Mother Knows Best: Asian Queer Short Films
Do as your mother tells you, and never talk back to your father. In many Asian regions, filial piety is considered the most important of all virtues, and from a very young age, much of our education hones in on the significance of obeying our parents. In part one of our series on Shanghai Queer Film Festival 2018, CINEMQ looks at three films that renegotiate filial relationships, and asks whether parents owe their queer kids something in this prevalent traditional family dynamic?
Sorry For The Inconvenience dir. Carl Adrian Chavez, Philippines
One night in Manila, Joshua is beaten up by the school bully for being gay. This is no one-off but a recurring nightmare. He returns home with a bloodied face, looking for care from his housewife mother and policeman father, but finds only indifference and reprimand. Joshua’s mother continues washing the dishes, almost as if nothing has happened. His father is ashamed of Joshua’s inaction, “You should have hit him back!” Joshua heeds his father’s advice, surpassing it with devastating consequences as he heads back into the night to confront his tormentor. Chavez acutely captures the nighttime backstreets of Manila, shot through with grimy streetlights that only serve to accentuate the shadows. For Joshua, living as himself in this world is a never-ending series of battles. But by following his father’s advice and 'hitting back,' will his identity be forever entrenched in violence; or can it become a real acceptance of who he is, not only by himself, but also by his parents? Though Joshua’s parents are brusque, they are somewhat unique in queer cinema of late as they do not seem to be homophobic. They just want Joshua to stand up for himself, knowing that he will have to all his life. There are moments of hope, too. As Joshua rides pillion on his father’s motorbike, gripping onto him in a desperate embrace, his father looks forward, driving them on into the night.
dir. Dandelion Lin, China
The eponymous Slingshot Prince is a young girl, a tomboy living in rural Fujian in 1995. She is discriminated against by her family and bullied by boys in her school for her refusal to conform to a traditional female gender norms. Coming down to breakfast wearing not a dress, but trousers, means no meat at the breakfast table, which her little brother delights in torturing her about. The Prince is no wallflower, and takes on her bullies with aplomb, pushed to the edge after they assault her. But the heartbreaking thing is that her parents and the other adults she encounters seem to agree with her bullies: the consequence of what they see as a violation of gender is to be violated. Our heroine expects them to defend her in some way, and her disappointment is palpable through the screen. Fortunately, she has her comic books 小人书, her fictional heroes supplanting the adults who have abandoned her. It is when she attends a play adapted from the comics, seeing what was previously still in glorious movement, that she is inspired to take her life - and her slingshot - into her own hands. Dandelion Lin’s film does not spare us from the final showdown, somewhat incongruous to the lush and laconic surroundings. Lin describes it as, “a film to inspire those who are bullied to stand up for themselves.” The meta narrative of the ability of art to empower and change us runs deftly through the film, with the violence serving clearly as a vengeful act of self-defense. It is hard not to rally with the heroine as she claws back the dignity stolen from her, hoping that, whether she wears a dress or not, she will get meat from her mother for breakfast, if not tomorrow, then on her own terms.
dir. Seung Yeob Lee, South Korea
Jung Ho and Jack's peaceful, urbane middle-class life together in Seoul is shattered when Jung Ho’s mother arrives for a spontaneous visit. Jung Ho helps the more than accommodating Jack pack every trace of him in his own home and sends him off to a nearby cafe. This is a fondly all-too familiar trope in queer film plays for laughs, because it so accurately reflects the actuality of many queer people’s lives, particularly in East Asia. Tension bubbles underneath every short conversation, silence is weaponised. Jung Ho thinks his mother is overstepping his boundaries, harassing him about what is in his fridge, if he’s dating anyone. He remains on his phone, reverting to being a grumpy teenager, discreetly texting Jack, leaving his mother to entertain herself, smugly assured that she has bought his ruse. As she looks round his flat, she starts to realise that her surly son is not letting her in on the whole story. What begins as a farcical, recognisable situation, evolves into something sweetly unexpected. Jung Ho underestimates his mother, and she is much more willing to find a solution to their passive aggressive conflict than he gives her credit. There is hope, if not a full resolution, for the three of them going forward. Sorry For The Inconvenience, Slingshot Price and Uninvited are screening as part of 2018 Shanghai Queer Film Festival, 21st-26th September. You can catch them and other short films throughout the week, and as part of the Short Film Showcase on Saturday 22nd. All events are free and open to all, but some require registration. Full details are available on their wechat and shqff.org
Words: Emily Benita
Translation: Jack Yan
Originally written in English. Images are from the films.
CINEMQ is a queer short film screening + party series. It is run by a group of queers with too much on their mind to sit still for long. We’re publishing articles on queer cinema and screen culture every week. Want to contribute? Message our account or email firstname.lastname@example.org