“Queer film” can be categorized by the focus on queer lives, by the queerness of their makers, and lastly, by the queerness of their audience. As a movement in cinema, queer film took theoretical shape in ‘New Queer Cinema’ (NQC), a term coined by B. Ruby Rich (Aaron). The “newness” of NQC referred to the emergence of critically-celebrated queer films in the early 1990s; theorized as films flowing with a radical energy, they resist conventional focus, story, and imagery––their “sense of defiance”, as explained by Michele Aaron, “marks them as ‘queer’.” The word ‘queer’ itself is rooted in an act of defiance: reappropriating a formerly derogatory term; “… the contemporary formulation of queer functions in sharp contrast to its past, it signifies a fluidity of identity where, historically, queer represented an ‘exclusive and fixed sexuality’. To be queer now, then, means to be untethered from ‘conventional’ codes of behaviour. At its most expansive and utopian, queer contests (hetero- and homo-) normality.”

New Queer Cinema, in fashion with the eurocentrism of the industry, largely excludes Asian cinema. Theorized in a North American context––certainly with the influences of the gay liberation movement of the 70s and 80s––NQC has been extended towards contemporary European films like Blue Is The Warmest Color (dir. Abdellatif Kechiche, 2013). Academia’s concurrent eurocentrism relegates the queer experience to that of “Western” sexual cultures; the rest are “framed as particular and secondary (Yue, “Queer Asian Cinema”).”

I use the term “Western” here for convenience, though I want to acknowledge the inherent othering in the generalization of East versus West.. A recent invention, the notion of the “West”––used in a contemporary context to signify the north Atlantic––and in the words of Kwame Anthony Appiah, “lumps a whole lot of extremely different societies together, while delicately carving around Australians and New Zealanders and white South Africans, so that ‘western’ here can look simply like a euphemism for white.” The scholarship I reference draws on the notion of West versus East, though it is careful to address the binary, drawing on Andrew Grossman’s method of “bipolar reading”, which suggests a framework that evades essentialist interpretations. In my exploration of queer Asian cinema–– ‘Asia’ itself being a term of convenience––I approach films with the aforementioned framework, practicing filmic literacy which promotes a simultaneous “internationality” and “intertextuality (Yue).”

I focus on several East Asian films from the 90s: The Wedding Banquet (dir. Ang Lee, 1993), a Taiwanese-American co-production, Wong Kar-wai’s award-winning Happy Together (1997) and Vive L’Amour (dir. Tsai Ming-Liang, 1996). Additionally, I look at the recent The Handmaiden (dir. Park Chan-wook, 2016), notably the only lesbian narrative of my chosen body of work.

The Wedding Banquet was the box-office success of the emergent 90s queer Asian cinema. The film concerns Gao Wai-tung (Winston Chao), a gay Taiwanese man––in a long-term relationship with Simon (Mitchell Lichenstein)––who marries Shanghainese Wei-Wei (May Chin), in order for her to get a green card and for him to appease his parents’ constant nagging. Directed by Ang Lee, who later went on to direct Brokeback Mountain (2005), a seminal (queer) Hollywood film, The Wedding Banquet examines a “coming out” in junction with a transformation of the biological family. The film’s plot establishes a “key tenet in queer Asian media studies”, proposing a narrative model separate from the “post-Stonewall” arc of coming out and (consequently) leaving the biological family (Yue). A dual country production, and a bilingual and bicultural narrative, the film can be categorized as global cinema: specifically in that it cannot be treated as a solely Taiwanese text, due its alignment with “the aspirations of the contemporary ROC”, describing Taiwan’s movement into a “generalized, but indicatively American ‘global’ cultural space (Martin).”

Unlike the other narratives I will discuss, The Wedding Banquet is unique in its queerness––representing gay men in a way antithetical to the radical ethos of NQC. Lee’s film doesn’t condense homosexuality to undertones, though it can be said that his vision of queerness is “straight”, as per William Leung. Leung argues in his essay “So Queer Yet So Straight” that The Wedding Banquet eschews the radicalism of NQC, adopting Lee’s ideological neutrality to tell a “homonormative metanarrative”. Positively framing the “straightness”––used to connote straight-forwardness––might be indicative of the essay’s (and the film’s) dated context. Despite the primacy of Wai-Tung’s gayness, Wei-Wei’s raping of him diverts the film from a “homonarrative.”

In their hotel room post-wedding banquet, a drunk Wei-Wei and Wai-Tung are forced by a crowd of relatives and friends to strip under their bed sheets––being the condition on which they will leave their room. After the party crowd leaves, Wei-Wei begins to touch him, to which Wai-Tang clearly shows discomfort:

WT: “Wei-Wei, what’s your hand doing?”

WW: “Just resting.”

WT: “Hey! Don’t do that!”

WW: “Liar! You told me women don’t excite you!”

WT: “What the hell are you doing?”

WW: “I’m liberating you.”

WT: “No.”

