World cinema retro-review: Drifting Flowers (Piao Lang Qing Chun) (Taiwan, 2008)

Again, took time off from my geeky, queer life by volunteering at an Oxfam charity shop in an East London high street, where I live. I’ve been volunteering there for quite some time now, and it’s been good. Aside from the free English tea and biscuits, I get to listen to a diverse plethora of music, browse through a lot of books, hang out with my mostly British co-volunteers. Today was a good day – the sun was up and people are up and about, going around the market and shopping like there is no recession. ^^

Now, I am back and today I will review “Drifting Flowers”, another feature film from Taiwanese director, Zero Chou who gave us Spider Lilies (see previous review).

This film is bit different from “Spider Lilies”.  Where “Spider Lilies” explores the gay sub-culture in modern Taiwanese youth culture (in an interview with, Chou says that young Taiwanese people are into tattoos and webcam girl gigs) in a movie that’s both hip and accessible, this movie is a more mature exploration of the gay and lesbian psyche. It still has Chou’s trademark bit of esoteric symbolism that is very open to interpretation, but other than that, it is pretty standard, rather minimalistic film. df

“Drifting Flowers” is actually three interconnected stories. The first story is about young Meigo (Spider Lilies’ Pai Chih-ying), her older, visually-impaired sister Ging (Serena Fang) and Ging’s relationship with Diego (Chao Yi Lan).

The second story is about Lily (Lu Yi-ching), an old woman suffering from Alzheimer’s disease & her “beard husband”, a gay man named Yen (Sam Wang).

Yen is friends with Diego (we see this in one of the earlier scenes, where Diego and Ging sing at their wedding), which leads to the third story, Diego’s. I actually had to watch this again to get the interconnections, as it can be very confusing at times.

Anyway, Ging is  a lounge singer and enjoys a close relationship with younger sister, Meigo. Diego is an accordionist who works at the same bar, playing back-up music to Ging.

Diego, who is typically butch, is revealed to be attracted to Ging (we don’t need to see this verbalized, we just see it in how Diego suddenly appears out of nowhere, offering to lead Ging, or being there when Meigo is being made fun of. Besides, lesbians, being lesbians – will always find a way to be with the girl they love. Always. ) and finds a way to be with Ging. Ging is struggling to keep social workrs at bay, knowing that the unholy hours in which she works, when she has to keep Meigo at the bar, as she sings, is taking its toll on Meigo’s school work and health. Meigo has a crush on Diego and though at first she finds it strange that Diego dresses like a man, she soon begins to like her. But when Meigo finds Diego and Ging kissing, Meigo begins to resent Ging, ignoring her, and, in one pivotal scene, deliberately misleading her, telling her that Diego wants to meet her at the temple on temple fair day, when Diego has actually said she’ll meet Ging at home. df1Meigo runs away, to the foster mother that social welfare has recommended to Ging to bring her to. Meigo refuses to go back to living with her older sister. Ging tries to talk to her foster mother, but the foster mother refuses to return her as well, telling her that since she is well-off, she can give Meigo a better life. She says she will take care of Meigo, on one condition: that Ging not see young Meigo til she is grown up. The scene that ensues, when Ging lets go and totally breaks down, is a completely heartbreaking scene and one would have to be an idiot not to sympathesize with Ging’s predicament, for this means having to let go of her sister at the price of personal happiness.

The second story deals with Lily (Lu Yi-ching) & Yen (Sam Wang). Lily is in a care home for the elderly, suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and pining for a long-lost lesbian lover who will never come back. Her gay “husband”, Yen, whom she married for convenience so she can still be with this lover, is old and ailing and suffering from AIDS himself.  They have not seen each other for years. He visits her at the home, having lost the will to live himself. He has just found out that his own lover has been cheating on him. This story ends a bit abruptly and hanging, closing with a cynical line,  “Everyone leaves eventually” at its wake.

The movie cuts to Diego, when she comes of age. We see her going through typical butch lesbian hell: being mistaken for a man whenever she goes to a female toilet, having her mother pester her about her lack of breasts, and being forced to try on skirts and bras (the scene where she tries one on is simultaneously funny and sad – it’s just so wrong to see somebody so butch wearing a bra), bandaging her breasts, and having a fling with a girl (a young Lily I presume, as this story revolves around Diego – a six degrees of separation of Diego, if you will). df2Diego works for the family troupe, the Ru Zhen Yen troupe, which is on the brink of bankruptcy, going out of business because it refuses to innovate, like the other troupes.

Unlike Chou’s earlier feature, this film’s emphasis is on gay and (primarily butch-femme) lesbian relationships and how they intersect and interact with the larger, largely conservative society. As with other films dealing with Asian GLBT lives, the reality of marriages for convenience exist, as do the threat of social ostracism and family disownment. In a society such as Taiwan’s, with residual Confucian values that emphasize allegiance and loyalty to family above all else, losing one’s family is equivalent to death.

