You’ve seen Farewell My Concubine, keep meaning to check out Happy Together and can’t for the life of you work out where to watch Lan Yu. Chinese language films are rich in their exploration of gender and sexuality, and the rise of specialist streaming services (be sure to check out Gagaoolala, “Asia’s queer Netflix”) is making it easier than ever to discover new films.
The list below is a selection of films you can find online today. They represent a diversity of lives and stories, from mythical romances to tales of the city, subverting the tropes that dominate Western LGBTQ+ cinema to reveal the queer possibilities of Chinese storytelling. Dig deep, laugh and cry, discover intense expressions of art, of memory, of passion and of love. Happy Pride.
On the face of it, the story of two serpentine demi-gods who battle an all-powerful monk in order to fulfil their dream of becoming human may seem an unusual addition to this list, but look closer and you’ll find a story that oozes queerness. There is a subversive sensuality in this tale of two beings who disguise their true form in order to “pass” in straight society, who battle proponents of a conservative moral order and eventually find love in a man who loves and respects them for who they are.
Tsui Hark is hardly the first to recognise the romantic otherness of the celebrated folktale on which the film is based, but his film revels in both camp aesthetics and political sensibility in a way that other adaptations have not. “We’ve been together 500 years, don’t you think we can love too?”
Where to watch it Amazon Prime, YouTube
A queer fever dream of a city changing so fast that people disappear off the edges. Digital video revolutionized filmmaking in China almost as quickly as the underground that drove it disappeared under the concrete of rapid urbanisation. Andrew Y.S. Cheung shot, edited and released his d-Generation classic in just two weeks, a tale of a chosen-family lost in the frantic energy of Shanghai’s club scene, based on the internet novel of the same name by Mian Mian. The film has emerged over the past 20 years as a valuable record of Shanghai queer spaces lost in time.
Where to watch it Mubi
Meet the Volunteers Behind One of China’s Largest Pride Events
Where do all the shirtless muscle boys go when the sun comes up and the club closes? Director Starr Wu reimagines the twelve beauties of the classic novel The Dream of the Red Mansion as a gaggle of gay men who work in and around The Stone Bar in Taipei. At times problematic for its uncritical adoration of an ideal body type, Wu’s film is still a gloriously sex-positive dive into the city’s gay scene. Etsen Chen as Miss Fong, the “madam” of The Stone, is a standout — Chen has emerged in recent years as one of the more exciting talents in Chinese-language queer cinema across a variety of projects.
Where to watch it Gagaoolala
“The convict loves her executioner. The thief loves her jail keeper. We love you, we have no other choice.” Originally conceived as a stage-play, East Palace, West Palace was the first Chinese film to focus explicitly on male homosexuality.
A young gay man is arrested for cruising by a police officer who subjects him to an abusive all-night interrogation, forcing him to recount the story of his life. The tense power play between these two men is erotically charged, but Zhang Yuan refuses to romanticise the encounter. Set at the seat of power in Beijing (the “palaces” of the title are public toilets on the edges of the Forbidden City), his film is a powerful critique of abuses of power by a society against queer people.
Where to watch it YouTube
Three interwoven stories follow the lives of characters navigating different types of love in Taipei. The titular Alifu is an indigenous Paiwan trans-woman balancing the freedom of her city life with the knowledge that she must soon fulfil her duties as the son of the chief of her tribe. Along the way, we meet a lesbian hairstylist, the ageing owner of a bar, and a straight man who loves to dress in drag. The queerness of these narrative threads goes beyond labels of sexuality and gender, and is found instead, deeply, in the characters’ negotiation of the friction between desire and duty.
Cui Zi’en was a trailblazer of the 1990s and 2000s. From his work with Beijing Queer Film Festival to his subversive avant-garde films, Cui straddles the worlds of art and activism in a way that defines so much of China’s queer cinema. This documentary from 2008 is perhaps his best known work, tracing the history of the movement over 20 years, featuring interviews with an array of activists, academics and artists who were part of the early years of China’s contemporary LGBTQ+ movement. Away from the gloss of overseas activist imports like Pride, Cui’s interviewees provide valuable insight into what queerness can and does mean in China.
Where to watch it Amazon Prime
In China, Queer Film Events Quietly Push for Education and Acceptance
“You’re a grown woman, and yet you don’t want a boyfriend. What the hell do you want?” First time filmmaker and former TV host Li Yu dives deep into what it means to be both queer and a woman in China with the story of a zookeeper, the woman she loves, and an ex-girlfriend. Remembered today as the first Chinese film to tell an explicitly lesbian story, Fish and Elephant is also a valuable interrogation of female autonomy in a society that insists women should marry and have a child.
Two trans women, a generation apart, go through different experiences of “coming out” in Hong Kong. Sung Chi Yu has been happily married for 10 years when her husband discovers she is trans. Meanwhile, her step-daughter is crushing on a schoolmate who is about to begin her own journey of gender confirmation. Maisy Goosy Suen’s debut feature is problematic, particularly in its bent towards surgical essentialist views of trans identity, although this unfortunately reflects the legal reality for trans people in Hong Kong today. This is a well intentioned, if flawed, film, filled with quiet pathos and a defiant insistence that trans women are women.
Complex portraits of queer elders are few and far between, and Ray Yeung’s acclaimed film is a welcome addition to the canon. Hoi and Bak are respected family men with standing in the community who begin a relationship in their twilight years. Suk Suk (Uncle Uncle) approaches its subjects with sensitivity, adapting loosely from Travis Kong’s recent oral history of older queer men in Hong Kong to bring reality to the lives of its characters.
The film doesn’t shy away from sexual desire, showing both the tender passion of its leads alongside visits to gay bathhouses, a welcome tonic to the ageism of mainstream gay male culture. If there is a sadness in this otherwise joyful film, it is in accepting that life is short, and love must be claimed or else be lost to time.
Where to watch it On general release in Hong Kong cinemas now, available online soon
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