Following a landmark ruling on marriage equality earlier this year, Taiwan continues to lead the way in LGBT rights in Asia. But as the freedom to love gains legal recognition, is the freedom to enjoy sex, both in law and in public opinion, keeping pace? In part one of our series on Shanghai Queer Film Festival, we look at two filmmakers who are exploring different sides of the gay male experience in Taipei.
(dir. Huang Ting-chun)
A large house, an electric gate. Director Huang Ting-chun’s Taipei is a city of separation, where artificial barriers both physical and metaphysical divide citizens from their environment and from each other like the components of a green bean milkshake. Ringing the bell is Sun, a boyish young man with the troubles of the ages in his watery eyes. The gate opens, and he is led inside where four other men of various ages wait. He sits beside one, who clasps his hand into his lap, smiling with a dumb innocence. And then the sex begins.
This might be one of the most exquisitely choreographed sex scenes ever committed to short film. It’s an online hookup, a group session with five strangers, bodies rolling seamlessly over each other like sensuous sculptures, bronze and marble works of heroic art laid on plinths in a temple to the gods. They are gods. But Sun remains distant throughout, his expression as limp as his body as the others slide around him.
“Is it because you write erotic fiction?” someone asks him. Sun publishes gay themed stories online on the same forum where these men met, but somehow reality is no match for fantasy. Covering Sun’s eyes, one of the men recites one of these stories, releasing him into an imaginary world of pleasure as the others go down on him.
As the group disbands and goes their separate ways, we learn that Sun is not the only storyteller in the group. Each man lives his own fiction, whether it be lying to their wife or boyfriend, or fabricating romances that do not, cannot exist, outside the pages of their imagination. “I think you two will be a couple after this,” the men comment to Sun and his smiling companion over a post-fuck cigarette, but it is just role play.
Huang finds in Taipei’s gay sex culture a grim cynicism, a world of online fictions designed to arouse but which ultimately mask a deeper yearning and unrequited love. The heroic phallus of Taipei 101 casts a lonely and distant shadow over a city of erotic but hollow promise.
(dir. Starr Wu)
But is it all that bad? Director Starr Wu finds a more optimistic vision in Shower, a documentary exploring Taipei’s gay saunas. The gay mecca of east Asia teems with bathhouses, spas were men can cruise for sex. They range from upscale concept spaces (Aniki) to ‘rotten’ venues, where the smell of stale sex wafts over the counter (Hans Sauna). Wu matches the intimacy of the environment with a colourful if slapdash style, intercutting interviews with patrons and staff with archive and rough first person footage of various saunas, an intimate tour which takes the audience past the veneer of disapproval and into a world of casual yet consensual voyeurism.
Wu finds in sex culture none of the duplicity of Sodom’s Cat. Instead, his sights are set firmly on police raids, apparently a reality of running a gay sauna, despite the businesses being legal. The raids are often on the pretext of searching for illegal drugs, but are frequently carried out without warrant or just cause.
“Tell me, what sauna, like us, in Taiwan, can survive?” asks Aniki’s CEO. When he later confronts Taipei city council over the issue, the Mayor concedes that with an average of two raids a week, there is no way he would expect any business to survive. In six months, Aniki endured 65 police raids, of which they claim only seven were legal.
Wu dramatizes these raids through scenes from the film Steam, an erotic satire that sees police officers engage in sex with sauna patrons. The problematic fetishisation of authority becomes, within the context of Shower, a means to expose the institutional hypocrisy of the mindset of police vs. deviant homosexual. Wu, like the owners of Taipei’s saunas, is not able to dismantle repression through action, and so finds his weapon in storytelling.
In the films opening shot, we walk down a corridor to find a naked man on his hands and knees, cheeks spread and waiting. It’s playful yet confrontational. Saunas have a legal right to exist as businesses, but more importantly serve a social function. Don’t like it? Then get out…but if you want more, we’ll be waiting on our knees for you.
Sodom’s Cat and Shower are both screening as part of Shanghai Queer Film Festival, 16th-24th September. You can catch them and other shor tfilms throughout the week, and as part of the Short Film Showcase on Sunday 17th. All events are free and open to all, but some require registration. Full details are available on their wechat and shqff.org
Words: Matthew Baren
Translation: Peter Sierzput
*The title and cover image of this article were modified from their original publication as a result of the fact that Facebook apparently considered discussion of gay male sex a violation of their community standards...go figure. The original title was 'Gay Sex In Taipei,' and the header was this gorgeous still from Sodom's Cat:
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.