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Asian Film  
 
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With the proliferation of international film festivals and a growing dissatisfaction with Hollywood hegemony coinciding with film renaissances in Hong Kong, Taiwan, China, and Korea, Asian films have recently enjoyed an unprecedented popularity with English-language audiences. This popularity has allowed Western audiences a glimpse of Asian gay and lesbian identities through high-profile queer films such as Nakajima Takahiro's Okoge (1992) and Wong Kar-wai's Happy Together (1997), not to mention a constant stream of gender ambiguities in Japanese animation and Hong Kong martial arts fantasies.

Yet while many of the Asian films we see in the West have come from Japan and Hong Kong--probably because these are the most cosmopolitan film industries in Asia--queer films have both struggled and succeeded in countries throughout Asia, countries whose distinct cultures and histories inform their queer images.

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We should, however, always keep in mind that many of the most noted Asian queer films, such as Chen Kaige's Farewell My Concubine (1993), Deepa Mehta's Fire (1996), and Zhang Yuan's East Palace, West Palace (1996), were made by professedly heterosexual directors and are films that arguably use homosexuality not as a subject matter in itself, but as an allegorical tool to critique political oppressions.

Mainland China and Taiwan

Although images of strong, masculinized women were an integral part of mainland Chinese propaganda films and revolutionary operas in the 1950s and 1960s, these images trapped women within a masculinist idea of gender, and pathologized any hints of lesbianism. Explicit homosexuality had, of course, been suppressed in a communist China where homosexuality was demonized as a sign of decadence, either Western or dynastic.

Mainland China's first "gay" film was director Chen Kaige's highly publicized Chinese opera tale Farewell My Concubine (1993), a somewhat whitewashed version of Lillian Lee's source novel. Although the director himself admitted that Farewell was basically a mainstream pageant that used homosexuality as a commercial selling point, the film is actually frustratingly shy about its gayness.

The film was banned nonetheless, a fate that also awaited China's first modern-day gay film, Zhang Yuan's East Palace, West Palace (1996), whose bleak story of tension between a gay prisoner and his interrogator serves as a metaphor for the master-slave dichotomy that underpins politically repressive regimes. But more recently, China has witnessed a mild trend of gay and lesbian comedies such as Liu Bingjian's Men and Women (1999) and Li Yu's Fish and Elephant (2001), possibly pointing to a tentative liberalization of gay and lesbian subjects.

Only in the past fifteen or so years have Taiwanese films explicitly explored queer themes, and then it has been in singular or auteurist films, as Taiwan's film industry is, at the risk of oversimplification, neither populist nor large enough to support the kind of generic gender play that informs Hong Kong cinema. Seven years before the international distribution of Ang Lee's The Wedding Banquet (1993) allowed Westerners a glimpse of transnational gay Taiwanese identity, Yu Kan-ping directed The Outcasts (1986), the first gay film to receive approval from the Taiwanese government.

Taiwan has also delivered some very sensitive lesbian melodramas: Huang Yu-shan's The Twin Bracelets (1990) tells the rural love story between two young women who must choose between succumbing to patriarchal oppression and pursuing forbidden desires, and Cheng Sheng-fu's The Silent Thrush (1992) presents a classical Chinese opera setting as the backdrop to lesbian romance.

It is Tsai Ming-liang, however, who has emerged as Taiwan's foremost exponent of queer cinema. Both his juvenile delinquency tale Rebels of the Neon God (1992) and his minimalist character piece Vive L'Amour (1994) are shot through with (male) homoerotic undercurrents; and The River (1997) provides a devastating critique of sexual and familial alienation, presenting a modern family so distant that father and son unwittingly sleep with one another when one night the closeted father goes cruising in a darkened bathhouse.

Gay themes have also found a place in cosmopolitan Taiwanese films such as Wang Tsai-sheng's A Cha-Cha for the Fugitive (1997) and Edward Yang's transnationally-themed Mahjong (1996), whose central setting of a gay bar suggests that an inclusion of gay identities (albeit stereotypical ones) is necessary in a consideration of East-West desires.

South Korea

South Korean films have often suffered from a stifling legacy of imported, family-centered Confucianism. If the controversy surrounding Jang Sun-Woo's Lies (1999) is any example, Korean cinema is still coming to terms with heterosexual erotica, so homosexual portrayals remain very controversial. Nevertheless, there are a few films that queer Korean audiences have claimed for themselves.

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