Should we ever stop fucking around? Tony Zhiyang Lin’s 2015 short documentary A City Of Two Tales explores questions of sex and relationships through frank and revealing interviews with two older gay men in Hong Kong.
Seventy-year-old Smiley Sze probably gets more dick than people half his age. “I can go to saunas. I can talk to people there, and if it clicks, we move onto sex.” Pulling out his phone, he shows the dozens of messages he has on gay-dating apps. “I didn’t expect to have a second spring,” he explains. “I couldn’t believe how many people are still attracted to me.”
Nigel Collet, meanwhile, is married and monogamous. The 63-year-old British immigrant of twenty-five years was a late bloomer, which makes it, “easier,” for him to stay with one partner. “You may not believe it was possible to be 33 and no-one had even touched my fingers, but it was true.”
At its heart, A City of Two Tales (2015) is a savage dismantling of our basic assumptions about the primacy of youth and the need to live lives modeled on hetero-romantic unions. Director Tony Zhiyang Lin presses no overt agenda, allowing an honest and at times hilarious social critique to surface naturally from his subjects. It’s never clear if the two men two men on whose interviews the film is based have ever been in the same room. Instead, Lin uses extensive split screen to place them in conversation together. Poles apart in life experience, they sit face to face across a spatial divide, recollecting how they came into their sexuality and identity on opposite sides of the world, and where they are now. It’s like watching two uncles in a park taking a break from mahjong to chew the fat, a normalizing touch for a topic that could otherwise have verged on otherness.
The film awakens many of the more fundamental issues of contemporary gay life. What does it mean to be promiscuous and avowedly single in a world that privileges marriage and family? Smiley is an out and proud slut who lives alone and fundamentally rejects the idea of relationships as a self-deluding social standard, whilst Nigel hints that, having missed out on sexual freedom in his youth, he wishes he could explore more now.
Racial and economic concerns are also touched on. Nigel occupies a space considerable privilege. He has worked hard to get where he is, but we get the impression that the fact that he is white and European has made his life in Hong Kong significantly easier; from his success in business (which began with a generous loan from benefactors) to his ability to marry and subsequently live with his also foreign partner in Hong Kong.
The main issue here though, and the one from which all the others burst, is aging whilst queer. “We’re in a gay society,” says Nigel, “Where the premium is on being young, active and beautiful.” In scenes which bookend the film, Lin asks punters outside Hong Kong’s central gay bars if they have an upper age limit for partners. Most say no, it’s the person who matters, before hedging their dating pool down to the 18-35 bracket. The same men later express their own concerns about aging, worried about their security. Statistics show that, despite the stereotype of wealth, queer elders are less likely to be financially secure than their straight counterparts. In Hong Kong, benefits for same-sex spouses of civil servants weren’t granted until May 2017. There is plenty to worry about.
In one of the film’s more sobering moments, an older man sits drunk and alone, head sliding slowly down his arm as he falls asleep. Viewers familiar with Hong Kong’s gay bars might recognize him. No one checks if he is okay. The 10 seconds of screen time he is given here is longer than many people look at him in real life. Are we afraid it will happen to us, one day when age catches and we begin to disappear in plain sight?
Everything ultimately comes down to sex fort he various people we meet through Lin’s camera. Does it stop, should it stop? According to Smiley, “If I was in hospital, close to death, then my quota is used up. But it’s not used up yet. I’d still do it if I had cancer.” So much of what Smiley says seems counter to the familiar narrative of old age and desirability. He’s not a sugar daddy, he’s not offering what Nigel describes as, “a ticket out of here,” but he’s not invisible. Lin edges around the question of why our community finds someone like Smiley so unusual, but he never quite pushes us into finding the answer.
Hong Kong is a city of two tales: the lives of the young, and the lives of the old. The dichotomy is more artificial than we’ve been led to believe; and like Lin’s split screens, the closer you bring two different things, the more similar you realize they are. Some of us want to settle down, some of us want to fuck around, and some of us wouldn’t mind a bit of both.
The film ends aboard a tram, rattling through town. Each stop is a point in life we will all pass as we head slowly towards the end of the line. “At judgment day,” remarks Smiley, “God won’t ask about your achievements. He will only ask how many people you have loved.”
“I’ve loved thousands. How about you?”
A City Of Two Tales is available to view online for free at https://vimeo.com/125221402
Words: Matthew Baren
Translation: Jack Yan
Article originally written in English. Images are from A City Of Two Tales.
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