Written by Elliott Y.N. Cheung
In commemoration of the 19th year since Hong Kong pop star Leslie Cheung’s passing in 2003, a small-scale film festival ran throughout April in theatres across Taiwan. Among other Leslie classics, a 4K restoration of Farewell My Concubine (1993) once again returned to the silver screen, a work that represents Cheung’s lasting popularity in the Sinophone world as a queer icon. This followed the re-screened 4K restorations of several classic queer films made in Taiwan and Hong Kong, which kicked off with Formula 17 (2004), shown to great fanfare at the Taipei Film Festival last year. The hits continued with works such as Lan Yu (2001), Eternal Summer (2006), and Happy Together (1997), all turn-of-the-century touchstones for what was once a nascent, transnational queer Sinophone subjectivity constructed through film.
The continued popularity of such restorations, presented on the largest screens in Taipei, speak to the hybrid constitution of the Sinophone cultural sphere of the late 1990s. This was before the PRC’s discursive dominance and when queer production found its outlets in the era after Tiananmen, surrounding the Hong Kong Handover, and of the post-Y2K hangover. We revisit these works alongside newer queer productions based out of Taiwan, most notably Your Name Engraved Herein (2020) and Moneyboys (2021), made in the post-pandemic and post-Hong Kong anti-Extradition Bill protest era. This juxtaposition of old and new brings into stark contrast not only Taiwan’s relative control of the pandemic situation (up to April 2022) and the relative health of its film industry, but how what can be shown on screen is reflective of the greater civil rights that queer people in Taiwan now enjoy compared to their Chinese, Hongkonger, and other counterparts.
Of these newer entries, the former film attempts to bring the buried experiences of closeted gay men in the post-marital law era to light, making it a distinctly Taiwanese film celebrated alike by domestic and overseas audiences. The latter, however, sparked discussion as a transnational production that was filmed in Taiwan, yet was set in – according to the intro card of the film – ‘an imaginary city in southern China.’ Starring Kai Ko (of Giddens Ko fame) and Bai Yufan (who coincidentally starred in a Chinese patriotic film around the same period), the story depicts the lives of male sex workers from humble backgrounds, migrating back and forth between the city and the countryside for money, for love, or to escape fate. Aside from the on-location filming done in areas such as Keelung, which is easily recognisable to Taiwanese audiences, the film had Ko speak in a China-inflected Mandarin accent that seemed to be an attempt to obscure his Taiwanese roots. Furthermore, the village from which Ko and Bai’s characters hail is Taiwanese Hokkien-speaking, a nod to director C.B. Yi’s Fujianese linguistic background, but also a feature that might invite raised eyebrows from the observant audience member.
The situation that Moneyboys reflects is emblematic of Taiwan’s situation relative to cultural production in the rest of the Sinophone world. Due to political controls or a lack of government-supported infrastructure for the arts, many Sinophone creatives have flocked to Taiwan to court its Mandarin-speaking audience and diverse cultural scene. In the cinema world, one sees this most notably with the widespread screening of and controversy surrounding Revolution of Our Times (2021), a Hong Kong protest documentary that broke box office records for Chinese-language documentaries in Taiwan. This piece later attracted furore from the pan-Green camp for statements made by Hongkonger associations in Taiwan connected to the work. This was regarding the amendment of immigration policies for Hongkongers. Alongside May You Stay Forever Young (2021) and Blue Island (2022), both protest-related films with similarly mixed reception from Green-leaning audiences, the influx of non-China Sinophone voices into Taiwanese cinema has brought the presence of Sinophone voices in the film industry front and centre.
In the case of queer cultural production, and indeed for Moneyboys, queer topics in locales other than Taiwan either fall outside of the purview of mainstream attention or are prohibited outright. Filmic representation matters for queer audiences in particular. It is significant as it correlates with the amount of personal freedoms they possess in their daily lives to be themselves. Films made in Taiwan, screened at film festivals or covertly over a firewall, may serve as an escape, a peek into other ways of life, or an aspirational object. The fact that Taiwan exists not only as a platform but also as (an ostensibly) supportive audience for such narratives thus makes it a shining beacon for Sinophone queers in less favourable situations.
