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Raising East and Southeast Asian Queer Visibility in the UK: An Interview with Queer East

10 February 2021

It’s Lunar New Year! Queer Lens is pleased to have Yi Wang with us talking about the Queer East film festival he has been organising in the UK since last year. Event organisers like Wang himself are faced with a lot of challenges brought about by the ongoing global pandemic, but they remain optimistic about the future of queer films and LGBTQ rights in East and Southeast Asia; they are also deeply committed to queer worldmaking through films across nations and cultures. Happy New Year and best wishes to all!

Yi Wang is the director and programmer of Queer East, a festival aiming to showcase rarely seen LGBTQ+ cinema from East and Southeast Asia and amplify the voices of Asian communities in the UK.

Outside his role at Queer East, Yi Wang works as a creative producer at The Culture Laboratory, an independent studio for arts and cultural events management. He was previously a freelance project manager at Performance Infinity, a London-based performing arts consultancy. Yi Wang holds a master’s degree from Goldsmiths, University of London in Brands, Communication and Culture.

Yi Wang (courtesy of Yi Wang) 

Hongwei Bao: Could you tell us who you are, what is Queer East, and how it started?

Yi Wang: Originally from Taiwan, my academic background lies in politics, media, and cultural studies. I came to London in 2014 to study my master’s degree at Goldsmiths, University of London. Since graduation, I have been working in the field of performing arts and culture, focusing on theatre and festival producing, international touring, and cross-cultural event management.

Films have been my great interest even though I have not been trained in any sort of filmmaking or film studies. Queer East started from a simple realisation driven by my personal experience as a filmgoer: here in the UK, there is a noticeable lack of East and Southeast Asian queer films available in cinemas for the public.

Significant progress and landmark rulings have been made across Asia in recent years. However, challenges and obstacles that many are still facing remain. In the UK, especially in London, Asians are the one of the fastest-growing ethnic groups, but it seems that we still lack an understanding about these communities. Hence, I feel that it is hugely important that we bring more queer Asian representation to the big screen.

The idea has been with me for quite some time. In 2019, the Queer East project was selected as part of Brent 2020, London Borough of Culture, which is the Mayor of London’s annual cultural project for bringing arts and cultural programmes to local communities. I then also secured support from the BFI Film Hub London, and the UK office of Taiwan’s Ministry of Culture, as well as reaching partnerships with more than 15 leading cultural institutions, independent cinemas, universities and festivals nationwide. Altogether, this made the first edition of the Queer East Film Festival possible.

Queer East main poster (courtesy of Queer East)

Screening of Blue Gate Crossing at London’s Genesis Cinema on 22 October 2020 (Photo by Jonathan Goldberg)

Bao: Could you briefly introduce the Queer East programme in 2020 and 2021?

Wang: Spanning over 50 years of queer filmmaking in Asia, with a programme of 36 films incorporating classic retrospectives and new releases, we invite everyone to explore how culture, law, history, and social norms have shaped the current queer Asian landscape.

By including 20 feature films and 16 short films from 17 countries, I wanted the festival to take audiences on a journey to explore the interrelationship between homosexuality and identity, religion, family, adulthood and beyond, within the Asian cultural context.

Our revisited classics include Japanese maestro Toshio Matsumoto’s Funeral Parade of Roses, which captures the dazzling underground gay scene of Tokyo in the late 1960s, and Ang Lee’s second feature film, The Wedding Banquet, a pioneering work dealing with a gay man’s internal struggles with his same-sex relationship and the expectations from his traditional parents as a family son.

Funeral Parade of Roses (dir. Toshio Matsumoto) film still (courtesy of Queer East)

The Wedding Banquet (dir. Ang Lee) film still (courtesy of Queer East)

In the programme, you can also see Memories of My Body (dir. Garin Nugroho) and Malila: The Farewell Flower (dir. Anucha Boonyawatana). Both examine the relationship between homosexuality, traditional cultural and religious roots. They were selected to represent Indonesia and Thailand respectively for the Academy Awards.

Memories of My Body (dir. Garin Nugroho) film still (courtesy of Queer East)

Many festival highlights come from emerging talent, including several directors’ debut features such as Tracey (dir. Jun Li), Song Lang (dir. Leon Le) and Sisterhood (dir. Tracy Choi), as well as a series of short films, from the rediscovered work Alienation made by Chiu Kang-Chien in 1966, to Su Hui-Yu’s The Glamorous Boys of Tang. These films all demonstrate bold, compelling, and powerful storytelling, and they represent a fresh and modern take on queer filmmaking in Asia.

