Saturday, July 26, 2008

‘Asian Shorts’ Screening & Interview

Screened: Monday July 21, 11:30 – Spiral Hall

The Asian shorts program is new this year – a welcome and perhaps long overdue addition to the festival. I had a chance to talk with the programmer, Aki-san, but before we turn to that interview, let’s look briefly at the films.

It Seems To Rain (prequel)
(Director: Allen Tsai; Taiwan – 7 mins)
A charming and evocative, if teasingly vague, little film about a high-school romance between two boys. The clip is virtually devoid of dialogue and set to anthematic ambient music that makes the discovery of their affection for one another feel like the small triumph that it is. I couldn’t help feeling that it had the tone of a trailer for a longer film and, lo and behold, later in the program we got that longer version, with some important differences. They are discussed in my interview with the programmer [see below].

Katong Fugue
(Director: Boo JunFeng; Singapore – 10 mins)
Based on a play by Alfian Sa’at (this is an English language film), the story takes the form of a somewhat disembodied dialogue between a concerned mother and her emotionally distant teenage son. The boy is a piano player and throughout the piece we hear him playing portions of a Johann Sebastien Bach fugue. His prying mother wants to know what he is doing in his room, the inviolability of which – along with his piano – becomes a kind of cover (and metaphor) for his secret liaisons with his boyfriend. Played out in a series of images that are tableau-like in their composition and economy of action, it’s a little like flipping through a private photo album and trying to stitch together the narrative of this mother-son relationship from a series of hypnotic and beautiful fragments.

A Family Portrait
(Director: Boo JunFeng; Singapore – 9 mins)
The second of two films from Boo JunFeng, this film is in Spanish, and not one Asian face graces the screen. Instead, the setting is European. The conceit of this tidy little film is that while filling out an innocent questionnaire, the younger sister of the protagonist, a teenage boy, asks: ‘What is ‘Sex’?’ This conjures up his recollections of a moment years earlier when a photographically inclined cousin came to take the family portrait, and he later discovered his parents engaged in a three-way sex act with the cousin. Far from shocked by it, however, he sees their union as an act of love, and gives that as his definition of ‘sex’ to his sister, when all she really needed to know was whether to check the box marked M or F on her questionnaire!

(Director: David Maurice Gil; USA – 12 mins)
Another English-language film, this time from the U.S., ‘Just’ takes us into the bedroom of a wealthy writer who has just woken up from a night of – we have to imagine – great sex with the impossibly cute trick he has brought home. The leads are two beautifully built and tanned Asian-Americans, one of whom is the cowriter of the film, Edward Gunawan. Their conversation shortly becomes tense, however, as the two of them realize that the assumptions they had made about one another the night before may have been mistaken. In 12 short minutes, ‘Just’ touches on all the thorniest issues of gay sexuality, promiscuity and fidelity, but leaves it up to the audience to decide where we stand.

Poetry In Motion: Fragile In Love
(Director: Mickey Chen; Taiwan – 14 mins)
Less a linear narrative than a series of impressionistic images of gay men in a minimalist night club interior, this film takes its inspiration from a classical Chinese ‘kanshi’ poem, but of course queers the story. Both the club and what little clothing its beautiful patrons have on are bright white tinted blue by black light. Title cards with the pulsating and morphing Chinese characters of the poem separate the various brief segments of a narrative involving a couple that appears to oscillate nearer and further away from the blue flame of the gay disco’s perennial promise of unlimited sexual adventure. Sexy, moody, and atmospheric it was nonetheless impenetrable to me due to the absence of English subtitles. (Sorry!)

It Seems To Rain
(Director: Allen Tsai; Taiwan – 38 mins)
The wonderfully intriguing music video / trailer that opened the program now expands into a fully fleshed-out, dialogue-driven short film. The story centres on a high school aged boy who hates his naturally curly hair and is constantly straightening it, only to loose the battle with the rain and humidity, which curls it up again. This, of course, becomes a metaphor for his desire to straighten out his sexuality as well. He has a kind of girlfriend, though their relationship seems rather platonic, but a new student in his class clearly sets his sights on him, and they begin to tip-toe toward some kind of queer relationship. This never gets much further, however, than an unreturned pass the one boy makes toward the other in a porn shop they briefly visit. Just as lush and brooding as the short, it nonetheless leaves us with more questions instead of fewer about the nature of this nascent homosexual high school romance.



So what brought this program of films and the nearly sold-out audience it attracted together? Let’s ask Aki-san, the programmer.

Guy: How did you come to create this program for the festival?

Aki-san: It wasn’t really planned. This is the first year we’ve done it. I’ve actually been programming for the festival for about 10 years. We’ve had programs of Japanese shorts before, but not an Asian program like this. I just happened to have these films in front of me and it made sense to present them as an Asian program.

