Power dynamics in queer relationships are historically lacking in representation. Without readily available sources of reference and open cultural discussions, we oftentimes have to reinvent the wheel as we involve ourselves in matters of love and lust. In part 2 of our series on Shanghai Queer Film Festival 2018, CINEMQ looks at two films exploring the negotiation of power in queer sex and queer relationships.
(dir. Lenhsun Lee, Taiwan)
Summer has warmed Ocean. He spends his days guiding tourists around his coastal hometown and drinking marble soda on the beach. It is here he finds Tide, a deep-sea fisherman from Taipei who has washed ashore for the season. As they make clumsy love among the driftwood, Ocean imagines their future together on the high-seas, never realising that Tide plans to leave him and return to his wife.
Lenhsun Lee's debut is a striking queer inversion of the 'a sailor has a girl in every port' trope, not just for its same-sex romance, but for the subtle re-balancing of power in a relationship that so often privileges the 'man.' Ocean take the female role here, trapped on an island of circumstance, pining for his lover, whilst Tide assumes the male role, free to head for the horizon. But Ocean's traditional 'female' is empowered. What is classically played as naivety is instead developed as emotional intelligence, and in navigating the waters of their break-up, it is Ocean who emerges stronger, whilst Tide sinks into the depths.
Ocean keeps a jar of soda-bottle marbles on the beach, each one representing a time he has missed Tide. When they break-up, he smashes his collection onto the rocks. The jar represented Ocean’s perspective on his relationship with Tide; a symbol of his naive surrender to romantic fantasy. But as his glass emotions scatter across the sand, he can begin the process of moving on. There will be other sailors, but Ocean is not trapped by his island. As he rides away at the end of the film, we know it is into his own distant horizon.
(dir. Tsuyoshi Shoji, Japan)
Yamazaki is lost in his own reflection as the leather paddle slides from between his lips and slaps hard across the pale flesh that clings to his buttocks. Since he was a teenager, he has reveled in being bound and beaten, taking orgasmic and youthful pleasure in watching himself violated by rough trade and men of power. Now, his bruised skin sags, and the aged face that stares back at him from the mirror is pushing seventy. Yamazaki is drowning, a narcissist who took pleasure in abusing his youth and beauty, and who has received a punishment worse than death in return: he has grown old.
Mainstream gay culture has no time for age or kink, and sexuality is rendered transactional for 'dirty old men.' It is a dehumanised mode of existence, a paradox of the queer community highlighted when Yamazaki shows a photo of his younger self to street-hustler Leo. Responding to Leo's obvious surprise that his ageing client was once young and attractive, Yamazaki intones, "I was always like this." Who is Narcissus, director Tsuyoshi Shoji asks, the old man who cannot let go of his past beauty, or the community that worships youth?
Shoji's interrogation of this question doesn't quite satisfy. The film seeks to resolve the paradox of a community that rejects its elders by having Leo decide not to charge for his services, offering only, "You're my first old man," as explanation. Yamazaki accepts without surprise. This Pretty Woman scenario is familiar in cinema, where the sex worker swoons like Julia Roberts, handing out freebies to the clients who make their livelihood. Using the economics of sex work to provide a solution to the fallacy of age and desirability is an unconvincing and narcissistic approach in itself.
We are left with a beautiful delusion, one which allows an old Narcissus to fall deeper into the waters of his own reflection and leads to chaotic and dangerous escapades as the night goes on. Leo sticks by Yamazaki's side throughout, and in saying farewell asks if they can see each other again. These final moments are not a resolution of the film's central conflict, but rather a reconciliation of its elderly protagonist's self-obsession - an object of desire now desires him as much as he desires himself. Old Narcissus leaves us with the uncomfortable sense that the obsessions of youth may only intensify with age, and that we are all destined to drown in the waters of our own reflection.
Tidal and Old Narcissus are screening as part of 2018 Shanghai Queer Film Festival, 21st-26th September. You can catch them and other short films throughout the week, and as part of the Asian Short Film Competition on Saturday 22nd. 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: Will Dai
Originally written in English. Images are from the films.
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 or email firstname.lastname@example.org