Queer Film in East Asia

by Chris Berry

© all rights reserved

With regard to film and video work from within the East Asian region itself, I would not deny that in constructing same-sex sexual activity as the basis of an identity or subject position rather than only a particular behaviour, there is a borrowing from the constructions we term ‘lesbian’, ‘gay’, and now ‘queer’, that did originate in the West. However, there is no difference between this borrowing from the West and the postcolonial, resistant mimicry engaged in by the forebears of those very nationalist and now regionalist elites who are attempting to invoke Confucianism in a post hoc effort to construct themselves as authentic and essentially local.

Furthermore, although the position of conscious agency that we term ‘lesbian’, ‘gay’, or ‘queer’ is signified heavily in many of these films and videos, they reconstitute it in relation to local specificities. Just as work on the intersection of sexuality and race and/or ethnicity has moved away from identity and toward coalition in the postmodern plurality of late-capitalist America, this work places queer theory and queer practice in an international frame. This frame may be globalized, but not in the sense of a homogenization (or identity) but more in the sense of a linking across differences (or coalition).

For example, although Chen Kaige’s Farewell to My Concubine is homophobic in my estimation, homosexuality is not constructed as alien but at least partly as the product of the training in the Beijing opera school where one of the boys is trained in a female role from the start. Given Ellen Pau’s engagement with the intersection of lesbianism, Cantonese all-female opera, and cross-dressing in Song of the Goddess and the same setting used in The Silent Thrush, this is emerging as a privileged Chinese site or trope in the discursive construction of homosexuality.

The three fake wedding films, Okoge and Twinkle from Japan and The Wedding Banquet from Taiwan, all engage gay identity in relation to the Confucian family tradition, with its concern for carrying on the line. The Asian family and the construction of the individual as ‘relational self’ has been the subject of much writing and study over the years. However, what is important here is that these are unlike Western discursive constructions of lesbian and gay identity. The latter tend to oppose the blood family and gay identity, as signified in the phrase ‘coming out’, so that ‘out gay’ figures in films very frequently have tended to be without blood family or excluded from participation in that family. In the three fake wedding films, however, the possibility of a satisfactory life outside the family is not even considered; instead, the problem is how to reconcile gay identity with a position inside the Confucian family.

All these instances are further evidence of how the deviationist position constitutes not a Western incursion into a pure Asian frame, but rather a selective borrowing from outside that further hybridizes an already hybridized space.


Chris Berry lectures in Cinema Studies at La Trobe University. This piece is extracted with permission from his latest book A Bit on the Side, (EM Press).

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