on the urban-rural differences, approached him to share how the story relates to her daughter’s experience. She saw in the film universally relatable struggles gay couples face, such as when straight female classmates court them under pressure to conform to hetero societal norms.

Still from Blue Crossing.

Other focus films from Taiwan include The Wedding Banquet (1993, directed by Ang Lee) a classic and Lee’s first LGBT+ themed romance highlighting gay relationships under the pressure of Confucian family values. Spider Lilies (2006, directed by Zero Chou) featured the actor Rainie Yang in a lesbian romance highlighting struggles in adapting to online dating, reflecting Taiwanese society at a time when it gradually made its name as a global IT semiconductor megahub. Alifu, the Prince/ss (2017, directed by Wang Yu-lin) an Indigenous transgender comedy-tragedy centred on navigating traditional Paiwan norms. Less visible short films were also brought to the spotlight, including the Summer of 12 (2019, directed by Kuo Kuan-ling) the story of a female-to-male transgender high school student.

Besides the focus films, QEFF 2020 featured at least one film from each East and Southeast Asian country and territory. From Queer Japan (2019, directed by Graham Kolbeins) a documentary highlighting activists across the LGBT+ spectrum from gay artists, questioning community organizers, to transgender politicians; to Malila: The Farewell Flower (2017, directed by Anucha Boonyawatana) a romance-tragedy from Thailand on the intriguing relationship between religion and homosexual love.

There were also films from Asian countries with laws and customs less friendly to the gay community: China, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Korea, Macao, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Singapore.

Wang revealed that this year’s focus country will be Japan, which was awarded for several reasons. First, Japan has in recent years seen gradual progress around marriage equality with a district court ruling a ban on same-sex marriage unconstitutional. Second, Japan has seen an increase in the formation of organic LGBT+ mutual support organisations that promote awareness and offer safe spaces, such as the youth-oriented Pride House. Lastly, the world will have its eyes on Japan as it hosts the Summer Olympics. This is expected to add growing international pressure on its government and politicians to implement more LGBT+ friendly policies as the country receives the world’s attention.

Wang hopes QEFF can serve as a platform for queer storytelling to a European audience and bring more awareness to East and Southeast Asia on both progress and obstacles on LGBT+ rights. There’s a clear political component to his mission. Activists in Asian countries often seek solidarity from activists abroad when facing conservative initiatives such as the anti-same sex referendum in Taiwan or homophobic campaigns funded by religious fundamentalists in South Korea. The film festival may contribute, in its own way, to building the basis for this solidarity.

This article was edited for length and clarity. It was first published on The News Lens.

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