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Mom and Dad in the Closet

As the Lunar New Year holiday begins, CINEMQ looks at how Chinese filmmakers are challenging the standard coming out narrative in queer cinema, and imagines a world where parents truly accept their LGBTQ children.

image: The Wedding Banquet (1993)

“Spring Festival is a time for family reunions. But if you are an LGBTQ person, festivities and celebrations are often laced with concentrated doses of pressure towards marriage and family duty put up by gathering family members.” Aqiang is the director of PFLAG China (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays). His team operates a hotline to support queer people and their families, and Spring Festival is a busy time for them. “Faced with this pressure, many LGBTQ people become extremely agitated. Frustration leads them to come out of the closet during this period, or at least play around with the idea. So they seek help from us.“

In 2015, Aqiang wrote the short film Coming Home, the story of two parents who disown their son when he comes out as gay. "We wanted both LGBTQ people and their famiies to watch the film and learn something about acceptance”. Eventually, the parents realise their mistake and tearfully insist he come home for the new year. The film reached a huge audience with the support of video platform Tencent, who featured Coming Home on their front page. “This film resonated well with people. Whenever we do screenings at our events, it's often to see audiences tearing up while watching it. They see themselves in this film.”

Coming out narratives are a staple of queer cinema, from horny high schoolers to angst-ridden adults, but Chinese films like Coming Home arguably take a different approach to the formula. The struggle to tumble confessional words of queerness off the tongue is typically placed on queer characters, but Chinese filmmakers frequently shift the onus of responsibility to parents.

image: Pflag China

In Coming Home, it is the parents who struggle and ultimately overcome obstacles to acceptance. A similar journey is seen in The Dragon & Phoenix Show (2012), a supernatural comedy about a mother who stages a gay ghost wedding for her deceased son and another man, forcing another couple to accept in their child what she never had the chance to accept in hers. Subverting the trope of coming out as being synonymous with separation, Chinese queer films more readily play with being out but not outcast, acknowledging that family is more complicated than being simply being accepted or disowned.

Ang Lee complicates further in The Wedding Banquet (1993), giving us a Taiwanese gay man living in America whose relationship begins to fall apart with the arrival of his parents. Initially presented as a result of his unwillingness to tell them he is gay, this is ultimately framed as the result of his mother being first unwilling to see, and then unwilling to accept her son as queer. Resolution comes from his father, who, despite his limited English, “listens” and accepts the truth, whilst still insisting on marriage and a grandchild.

Negotiating filial duty and queerness is a family affair. In balancing acceptance and tradition, on-screen parents are asked to step into the closet as much as their children are asked to step out. This might manifest itself in an acceptance of their son or daughter inwardly, but not publically to the outside world, or (as PFLAG advocates in its work) as a deeper acceptance through stepping into the queer world of their child, as opposed to asking them to step out into the ‘non-queer’ world.

image: The Wedding Banquet (1993)

In PFLAG’s films, this idea perhaps finds its clearest expression in their collaboration with documentarian Fan Popo, whose film Papa Rainbow (2016) sees fathers step into the shoes of their queer children and act out scenes from their lives on stage. The film charts a process of reconciliation, but not without complication. As one woman complains, her father accepts her, but is now pressuring her to find a girlfriend to have a child with.

The friction between family and the individual that underlies queer struggle in Chinese culture was met by compromise in The Wedding Banquet, but twenty years later is beginning to be questioned. If our movement says that love is unconditional, then parents who walk with open arms into the closet cannot do so with conditions attached. On this point, Coming Home is open ended. Whether the son is pressured to marriage, or left to make his parents proud along his own path, is left to us to decide.

PFLAG is a non-profit organization which supports LGBTQ people and their families. If you need advice, or just a friendly person to talk to, contact them on Wechat ID: rx4000820211

image: Pflag China



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.

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