Queer film festival celebrates historic year

The celebratory mood is real, even as Taiwan’s LGBT and arts community mourns a pioneering filmmaker and activist

By Davina Tham  /  Staff reporter

Wed, Aug 14, 2019 - Page 13

Twenty-three years ago, Hsu Yu-sheng (許佑生) and his American partner Gary Harriman became the first gay couple to hold a public, albeit not legally recognized, wedding in Taiwan.

The event was captured on film by the late director Mickey Chen (陳俊志), and became the subject of his 1997 documentary Not Simply a Wedding Banquet (不只是喜宴). This was the first in a series of unprecedented, intimate portraits by Chen that brought Taiwan’s gay community to the big screen.

LGBT rights and representation have come a long way since then, not least with the legislation of same-sex marriage in May. Chen, who had increasingly dedicated his time to activism, did not live to see that historic moment, passing away late last year at the age of 51.

He will be honored at this year’s Taiwan International Queer Film Festival in Taipei and Kaohsiung through a retrospective of six works, including a previously unreleased documentary about HIV-positive people in Taiwan.

CELEBRATORY ATMOSPHERE

Chen’s commemoration will strike one of the more somber notes in a festival that’s otherwise celebrating an exhilarating year in high drag and fetish leather.

Some of those celebrations will be literal. Tomorrow’s opening film, A Very Sordid Wedding, sets the tone with a campy clash of small-town family values and homophobia in the US, revisiting beloved characters from director Del Shores’ 2000 cult comedy Sordid Lives.

Riot takes the party to the streets with a dramatized account of the 1978 protest that became the first Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, now one of the largest pride parades in the world. On Sunday, Sydney Mardi Gras co-chair Giovanni Compolo-Arcidiaco and leading local LGBT rights activist Jennifer Lu (呂欣潔) will be panelists in a discussion about the role of glittery LGBT carnivals in a serious social movement.

Feel-good stories like these abound, even if some take a tragicomic approach. They acknowledge progress even while demonstrating how essential a good sense of humor still is to get through life as an LGBT minority.

The mood is captured in this year’s theme, “Dou Zhen (逗陣) Together” — a play on the Chinese words for teasing and struggling — as well as films like Tucked, a British odd-couple drama depicting the friendship and varied approaches to life of an aging queen and rising young starlet in the drag scene.

A-LISTERS

Some A-list names appear on the marquee this year. Canadian actress Ellen Page, who came out publicly in 2014, stars in My Days of Mercy, which simultaneously tackles the death penalty debate. French musician and actress Vanessa Paradis carries French-Mexican film Knife + Heart, one of the more experimental works on offer, which delves into a murder mystery in the porn industry.

But some stories, particularly in the documentary section, also call attention to the inequalities remaining for causes that are less widely understood. Man Made goes behind the scenes of the world’s only bodybuilding competition exclusively for trans men in the US, while No Gender introduces audiences to intersex manga artist Sho Arai.

And there is welcome representation of LGBT experiences from outside of East Asia and the West. The Middle East is represented by Israeli film Red Cow, starring one of the region’s few out actresses Moran Rosenblatt, and Iranian short films Manicure and Parking. Southeast Asia contributes Vietnam’s Song Lang, with two pretty-boy leads portraying a debt collector and folk opera performer who form a connection, and the Philippines’ coming-of-age lesbian love story Billie and Emma.

The heart of the festival, however, remains in Taiwan. If Chen’s retrospective pays witness to a decade of LGBT culture up to the early 2000s, then the task of carrying that vision forward is left to the local short film selection.

Across 11 films made in the last two years, a younger generation of directors reflect on modern-day self and national identity through stories that range from BDSM in a military camp, to 1950s housewives who live double lives at night.