Best Queer Chinese-Language Films of the Decade
Queer visibility has exploded on a global scale over the past ten years. From out celebrities to LGBTQ politicians, decriminalization of gay sex to same-sex marriage, the social and legal sphere gives us a lot to be optimistic about. The struggle, though, is far from over. Homosexuality is still illegal in many countries, with rights and rhetoric rolled back in even the supposedly most advanced nations, and fear of violence a factor in the lives of many. We cannot take our rights for granted, and until all of us are equal, none of us are.
It has been a decade where queer cinema and television have blossomed into the mainstream, with a growing audience exposed to different and diverse queer stories and experiences. Among them, we are pleased to see many excellent new Chinese-language films. Through diverse perspectives and expressions they document thriving and colorful stories of queer lives in the Sinophone world. As we enter 2020, CINEMQ looks back on the past decade to pick some of our favorites.
Mag Hsu & Hsu Chih-yen, 2018
After the death of her husband Song Zhengyuan, Liu Sanlian wrestles with the knowledge that he was secretly gay. She is pushed over the edge when their son starts spending time with his father's lover, Gao Yujie. Whilst Liu and Gao are pivotal to the narrative, the film hinges on the son's perspective - the implication being that tragedy should not be passed across the generations. The three survivors of Song’s death represent the three identities of the deceased: a father, a husband, and a lover. All have been hurt by Song, but they are forever in his debt. Dear Ex tells a complex and somber story with skill and ease, and humorous elements delicately planted throughout allow it to craft its serious messages with a light touch.
Huang Hui-Chen, 2017
It's a rare film that features children accepting their queer parents, rather than the other way around, but documentary Small Talk is just that. Huang Hui-Chen and her mother have lived like two strangers under one roof for decades. Their unspoken words and secrets are slowly revealed before the camera, the pain that lies beneath the nuances of daily life. Confrontation becomes their way out as anger, embarrassment, confusion, and misunderstanding are tossed onto the table one after another. Weathering the emotional storm with Huang and her mother, we also get a glimpse of the lives of lesbians in rural Taiwan, where once-conservative norms continue to ripple across the generations; and we see that mistakes made can be undone.
Our Marriages: When Lesbians Marry Gay Men
He Xiaopei & Yuan Yuan, 2013
With same-sex unions still illegal, and the pressure to have a family high, many queer Chinese people turn to contract marriages to keep their parents happy. Our Marriages follows four lesbians in northwest China, who run an online forum that places women in control of arrangements that often privilege men. Directors He Xiaopei and Yuan Yuan find plenty of humor in a usually serious subject matter, honing in suited women smiling wryly as their girlfriends wed, and the obscene spectacle of Disney-theme limos motoring to a wedding banquet. Rarely has cinema laid so bare the absurdity of this supposedly sacred institution, or placed filial power so firmly in the hands of women.
Ray Yeung, 2019
Gay-themed movies tend to worship fresh faces and beautiful bodies, overlooking one simple fact: we will all age. Elderly LGBTQ+ lives are a blindspot our ageist culture. Director Ray Yeung's new film Suk Suk (Uncle·Uncle) breaks the trend by telling a love story between two elderly men. Bai, 70, and Hai, 65, are two venerated Hong Kong locals who have been hiding their sexuality for decades and respectively leading model family lives. Sparks begin to fly when they meet, but their burgeoning love casts a heavy shadow over the perfect lies they have kept up for all these years. The story is heart-felt yet biting, weaving between a tender twilight romance, and the struggle, cowardice and shame it causes within traditional family dynamics. The film doesn’t shy away from portraying elderly gay men’s sexual desires; in addition to tender sex scenes, we also see them cruising in bathhouses and gay nursing homes. At the end of the day, it is the fear and neglect with which we face old-age that makes getting older feel so harrowing. Ageing is natural, beautiful, and to be embraced.
