Frameline44: Spotlight on Taiwan

Two outstanding Taiwanese features

Sep 14, 2020


On May 24, 2019, Taiwan made history as the first country in Asia to make same-sex marriage the law of the land. To celebrate, Frameline has put together a special Spotlight on Taiwan program, complete with two feature films, a virtual mixer, and a Spotlight on Taiwan panel (following Taiwan Equals Love on 9/19, starting at 3.00pm on Frameline’s Facebook.)

For Frameline44’s Spotlight on Taiwan, we’ve selected two outstanding features—one narrative and one documentary—that straddle that defining moment for queer people in Taiwan: Ming Lang Chen’s The Teacher and Sophia Yen’s Taiwan Equals Love. Both film productions fall into a unique time period for the country, with their conception and production beginning prior to legalization, and their release occurring after, in a new era for Taiwan. With this watershed historical moment, we at Frameline thought there would be no better time than now to bring special attention to this newsworthy gay-friendly country.

Taiwan Equals Love explicitly looks at this defining moment, celebrating the activists and allies who helped make history in 2019. Filmed over three years, this documentary captures the period leading up to marriage equality, merging the political with the personal. Director Sophia Yen’s focus covers both the broad scope of community-led events and a trio of intimate portraits of several generations of LGBTQ+ couples. Yen turns her camera toward the public demonstrations in which marriage equality activists took to the streets, often facing off with right-wing, anti-LGBTQ+ groups. And she beautifully weaves these moments alongside a few of the personal narratives that give the movement its driving force.

The three couples that Yen introduces us to in Taiwan Equals Love highlight different struggles that LGBTQ+ people face when denied the same rights as their heterosexual counterparts. Yen expertly displays how a single goal can look so different to the various individual people who come together to fight for a common cause. What pushes Jovi and Mindy to fight for marriage equality is the thrilling prospect that Mindy can finally be legally recognized as the mother and guardian to their young daughter Aliy. For the younger duo Gu and ShinChi, the ability to marry would mean a greater livelihood for Gu, an immigrant from Macau whose status prevents him from finding sustainable work—not to mention living with the ever-present fear of deportation. The eldest couple in the film—Hsiang and Tien-Ming—see the opportunity to have their union legally recognized as a way to ensure their assets and belongings can stay with the other as Hsiang’s health starts to decline.

The Teacher made its world premiere at the Taipei Golden Horse Film Festival in November of 2019, where it took home the award for Best Supporting Actress Award for Winnie Chang’s memorable performance. Following his 2013 film Tomorrow Comes Today, The Teacher marks the sophomore feature from Taiwanese-born director Ming Lang Chen, who earned his master’s degree at the NYU Tisch Graduate Film Program. Centering on Kevin, a 26-year-old, out-and-proud high school civics teacher, the fight for gay marriage legalization hangs heavy in the background as Kevin (exquisitely played by newcomer Oscar Chiu) feels comfortable vocalizing his support in favor of legalization to his students—which ends up causing a scandal at the school.

Ming Lang Chen takes a nonjudgmental approach in examining the ways many people are still learning about some of the issues at the core of the LGBTQ+ experience. As Kevin begins a relationship with a slightly older man he meets at a bathhouse, the film takes a rather compelling look not only at a relationship between an out gay man and a closeted married one but also a serodiscordant couple. The Teacher doesn’t shy away from the harsh reality that stigma surrounding HIV/AIDS persists to this year (even within the LGBTQ+ community itself). The taunts Kevin receives from some of his students also point to the notion that the youth of today aren’t always the ahead-of-the-curve, forward-thinkers we like to imagine them to be, with religion and culture still tainting impressionable minds with homophobia.