Sisterhood (dir. Tracy Choi) film still (courtesy of Queer East)

Song Lang (dir. Leon Le) film still (courtesy of Queer East)

To shine a spotlight on Taiwan’s recent victory for marriage equality, the Focus Taiwan programme offers a comprehensive look at its journey of LGBTQ+ filmmaking at various stages, including titles such as Teddy Award-winning Spider Lilies (dir. Zero Chou), Alifu, Prince/ss (dir. Wang Yu-Lin), and Girlfriend Boyfriend (dir. Yang Ya-Che).

Spider Lilies (dir. Zero Chou) film still (courtesy of Queer East)

Bao: How has Queer East coped with the COVID-19 pandemic so far?

Wang: Queer East Film Festival kicked off at a time when the film exhibition sector was hit extensively by the COVID-19 outbreak, meaning that the first year was undoubtedly very different to what we originally envisaged.

Within a couple of weeks after the first national lockdown was imposed in March, we launched our first virtual series, QE: HomeSexual Edition through Vimeo On Demand. This 17-film programme includes Huang Hui-Chen’s Teddy Award-winning documentary, Small Talk, and Fan Popo’s Mama Rainbow, along with 15 short films made from emerging filmmakers. The series was produced as a charitable event and we donated all the proceeds to the local independent cinemas who partnered with us last year. In July, aligning with the summer Pride Season in the UK, we introduced our second capsule online series, QE: Docs4Pride Edition, featuring four documentaries: Shanghai Queer (dir. Chen Xiangqi), Of Love and Law (dir. Hikaru Toda), TAIPEILOVE* (dir. Lucie Liu) and Out Run (dir. S. Leo Chiang and Johnny Symons). These films shine a spotlight on grassroots queer activism in China, Japan, Taiwan, and the Philippines. The main festival returned in late October. Just like many other film festivals across the world, it was reimagined in a hybrid format, combining in-cinema and online film screenings.

Mama Rainbow (dir. Fan Popo) film still (courtesy of Queer East)

Out Run (dir. S. Leo Chiang and Johnny Symons) film still (courtesy of Queer East)

As a newly launched film festival, it is important that we maintain our presence and engagement with our audiences, even though physical events are not possible. Although lockdowns have significantly disrupted our screenings schedule, it is with the help of virtual space that our programme went borderless. We had viewers from cities across the UK, as well as international audiences based in Germany, the Netherlands, and the US, among others.

Bao: What are your personal favourite Mandarin-speaking films from your programme, and why?

Wang: There are three films I particularly adore and feel are important to our programme: Blue Gate Crossing (dir. Yee Chih-Yen), A Dog Barking at the Moon (dir. Xiang Zi), and the documentary Turning 18 (dir. Ho Chao-Ti).

Blue Gate Crossing is undoubtedly one of my favourite queer films of all time. As one of the earliest coming-of-age films to address teenagers’ exploration of sexuality and queer desire on the big screen with a significant box office success, the film retains a special spot in Taiwanese film history for opening up a new genre of storytelling which inspired and influenced so many subsequent works. And most importantly, I think it was enlightening not only for the generation back then, but for many youngsters today who have doubts about who they are. For them to see themselves on the big screen and to realise that they are not alone is one of the most precious things this film brought to us.

Blue Gate Crossing (dir. Yee Chih-Yen) film still (courtesy of Queer East)

A recorded introduction by dir. Yee Chih-Yen for the screening of Blue Gate Crossing on 22 October 2020 (Photo by Jonathan Goldberg)

A Dog Barking at the Moon is Spain-based Chinese director Xiang Zi’s debut feature, which won the Teddy Jury Award at the Berlinale in 2019. The film deals with the subject of Tongqi/Tongfu culture in China, addressing how traditional family values and institutional, social homophobia pass through the generations. I especially admire Xiang’s technique of translating this culturally specific and complex phenomenon in a universal manner for international audiences who might come from various cultural backgrounds.

A Dog Barking at the Moon (dir. Xiang Zi) film still (courtesy of Queer East)

Many people might argue against my choice of Turning 18 as an LGBTQ+ film, given that homosexuality is a minor focus of the protagonist Chen’s life. However, I feel the film emphasises the importance of normalising queer characters. In Chen’s case, being lesbian is only a tiny part of her life and probably the only thing over which she holds control, in contrast to her other life experiences, unrelated to her homosexuality. Queer characters deserve more three-dimensional, honest, and normalised portrayals, and I look forward to seeing more films recognise that LGBTQ+ characters’ queerness is a part of their wider being, instead of framing it as the individuals’ all-consuming identity.

Turning 18 (dir. Ho Chao-Ti) film still (courtesy of Queer East)

Bao: What role do queer films play in East Asian societies?

Wang: LGBTQ+ representation in the media is strongly linked to reflecting, shaping, and influencing the wider public’s views on the LBGTQ+ community.