Wei-Wei’s corrective rape (though it is brushed off as just a drunk mistake) and consequent pregnancy re-configures Wai-Tung and his partner Simon’s relationship, the three of them intertwined in found-family: a hetero-normative vision of positive gay imagery. Underlying the film’s positivity is, in the words of Jeremy Tambling, “the suggestion that Taiwan has entered the modern world in its ability to accept homosexuality. (66, emphasis added)” While The Wedding Banquet might lack a radical edge, its focus on blood family transformation does revise coming-out tropes––though it should be noted that the film’s reconfiguration of family is contingent upon the film’s distinct “American ‘global’ cultural space.”

Wong Kar-wai’s Happy Together and Tsai Ming-Liang’s Vive L’Amour are comparably more in tune with the ethos of NQC. Both defy conventional configurations of form, content and genre. Wong’s aesthetic of disturbance presents itself in Happy Together, and Ming-Liang infuses the visuals in Vive L’Amour with a visceral solitude. Neither films rely on positive imagery, rather they are “unapologetic about their characters’ faults (Aaron, 4).”

Happy Together chronicles the relationship between Ho Po-Wing (Leslie Cheung) and Lai Yiu-Fai (Tony Leung). Like all of Wong’s stories, their narrative arc is marked by an unfulfilled connection; they share happy moments, but their relationship is marked by instability. Their problems, however, are never rooted in their queerness. Their gayness is never questioned, nor is it relegated to exterior criticism. In this sense, Wong’s film is much more “homonormative” than Lee’s The Wedding Banquet.

Through a neo-Confucianist lens, it can be argued the universalization of Po-Wing and Yiu-Fai’s relationship downplays their queerness, and that their relationship is maintained in a “matrix of heteronormativity and homophobia (Yue, 256).” This argument proposes that Yiu-Fai and Chang (Chang Chen), Chang being a potential love-interest for Yiu-Fai, both embody the neo-Confucian principles of “decent hard work, thrift and normativity (255).” Both are rewarded for their adherence to these values, while Po-Wing is punished for his detachment to them––his excess, whether sexual, monetary or character, mark him as deviant. According to Audrey Yue, “[such] a narrative affirms and accumulates the force of the history of homosexual oppression without questioning the historicity of the force of its politics.” However a singular focus on plot (selectively disregarding that Yui-Fai could also be categorized by sexual “excess”) weakens this argument, as well as a clear influence from extra-diegetic information––that is, Tony Leung’s straightness and Leslie Cheung’s queerness.

Vive L’Amour approaches homosexuality with a tint of the same universalization of Happy Together, though unlike Wong and Lee, Tsai Ming-liang has explored sexuality––straight and non-straight––in all his films. Vive L’Amourfollows three characters who unknowingly share an apartment: Hsiao-kang (Lee Kang-sheng), a young salesman, May Lin (Yang Kuei-mei), a real estate agent, and Ah-jung (Chen Chao-jung), a sidewalk vendor. Ah-jung becomes a figure of erotic fascination for Hsiao-kang; the two never engage sexually, or romantically for that matter––to a degree queerness remains homosexual longing. However, it should be noted that of the two previously discussed films, Tsai Ming-liang is the only non-straight director. His visual strategies too can be delegated to the NQC ethos:

“His commitment to infusing his films with the desperation of erotic longing, and his austere yet enveloping approach to filming both arcitectural spaces and human bodies, contribute to perhaps the most complete queer visual experience in contemporary cinema. In his films, the tensile sculptural quality of every single image becomes inseparable from the psychosexual intensity that fuels it. Through Tsai’s work, the viewer is made to feel the profound anxiety of living, and through composition, sound, and performance style, is forced into a realm of alienation and hunger that speaks specifically and expressively to its queer filmmaker’s experience. (Koresky)”

The Handmaiden on the other hand, is extremely sexually explicit in its representation of lesbianism. Set in Japan-occupied Korea, it tells the tale of pickpocket Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri) and Japanese heiress Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee), the two embarking on a liberating journey, sexually and otherwise. The film easily “defies the sanctity of the [homophobic] past”, unlike other historically-set queer films––Gohatto (dir. Nagisa Ōshima, 1999), for example, which focuses on homosexuality in the end of Japan’s samurai era, presents same-sex attraction as commonplace but illicit (the film’s title translates to “taboo”) and almost entirely lustful (Aaron, 4). Queerness in The Handmaiden is not just present, but entirely liberating––as opposed to straight men’s desire, which is bound to a violent scopophilia.

Director Park Chan-wook’s film pays great attention to the (straight) male gaze, capturing the ways in which it is inhibiting the very men who possess it. Uncle Kouzouki (Cho Jin-woong) subjects Hideko to psychological and physical abuse, forcing her, from a young age, to read erotica––and eventually to do so in front of an audience of horny men. Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woon), the only other man central to the story, is more “gentlemanly” though his own objectifying view is made perfectly clear; in a later scene he attempts to rape Hideko, saying : “In truth, women feel the greatest pleasure when taken by force.”