Guy: Do you mind me asking, are you Japanese?

Aki-san: My nationality is Japanese, but my blood is Chinese [Taiwanese].

Guy: How did you end up in Japan?

Aki-san: I was born in Taiwan, but my parents wanted me to be educated here. So when I reached the age to go to university, my parents sent me here to be trained as a doctor. My uncle was a doctor living in Japan and he said that he would adopt me and pay for my schooling, so I came to study here at the age of 20 and I’ve been here ever since.

Guy: In this program, we had a film in Spanish with no Asians appearing on screen. We also had two English-language films, one of them from the U.S. So what is your definition of an ‘Asian’ film?

Aki-san: Of course, there is no absolute definition. It’s just a matter of the feeling I get from these films. In each case, either the writer or director or some of the actors are Asian. You know, ‘Brokeback Mountain’ was directed by Ang Lee, who is Taiwanese, so in that sense it is a partly Asian film too.

Guy: And I think that’s good – to shake up people’s expectations of what an Asian film is or can be. Can you tell us a little about why you think these are important films for us to see?

Aki-san: I wanted to show the whole range of possibilities for films that are – at least partly – Asian. So I included two films by Boo JunFeng from Singapore, because I think he is a really interesting filmmaker that we should be watching now. He’s just made another really good short film, but it is not gay themed. The American film, ‘Just’, was co-written by Edward Gunawan, who is a second-generation Vietnamese American. So this expands the idea of what an Asian film is.

Guy: The two versions of ‘It Seems to Rain’ were really interesting, but also a bit frustrating. In the shorter one, we are left wanting to know more about the characters. But at least it is clear that it is a gay relationship. In the longer version, however, this is more ambiguous. What is the relationship between these two films?

Aki-san: Well, the long version was actually made first, and the two are included together on a DVD. The shorter version was actually re-shot after the long version was completed.

Guy: Yeah, because there are definitely images in the short version that aren’t in the long one. They are more explicit – you see the boys actually holding hands, etc.

Aki-san: Right. I would actually have liked to show the long version first, and then the short one, but the director insisted we show them the other way around. We also contemplated showing only the longer version, but we thought people would be confused or dissatisfied. Both films are actually the director’s graduating project from film school. The second one was made as a kind of trailer for the first film. What he was trying to show was that something of professional quality could actually come out of a graduate film project, and I think he succeeded in that regard.

Guy: Yes, they are both great looking films. You know, I’ve really been looking forward to seeing these short film programs [including ‘Strange Couples’ & ‘Moon Shadow’ and the ‘Japanese Rainbow Reel Competition’] because we are so bombarded with American media. I mean, the popularity of a show like ‘The L Word’ – it seems like every lesbian on the planet is watching this show! Even my kids at school know this show and watch it. But I wonder if this is such a good thing. I mean, the situation for gay people is very different in America than it is in Japan or other parts of Asia. So, how do you feel about this dominance of mostly American English-language queer cinema and TV?

Aki-san: Certainly, there is a disparity between Asia and the West in terms of gay rights and queer visibility. Things are much more advanced in that regard in the West. So it’s inevitable that you’re going to see a lot of queer cinema coming out of these places. It’s only recently that it has become okay to be gay in places like Singapore and Taiwan. So we are still seeing stories about coming out and coming to terms with being gay there. Whereas in the U.S. and Europe, we are seeing films about gays raising children, etc. So it’s important for us to see these films too, to see a different perspective on gay life. There just are not enough Asian films on gay themes being made to fill a festival like this.


Of the 15 features we screened this year, 3 (or 20%) were Asian (‘Drifting Flowers’, ‘No Regret’, and ‘Bangkok Love Story’), and of the 6 shorts programs, half had a Japanese or Asian focus. So the films are out there, and surely the audience for them is too. And while it’s important for people here to be able to see what the situation is for queers in other parts of the world – as so many of our selections did – I think it’s also important to remind Western audiences that the dominant images and ideas around queer visibility and queer rights are Western in origin, and aren’t necessarily consonant with queer people’s experiences, expectations, hopes or desires elsewhere in the world. I’m sure the mix of Asian films, European films, American films, and films from other parts of the world that we will be screening next year will give us more chances to consider those contrasts, and to evaluate what being ‘queer’ means through as many lenses as possible.

Incidentally, the Tokyo International Lesbian & Gay Film Festival is entirely staffed by volunteers, and Aki-san – a medical doctor of Taiwanese origin living in Japan – is just one example of the wide range of backgrounds, interests and skills that they bring to the festival. We look forward to another selection of Asian shorts at our 18th annual festival next year.

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