On the other hand, this filmic ambivalence clearly places Taiwan in a representational conundrum of its own. Whether as a stand-in for nameless, urbanised ‘Chinese cities’ or as a hub for queer creatives from outside Taiwan, questions such as the following come to mind:
Firstly, how is Taiwanese cultural consciousness represented in queer films? Films that are marked distinctly ‘Taiwan’ by setting, accent, subject matter, or other conditions might be well-targeted to the domestic market. But films that move away from this context (namely Moneyboys) and toward more easily reducible signifiers such as ‘China’ for international consumption may run contrary to Taiwanese audiences’ wishes. This primes them for the immediate rejection of any such attempt (including a potentially subversive one), underscored by the ‘exposure’ and ‘international collaboration,’ even if not on their own terms that such a role would bring for Taiwanese financiers.
Secondly, what do Taiwanese audiences want? How receptive might they actually be to a cursory representation where yes, they are seen but are not heard — even when the creators actively dissociate themselves from the PRC? For example, C.B. Yi brings together nostalgia for the environment of his youth with European financing and sensibilities for his production. But Taiwanese audiences may not be sympathetic to or relate to his diasporic perspective because China is a naturally distinct entity for them.
Thirdly, how are the tastes of Taiwanese audiences affected by the presence of alternative Sinophone voices? Given the long history of silencing local Taiwanese voices in the cultural sphere, how should Taiwanese artistic subjectivity gradually solidify but be fully open to possibility, regard or interface with these voices? Conversely, how distinctly should the lines of Taiwanese cultural consciousness be drawn, especially when on view to the outside world? One thinks most notably of Tsai Ming-liang, Lau Kek-huat, and other Sinophone creatives active in Taiwan who have adapted their sensibilities to Taiwanese tastes yet maintain their own auteurist style.
This ultimately points to the conclusion that cultural subjectivity, social issues, and political autonomy are deeply intertwined in the Taiwanese context. Issues such as queerness, identification, and diaspora are put to the test of national integrity because the historical narrative of post-democratisation Taiwan is both the soil and the catalyst for these discourses to flourish. And precisely because such identifiers place individuals or works outside of the national narrative, they can be subject to derision, criticism, backlash, or boycott from and by audiences for whom such issues are of little relevance or who can afford to maintain distance.
The onus, then, falls exactly on those audiences who seek to be represented: queers seeking validation for their right to exist, migrant workers who see their lives reflected, diaspora whose experiences are recognised, Hongkongers who seek not to be forgotten. Even as their identities mean that the state variously proscribes their rights compared to the normative Taiwanese citizen, cinema becomes an avenue that reminds them of their presence beyond the screen and illustrates to others the worlds that they inhabit.
We might see this in the success in Taiwan of films such as Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022), an Asian American production that combines queer and diasporic elements under the blanket identifier of the ‘Chinese immigrant.’ Michelle Yeoh, herself a diversely Sinophone subject, holds together various worlds and identities in what has been almost universally lauded as a genuinely good film, an opinion that Taiwanese audiences (aside from some criticisms regarding the subtitles) have shared. What might the success of such a film foretell for future such productions in Taiwan, coming from any corner of the Sinophone world — including its own?
“Queerness is that thing that lets us feel that this world is not enough, that indeed something is missing,” says José Esteban Muñoz. So, if these resisting narratives defy the regulation of an all-encompassing narrative and seek to entice viewers to recognise what is not yet there — might we call them queer? Moreover, if a country not only enables such views but can actively and constructively engage with them, struggling to hold them in all their difference — might we also call it queer?
Elliott Y.N. Cheung (he/him) is a master’s student in Taiwanese literature at National Chengchi University. His writing and translation work focuses on queer Sinophone politics, film and culture. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article was published as part of a special issue on “Queer Taiwan”