Queer East: An Interview
Queer East Film Festival was set to be a major new addition to queer Asian representation in London, 'a gentle reminder for us all that the LGBTQ+ community should not leave anyone behind.' Then Covid-19 hit. With the main festival postponed, organisers have been bringing queer Asian content to people in lock-down through the aptly titled online event 'QE: HomeSexual Edition.' We caught up with festival director Yi Wang to talk cinema and representation in quarantine.
Tell us a little about yourself? I'm originally from Taiwan, and came to London in 2014 to study. Having graduated from university, I am currently working in the field of arts and culture, focusing mainly on theatre producing and touring, and festival management. Queer East is the very first film festival I have curated. What was the genesis of Queer East film Festival? Queer East started from a simple realisation: here in London, there is a noticeable lack of East Asian queer films available. Back in Taiwan, the vibrant LGBTQ+ cinema scene offers a good mixture of mainstream movies from the West and independent works from Asian countries, such as Japan, Thailand and Malaysia, which gives you a window into understanding the multitude of issues affecting the queer community. In recent years, significant social progress has been made in Asia, with Taiwan legalising same-sex marriage and India decriminalising homosexual behaviour. However, many challenges remain for queer communities across the continent. Therefore, I feel that it is hugely important that we introduce their stories to Western society, facilitating better understanding of this part of Asia. Your programme mixes retrospectives of older films with new releases, spanning more than 50 years. What changes do you see in Asian queer cinemas over that time? Asian queer cinema has a rich history and I wanted the festival to take our audience on a journey through the various stages of this community. One significant impact of Asian queer cinema has been the public exposure to various queer stories and perspectives, which has helped to promote discussion and new ways of thinking. Take a common theme, such as marriage. In the festival, we have Ang Lee’s 1993 film, The Wedding Banquet, which tells the story of a gay man who, ultimately, has to enter into a sham marriage to please his parents. We then have Zi Xiang’s 2019 film, A Dog Barking at the Moon, which offers a female perspective on the relationship between a homosexual man and his wife and daughter, and examines the repressive impact of Chinese cultural norms on women. Another positive impact of queer cinema is the normalisation of LGBTQ+ characters. We are seeing more and more films go beyond the stereotypical presentation of queer characters as sufferers. Sexuality is an important part of a person’s life but is not all-consuming. Therefore, I feel that this shift in the portrayal of queer characters has been hugely beneficial to the widespread understanding of the LGBTQ+ community.
Shall We Dance? (Pin-Ru Chen, 2019) screens as part of QE: HomeSexual Edition
You position the festival between the various legal and social challenges facing LGBTQ communities in East and South East Asia, and a desire to 'celebrate diverse identities, cultures, and heritages of Asian and Asian diasporic communities who’ve often been excluded from mainstream discourse.' Could you talk a little about these ideas, and how they are present in the films you are screening? Asian queer narratives are often criticised for portraying the LGBTQ+ community as a group of suffering queer people who are trapped by the restrictions of society. Although this is a true representation of some aspects of life as a queer person, I do not feel that it captures the whole picture of what it means to be gay in Asia today. Of course issues, such as language barriers, accessibility and finance, have limited the visibility of the East and Southeast Asian queer community in the Western world. However, I hope that Queer East, together with our many allies, can overcome these difficulties and raise awareness of the Asian LGBTQ+ community here. The core purpose of our programme is showcasing a variety of authentic queer experiences. Frustration and anger, as well as joy, happiness and celebration, are all part of today’s queer landscape. The first step towards raising public awareness and broadening the conversation on the queer community is stories and voices being seen and heard. By watching the wide variety of films Queer East will be screening, the audiences will have an opportunity to explore the relationship between queerness, and topics such as family, religion and politics within the East and Southeast Asian cultural context.
Queer East presents a screening at Fringe! Queer Film Festival in 2019
How visible are queer Asians in UK, is there a need for change in representation?
There is no doubt that there is a growing representation of people of colour on stage, the silver screen and TV. When we talk about being Asian, we are looking at a geographically and culturally broad community. Here in the UK, the South Asian community has a much stronger presence than that of the East Asian community, due to its much larger population and historical link with the UK. However, coming out and making our voices heard is often very difficult for LGBTQ+ people in both East and Southeast Asia. It is the silence and reticent tolerance with which homosexuality is treated that leads many Asian queer people in the region to accept their absence in the public sphere. I hope that Queer East will be a gentle reminder for us all that the LGBTQ+ community should not leave anyone behind. I also hope that it will challenge the existing social boundaries, bringing about a more inclusive society that welcomes diverse perspectives.
There has been a sharp spike recently in anti-immigrant and anti-BAME [Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic] rhetoric in the UK, particularly in light of Brexit, and more recently the corona virus pandemic. What kind of role does a festival like Queer East play in this discourse? Do you see it as an act of resistance? The rise of right-wing nationalism is seen not just in the UK, but across the globe. This is hugely concerning. Prejudice and discrimination are the results of a variety of issues, such as a lack of proper media representation, prevalent stereotypes and misinformation. This is why showcasing authentic, diverse and powerful stories is more important than ever and I believe that film is the most direct and accessible medium to achieve this with. Film festivals always have a degree of political value. The views of filmmakers and curators are embedded in both the films themselves and the programmes as a whole. The fight for gender equality and LGBTQ+ rights has not yet ended. This is why Queer East has such a strong focus on the discussion of social movements, with front-line Asian activists being invited to the festival. I hope that the stories and first-hand experiences shared by our guests will broaden the discussion on LGBTQ+ topics and address the challenges we are all facing. What are your long term hopes/plans for Queer East Film Festival? Due to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic in the UK, we’ve made the decision to postpone the festival. We’ve also created a digital series ‘QE: HomeSexual Edition’ with five programmes focusing on documentaries and short films from emerging filmmakers, which will be launched on 18 April. The establishment of Queer East is to share inspiring queer stories from East and Southeast Asian countries to as many people as we can. We are very excited that our programmes won’t only be limited in London, as we are currently in conversation with partners in other UK cities such as Manchester, Liverpool, and Brighton to arrange a tour with our programmes. In my long term plan, I hope that Queer East is not just a film festival but a celebration of East and Southeast Asian queer culture through various forms including art exhibitions, theatre performances and so on.
QE: HomeSexual Edition ends May 17th, but keep an eye out for announcements on the new dates Queer East Film Festival at queereast.org.uk or by following them on Facebook. You can hear more from Yi Wang on the CINEMQ livestream Queer Screen Chit Chats《酷儿荧屏二三事》on May 19th at 9pm Beijing Time.
Interview originally conducted in English. Images are from Queer East Film Festival.
Interview: Matthew Baren
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