The two of them, so utterly bound by their objectifying view of women, die a most ridiculous death: Kouzouki pleads the Count to describe his sexual encounters with Hideko (of which there are none), torturing the Count in his strange sex-dungeon, cutting his fingers off one-by-one with a paper-cutter. The Count requests his cigarettes, which he smokes until a haze takes over the room, only for him to reveal they are laced in mercury. Kouzouki dies from the poison, soon followed by the Count, who surrounded by jars filled with preserved-genitalia, utters the darkly humorous phrase: “At least I will die with my cock intact.”

Sexual pleasure (that is not rooted in “frustrated, isolated arousal”) is delegated only to the women, in moments of self-pleasure or shared sexual experience between Hideko and Sook-hee. Their respective gaze, towards each other, are sexual but not objectifying. Park makes this clear by using traditionally male-gaze oriented images––“Peeping Tom” shots, and plenty of back-turned undressing shots––but emphasizing Hideko and Sook-hee’s desires. The extended sex scenes between the two have been contested by queer and non-queer critics alike. Some argue that the explicit nudity is unnecessary, akin to pornography (made for straight men), and others believe it emphasizes their emotions, and is key to the narrative.

Regardless, The Handmaiden’s vision of specifically queer liberation does suggest a direction for queer cinema, NQC and otherwise. The Asian queerscape, a concept created to name “a new spatial culture” across Asia and its Asian diasporas, challenges the “US-centrism of queer studies and the boundedness of ‘area’ studies (Yue).” It forges space for queer Asian media cultures, considering “nativist and global forces” shaping local LGBTQ+ cultures and demystifying hegemonic structures of gender and sexuality, making them available for “minority empowerment.” In a neocolonialist, Hollywood-dominated industry, the success of Park Chan-wook’s film, at a critical and global scale, is a triumph for Asian cinema; stories that have reached popular appeal focus largely on white, gay men––notably Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain (2005) and Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me By Your Name (2017). The Handmaiden suggests that the radical edge of a queer story––and specifically a lesbian story, which are notoriously absent at a mainstream level––can (and should) be carried into the legacy of New Queer Cinema.

** The Wedding Banquet is available to stream for free (with ads) here. Vive L’Amour is also available to stream for free (with ads) here. Happy Together and Gohatto are streaming on The Criterion Channel. The Handmaiden is available to stream on Amazon Prime.

Sources/Further Readings

Aaron, Michele. “New Queer Cinema: An Introduction.” New Queer Cinema: A Critical Reader, Edinburgh University Press, 2004, pp. 3-14. JSTOR, https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.3366/j.ctvxcrw2f.6?seq=1#metadata_info_tab_contents. Accessed 29 October 2020.

Appiah, Kwame Anthony. “There is no such thing as western civilization.” The Guardian, 9 November 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/nov/09/western-civilisation-appiah-reith-lecture. Accessed 29 October 2020.

Martin, Fran. “Globally Chinese at The Wedding Banquet.” Situating Sexualities, Hong Kong University Press, 2003, pp. 141-162. JSTOR, https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt2jc07m.10?seq=1#metadata_info_tab_contents. Accessed 29 October 2020.

Mcfarlane, Ella. “’The Handmaiden’ Reframes Lesbian Sex And Queer, Feminist Cinema.” Berlin Film Journal, http://berlinfilmjournal.com/2016/12/review-the-handmaiden-reframes-lesbian-sex-and-queer-feminist-cinema/. Accessed 29 October 2020.

Michael, Koresky. “Queer & Now & Then: 1994/2015.” Film Comment, 28 February 2019, https://www.filmcomment.com/blog/queer-now-then-1994-2015/. Accessed 29 October 2020.

Newman, Nick. “Park Chan-wook Talks ‘The Handmaiden,’ Male Gaze, Queer Influence, and Remaking a Spike Lee Film.” The Film Stage, 19 October 2016, https://thefilmstage.com/park-chan-wook-talks-the-handmaiden-male-gaze-queer-influence-and-remaking-a-spike-lee-film/. Accessed 29 October 2020.

Tambling, Jeremy. “Happy Together and Homosexuality.” Wong Kar-wai’s Happy Together, Hong Kong University Press, 2003, pp. 65-76. JSTOR, https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt2jc4n6.11?seq=1#metadata_info_tab_contents. Accessed 29 October 2020.

Yue, Audrey. “Queer Asian Cinema and Media Studies: From Hybridity to Critical Regionality.” Cinema Journal, vol. 53, no. 2, 2014, pp. 145-151. https://www.jstor.org/stable/43653576?seq=1#metadata_info_tab_contents. Accessed 29 October 2020.

Yue, Audrey. “What’s so queer about Happy Together? a.k.a. Queer (N)Asian: interface, community, belonging.” Inter-Asia Cultural Studies, vol. 1, no. 2, 2000, pp. 251-264. EBSCO, http://web.b.ebscohost.com/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?vid=1&sid=42b8aaea-d380-4b9e-9953-872027044f9d%40sessionmgr101. Accessed 29 October 2020.

Zarum, Lara. “Let’s Talk About All That Lesbian Sex in ‘The Handmaiden.’” Flavorwire, 10 November 2016, https://www.flavorwire.com/593593/lets-talk-about-all-that-lesbian-sex-in-the-handmaiden. Accessed 29 October 2020.