Alifu the Prince/ss
Wang Yu-Lin, 2017
Females and femininity are front and centre in Alifu the Prince/ss, Wang Yun-lin's delicate if jumbled triptych of queer life in Taiwan. Sherry owns a drag bar and lusts for her friend and plumber. Chris loves to dress in drag, but fears his girlfriend discovering, whilst lesbian Li Peizhen falls for her straight employee Alifu. Alifu herself is the heart of the story, an indigenous trans woman balancing the freedom of city life with the fact that, as the eldest 'son', she will one day succeed her father as chief of her tribe. It was perhaps inevitable that such an ambitious narrative would be structurally flawed, but Alifu is nonetheless a powerful and provocative film.
Fan Popo, 2012
For many Chinese families, having a gay child is so inconceivable that relatively few LGBTQ+ people ever chooses to come out to their parents. But things are changing. Mama Rainbow follows six mothers who speak loud and proud of their love for their queer children. Fan Popo's documentary captures a different side of activism, one that empowers voices in the older generation to step up and strive for a better life for queer folks. The film was later at the centre of an important legal challenge on censorship of queer content in China, when streaming platform Youku removed it without notice in 2014. Fan won his case a year later, but Mama Rainbow has yet to be restored.
A Dog Barking At The Moon
Xiang Zi, 2019
A meditation on parenting, repressed queer desires, and the struggles of Tongqi (trans-literally 'Homo-Wife, a Chinese neologism representing the phenomenon of women who unknowingly marry gay men). When Xiaoyu returns to China and moves in with her parents after years of living abroad, she is quickly reminded of the strained relationship between her parents. Her father's homosexuality has created layers of misunderstanding and miscommunication within the family, unchanged and unresolved till this day. But A Dog Barking at the Moon is not about a gay man's struggle. Instead, it focuses on a confused and hysterical mother, trapped helpless by filial duty. Through a nuanced and empathetic cinematic lens, the mother becomes the embodiment of repressed women in traditional Chinese family relations. She is not only a victim of patriarchal tragedy, but a perpetuator of it as well, constantly misdirecting her resentment from an unhappy marriage onto her daughter, unwilling to admit to her true desires and secrets of her own making.
Yang Ya-che, 2012
In the summer of 1985, three students become close friends and more as they help each other defy their school's strict rules. Aaron, Mabel and Liam's desire to free themselves is heightened by a pubescent restlessness, igniting a nuanced passion in their young hearts. Their profound love triangle heralds a complicated adulthood, and makes their lives forever intertwined. Teen romances with subliminal queer desires are common in Taiwanese coming-of-age films, and the coded ambiguity of the three main characters’ relationships may seem cliche in first glance. What sets Gf*Bf apart, however, is its allusion to Taiwan’s socio-political reform in the 80s and 90s. From shaking off the shackles of taboo desire, to resisting school authorities and participating in collective movements, the three main characters’ experiences serve as a tacit symbol for a complex and progressive era in the island’s recent history.
Zhou Zhou, 2018
Meili has a seemingly normal life. She is hardworking and easygoing, spending her days bickering with her girlfriend and hanging out with close friends. But beneath the surface lurks a dark secret, a history of abuse and manipulation at the hands of her family that inevitably finds its way into the light. Meili’s life takes a turn for the worst after a series of unfortunate events; as betrayal and abandonment leave her plunging to rock bottom, and a haunting tragedy soon begins to marinade. Zhou Zhou’s debut feature focuses its lens on an ordinary queer women who is constantly overwhelmed by the frustration of patriarchal societal pressures. The director creates a naturalistic world of tangible realism, but it is actor Chi Yun’s visceral performance as Meili that brings such a profound and powerful conviction to the screen.
Hong Khaou, 2014
When Kai is killed in a hit and run accident in London, his boyfriend Richard (Ben Whishaw) assumes the responsibility of caring for his elderly Chinese-Cambodian mother Junn (Cheng Peipei). Lilting is primarily an English language film, and so might seem an odd addition to our list, but language is at the heart of this delicate, dyasporic dream. As Junn and Richard scale the barriers of grief and misunderstanding, they find themselves in a place where they no longer need translation, where they understand each other completely, and where Kai lives on without words.
Originally written in Chinese and English. Images are from the internet.
Words: CINEMQ contributors
Translation: CINEMQ contributors
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