While there exist some notable works of Taiwanese queer cinema prior to the 1990s, most critics point toward the early part of that decade as the period when stand-out films with LGBTQ+ sensibilities started regularly surfacing on the international festival circuit as well as at home. Many cite Ang Lee’s sophomore feature The Wedding Banquet (1993) as the official “coming out” of Taiwan’s queer cinema, becoming a worldwide box office hit, winning the top prizes at three major festivals on three different continents (the Berlinale in Europe, the Golden Horse Film Festival in Taiwan, and the Seattle International Film Festival in North America), and garnering Academy Awards, Golden Globes, and Film Independent Spirit Award nominations. Coincidentally, Lee would go on to bring queer stories into the American mainstream just as he did in his native Taiwan 12 years later with Brokeback Mountain. A year after The Wedding Banquet, another filmmaker would emerge as one of the country’s seminal queer film artists. With his second feature film Vive l’amour, Tsai Ming-liang took home top awards at the Venice Film Festival, the Singapore International Film Festival, and the Golden Horse Film Festival. Tsai would continue his masterful cinematic exploration of queer longing and connection with such unforgettable films as The River (1997), The Hole (1998), Goodbye, Dragon Inn (2003), and I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone (2006).

One of the Taiwan’s most vital lesbian directors, Zero Chou, also began making films in the ‘90s, but it wouldn’t be until the mid-Aughts when she would garner major attention internationally and at home with a trio of amazing features: Splendid Float (2004), Spider Lilies (2007), and Drifting Flowers (2008). While Spider Lilies and Drifting Flowers had a lesbian focus, Splendid Float centers around a group of drag artists. Even though trans artists and stories aren’t as common as gay and lesbian ones in Taiwanese cinema, there have been a few trans-centered works emerge in the past few years. Wang Yu-lin’s Alifu, the Prince/ss (2017) captured the struggle of a trans youth caught between her big city queer life and being the sole heir of an indigenous tribal chief. Actor-turned-filmmaker Teddy Chin will be debuting his latest directorial offering, Miss Andy, in festivals this year; the Taiwanese-Malaysian co-production is a sensitive character study of a 55-year-old trans woman who comes out late in life following several personal tragedies.

In 2016, Asia’s first LGBTQ+ film streaming platform, GagaOOLala, launched around the world. Based in Taipei, the platform aims to not only bring some of the best LGBTQ+ films and episodics from Asia to enthusiastic audiences globally, but also to bring some of the best in Western queer cinema—from Moonlight to Blue Is the Warmest Color to Weekend—to audiences in the Asian market. And like all the most notable streaming companies, GagaOOLala began producing its own original content, including both of Frameline’s Spotlight on Taiwan titles. In addition to The Teacher and Taiwan Equals Love, GagaOOLala has also produced a number of short films—including Yu Jhi-Han’s Gentleman Spa, which played at Frameline43, and Huang Ting-Chun’s Sodom’s Cat, which was nominated for the Iris Prize in 2017—as well as features like the award-winning Filipino-Taiwanese co-production Tale of the Lost Boys, from director Joselito Altarejos.

The future of queer cinema is bright, and you can already see it making its way to audiences across the globe and leaving its mark on cinema history. Streaming giant Netflix nabbed the rights in most worldwide territories (including the United States) for Hsu Chih-yen and Mag Hsu’s gay romcom Dear Ex in 2019. Midi Z’s bold and provocative Nina Wu, which follows a bisexual actress yearning for fame, made waves at last year’s Cannes Film Festival. Earlier this year, Taiwanese master Tsai Ming-liang premiered his latest film—the nearly wordless, fearlessly queer Days starring his muse Lee Kang-sheng—at the Berlinale, where it received a special mention from the Teddy Awards. Days will be screening virtually and in a drive-in setting at the prestigious New York Film Festival later this month. And you can be sure Frameline will be on the hunt to bring you the best in Taiwanese queer cinema in years to come—just as we’ve brought you Gentlemen Spa, Leste Chen’s Eternal Summer, Arven Chen’s Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?, Su Hui-Yu’s The Glamorous Boys of Tang, Zero Chou’s Spider Lilies and Drifting Flowers, Barney Cheng’s Baby Steps, Huang Hui-Chen’s Small Talk, Yee Chih-Yen’s Blue Gate Crossing, Chen Yin-Jung’s Formula 17, and Zhou Zhou’s Chinese-Taiwanese co-production Meili in recent years past.

—JOE BOWMAN

Spotlight on Taiwan is sponsored by Ministry of Culture Taiwan (R.O.C.) and Taiwan Academy in Los Angeles.