The long history of queer filmmaking in Asia has changed dramatically in the past few decades, and we are seeing more and more films go beyond stereotypical portrayals of queer characters as a group of sufferers, to frankly addressing queer desire on screen. With an increased focus on queerness in relation to societal, political, and cultural issues, such as the elderly gay community, trans rights, and familial norms, filmmakers are interweaving LGBTQ+ content with a multitude of perspectives and experiences.

Views and opinions judging whether a film is good or bad sometimes might be subjective, but when a diverse queer cinema landscape steps into public view – from independent arthouse films to commercial-oriented BL (boys love) web series – the invisible becomes visible in the film and TV sector, providing a chance for audiences, the media, and the public to talk about, discuss and debate them. The opening up of conversations is one of the most important roles that queer films play in facilitating a better cultural understanding about queer Asian communities, especially for societies which have a long-standing reticence about homosexuality, in which many people find it difficult to speak about sexuality publicly.

Bao: What’s the current situation for queer films in Taiwan? Can you recommend some resources for readers who are interested in Taiwanese queer films?

Wang: Taiwan is always regarded as one of the most vibrant queer cinema markets in Asia, even though the development of its queer cinema has been fluctuating over the past decades. What I feel optimistic about is that you can feel the industry is evolving, progressing, and scaling up queer productions. Looking back at the previous two years, we have everything from Tsai Ming-Liang’s Teddy Jury Award-winning art film, Days, to the record-breaking 2020 commercial hit, Your Name Engraved Herein (dir. Liu Kuang-Hui). And many among them address social issues, such as Dear Tenant (dir. Cheng Yu-Chieh), focusing on same-sex family and child adoption, Synapses (dir. Chang Tso-Chi) and Nobody (dir. Lin Chun-Hua) which pay attention to elderly queer characters, and The Teacher (dir. Chen Ming-Lang), about the HIV and AIDS stigma which is still prevalent in society. They come alongside a strong line-up of exciting short films made to explore all sorts of queer and gender topics.

To get to know Taiwanese queer cinema, film festivals like Golden Horse, Women Make Waves, and the Taiwan International Queer Film Festival are perfect for discovering the latest locally-made LGBTQ+ titles. The Taiwan-based online streaming service GagaOOLala offers an extensive selection of Taiwanese queer content, which is available in many countries across the globe. You can also find an increasing collection of queer content on mainstream platforms like Netflix, where Dear Ex (dir. Mag Hsu and Hsu Chih-Yen), Your Name Engraved Herein and several BL series are currently showing. Several academic publications written or edited by Chi Ta-Wei, such as A Queer Invention in Taiwan: A History of Tongzhi Literature, and Queer Archipelago: A Reader of the Queer Discourses in Taiwan, are great reads for deepening our understanding of Taiwanese queer culture and development.

Bao: Why is it important to showcase East Asian queer films in the UK?

Wang: It has been over half a century since the decriminalisation of homosexuality in the UK but stereotyping, discrimination, and misrepresentation still exist. This is especially true for LGBTQ+ people of colour, who are often marginalised both for their race and sexual orientation, and are excluded from mainstream discourse.

Global events in the past year, from Covid-19-related anti-Asian attacks to the Black Lives Matter movement, have once again reminded us how vital fair and authentic racial and sexual representation is for our society. I believe that film is one of the most direct and accessible mediums able to shine a light on issues and situations that people just weren’t aware of before. By showing films that people might not otherwise get a chance to see, we can provide a platform for under-represented Asian and diasporic communities to share their history, stories and what it means to be Asian and queer today. In addition, the experience of characters in the films resonates with experiences the audiences may have had, enabling them to construct a more positive and inclusive LGBTQ+ narrative.

Advancing LGBTQ+ rights require a collective approach, and I think it is important that Queer East plays a part in this, as a joint force together with many other allies. Together, we can work on tackling the inequalities both outside and within the LGBTQ+ communities, and to ensure the full diversity of the queer community is well reflected through the power of films.

Bao: What’s your future plan? How can we learn about future Queer East events?

Wang: While the pandemic still presents great uncertainty for the cinema exhibition sector, I am confident that Queer East will be with our audiences this year, one way or another.

My current focus for Queer East is to ensure we can deliver our annual festival and year-round events continuously over the coming years. The short-term goal will be expanding our national reach outside London to build an audience community who shares the same enthusiasm about queer Asian cinema as we do, and increasing our capacity to screen more films, especially those from young film talent. I hope that, in the long term, Queer East will not just be a film festival but a celebration of East and Southeast Asian queer culture incorporating various forms including art exhibitions, theatre performances and so on.

To get updates about our upcoming plans, you can subscribe to our newsletter and follow us on social media: Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Any feedback and film recommendations are always welcomed and appreciated.

Screening of Blue Gate Crossing at London’s Genesis Cinema on 22 October 2020 (Photo by Jonathan Goldberg)

Screening of Blue Gate Crossing at London’s Genesis Cinema on 22 October 2020 (Photo by Jonathan Goldberg)