The film Charles and I went to see at the Museum of Photographic Arts yesterday was one of a series of four Queer movies made in and about Taiwan: Boys for Beauty, a crudely shot but surprisingly compelling film directed by Mickey Chen, a Gay Taiwanese himself. It was filmed in 1998 but not released until 2000 (by an outfit called “Taiwan Queer Pride Information Center” which no longer seems to exist — Google the name and you get the Web site for Taiwan’s official Pride celebrations — and the Web address in the closing credits also proved to be dead, not surprisingly after 16 years) and is actually a documentary about young Gay men in Taiwan. What amazed me about it is that it’s the sort of coming-out documentary that U.S. filmmakers were making in the late 1970’s as the Queer community in this country was just coming to a collective awareness of itself — I remember reading the book Word Is Out, transcripts of the complete interviews with the various people portrayed in that pioneering film (including portions the filmmakers didn’t have room for in the actual movie), and being struck by how many of the interviewees said, as they were realizing that their romantic and sexual attractions would be to people of their own sex rather than the other, that “I thought I was the only one in the world who felt that way.” And despite the enormous increase in Queer awareness since then, that’s still a phrase that appears in a surprising number of coming-out stories today.
The director is Mickey Chen and most of the subjects appear to be friends of his — there’s an easy familiarity between filmmaker and subjects that strongly suggests they knew each other before he began his project — and the film is exclusively about Gay men in their late teens and early 20’s. There are no Lesbians in the movie (though one of the Gay men mentions having roomed with one briefly) and no older Gays. The two people who set up the screening of Boys for Beauty and the three other Queer Taiwanese films shown this weekend did an announcement at the beginning and noted that they’d tried to get another film, one from 1988 just before the end of the military dictatorship that had governed Taiwan from the time Chiang Kai-Shek and his Kuomintang government fled there in December 1949 after Mao Zhedong’s Communists beat him for control of mainland China until the lifting of martial law 40 years later after the death of Chiang’s son and heir, Chiang Ching-Kuo. The fall of the Chiang regime and its replacement with a multi-party republic seems to have had the same effect on Taiwanese artists as the death of Francisco Franco in 1975 had had on Spanish artists — it was basically their own movida — and it also allowed the Taiwanese Queer community to be more open and even get exposure on mainstream media. One of the film’s most heartbreaking how-far-we’ve-come-and-how-far-we-still-have-to-go moments came when we got to see clips of a drag contest actually being aired on Taiwanese TV — and then an announcement that after that show was broadcast, the government censors had banned it and said future drag shows could only appear on TV after midnight (and director Chen got worried that that ban would apply to his film as well, since it contains many scenes of men dressing as women and performing in drag).
The film uses the Chinese term “Tong-Zhi” to mean “Gay,” though it’s unclear for the movie whether that’s a generic term for the whole Queer community or just for Gay men. There are several people profiled, including one young man who complains that a man he tricked with is telling everyone about their blow job, “just like Lewinsky” (the Bill Clinton/Monica Lewinsky scandal was in the news worldwide when this film was made), but the two that come through most strongly are Yu, the rather scrawny guy being profiled in the early scenes (frankly, his straight older brother did more for me aesthetically), whom Mickey Chen seems to have identified with because he was planning to go to Los Angeles to study film — and who had to write and give his boyfriend a dear-John letter ending their relationship because he was going to study abroad (he asked Chen not to film their actual confrontation, but he was clearly broken up about it even though we never get to see the guy he was breaking up with); and L’il Bin, a drag performer who, unlike most men who do drag, is surprisingly attractive as both a man and a woman. Bin’s father tells a fascinating story of how he was once approached by a Gay man in a karaoke bar — the man was emotionally devastated because his boyfriend had been married to a woman and had just broken up with him to return to his wife — and he sings a traditional Taiwanese ballad about the heartbreaking end of a relationship. (Judging from what the elder Bin says Taiwanese songs are traditionally about — broken relationships, misery and drink — it seems like the Taiwanese independently invented country music.) We don’t get to see much of L’il Bin in performance, but the clips we do get indicate that he’s quite good — and judging from what we see of them, Taiwanese drag shows are professional even if way over-the-top (L’il Bin’s costume is adorned with bamboo stalks that made me wonder if he’d ever seen the 1924 Soviet film Aelita) and offer the cast members’ actual voices instead of the lip-synching to famous singers’ records we usually get in American drag shows today.
There are some remarkable things about Boys for Beauty, including the virtual absence of any reference to AIDS (something that would have been inescapable in a documentary on young Gay men in the U.S. in the late 1990’s!) — just a complaint that the books available to young Taiwanese grappling with issues of sexual identity, to the extent that they mention homosexuality at all, equates Gay=AIDS=plague — and there were virtually no references to Queer-bashing as well. I was surprised at how short the film was — imdb.com lists a 90-minute running time but the version we saw lasted only an hour, and it was padded out with footage Chen shot for some of his other projects (imdb.com lists only three films for him: Not Simply a Wedding Banquet, his “answer movie” to Ang Lee’s The Wedding Banquet; this one; and a 2007 12-minute short called Fragile in Love: Poetry in Motion) and seemed to end rather inconclusively, but it was a fascinating movie nonetheless even if the overall impression I got was not of a unique cultural experience, but quite the opposite: a sense that the coming-out experience is pretty universal — though I suspect a documentary about young Gay men coming out in a country with the death penalty for homosexuality and/or a lot of freelance vigilantes who attack Queer people and put their lives in constant danger would be quite a bit different from this!