As I mentioned I’ve actually had to watch this again, not just to understand it, but see if I missed something, because the first time I watched it, it left me largely unsatisfied and feeling like I’d been short-changed. When I first saw it, I thought that dividing the movie into three unrelated parts, with each one ending abruptly, was unsatisfactory and ill-advised. I thought the first part, Ging’s heartbreaking story, was, if not entirely new, was still absorbing, and I would have wanted to have her life and her dealing with her identity and sexuality in detail in the next parts of the movie. However, this is not an American lesbian film where much of the processing is external and overly verbalized (with none of the L-Word drama that comes with it. If this where L-Word, you would see Ging and Diego raising hell over the foster mother’s refusal to give young Meigo back. Heck, if this were L-Word, Diego would have kidnapped or taken Meigo by force). Being an Asian film, the processing is mostly internal, and you see this results of this processing on-screen: after many years, Diego and Ging are still together, fearlessly showing their affection to each other publicly, while Meigo, despite herself, finds herself drawn to butch lesbians and has already accepted Ging’s relationship with Diego.

What I did realize from watching it a second time, is that story is tied neatly together around Diego’s life and circle of friends – since Yen and Lily are connected to her. The other thing i realized is that though the first story will always be the one I will always like (Serena Fang! ’nuff said), and while the second story is a bit painful to watch (seeing old gays and lesbians wither away from diseases and betrayals and all that is unbearable), it still is compelling and the third story is light and easy, a slice of butch lesbian life.

Scenes of trains and tunnels figure prominently in this film. There must be meaning there somewhere. Kidding. Having spent the better part of my 20s banging my head on my wall as I made my master’s thesis, I do have a passing knowledge of literary theories and how they can be applied in unlocking esoteric symbols. If there is symbolism anywhere, I will find it! Even when there isn’t any! ^^ In this film, the train and tunnel sequence is a fairly obvious metaphor: life is a train, life is a journey, it is not really a destination, and gays and lesbians, like any other traveller in this journey called life, go through the same things as well.

While Isabella Leong’s gorgeous, androgynous face is sorely missed, this story might actually be better than “Spider Lilies” – it’s more mature, more in-depth and interesting than “Spider”. Employing real life butch lesbian Chao Yi Lan (she was plucked from drama school in Taiwan)  is a stroke of genius, since it adds credibility to the story and is so anti-Hollywood, so anti-establishment and subversive it makes for an enjoyable watch. Pairing her with the pretty Serena Fang is genius as well. I just saw her in an clip from (currently the only Japanese lesbian website I heard) when they went to Japan to promote “Drifting Flowers” and I was so blown away by how she looked here that I am posting the video here as well  (what can I say? Femmes are so totally my thing. Since birth. There is just something about them…) .

As for Pai Chih-ying, the young Meigo, I find it amusing and unusual that this is the second Taiwanese lesbian film in which she appears, where she develops a crush on somebody older and butch and lesbian (Isabella Leong’s Takeko in “Spider Lilies” and Chao Yi Lan’s Diego in “Drifting Flowers”). While Dakota Fanning and other child actors appear in largely standard fare, this young girl decides to show up in lesbian films.

This is the third Chinese film I’ve watched and I have to say, watching these films is a real eye-opener for me. From a country that claims to be open to GLBT (but is actually hypocritical, contradictory and just plain prejudiced), it feels a bit shameful to see that other Asian countries are producing better lesbian films that,though not at all that perfect, still show positive images of lesbians. But then again,it’s probably also simple math: 1 billion Chinese people, give or take 10% gay and/or lesbian (with the corresponding margin of error), and you have a substantial GLBT population who can produce and support gay and lesbian Chinese films.

I think that’s really wicked. ^^


World cinema retro-review: Rome and Juliet (Philippines, 2006)

Back in the Day…

Back in 1996, a ratings war between the two top TV networks, ABS-CBN and GMA,  in my country, the Philippines, was raging. It had been raging for quite some time then, but it had escalated into new heights as each network  vied for the Filipino viewers’ attention. Each network tried to outdo each other in coming up with the more creative, or “in” or “hip” show. I’m a bit of a GMA person myself (probably also out of nostalgia for those “GMA Supershow” and “That’s Entertainment” days), although as my mother was an ABS-CBN person herself, I didn’t really get to watch a lot of GMA shows. Anyway, one of the good things that came out of that (ongoing) ratings war was the production of better programming that has not been equaled since (at least to my mind, judging from the kind of shows I see on TFC). A product of that time was the hit GMA teen show, T.G.I.S., to which the rival network pitched its own copycat teen show, “Gimik”. Anyway, a lot of now popular movie and TV actors have emerged from that lot, and though I tended to agree that GMA had better programming, I watched Gimik primarily as an excuse to see one of the kick-ass characters in the show, Melanie Suntay, played by Mylene Dizon (pictured below). Unfortunately I had to endure whole scenes of  Judy Ann Santos and =gasp= Jolina Magdangal ( who has the dubious distinction of having a whole word coined after her: jologs – meaning tacky),  as well, but I thought, it was a small price to pay to see Mylene Dizon mylene-dizonevery Saturday. ^^ Don’t ask me why, she certainly isn’t the most beautiful actress in the world, or in the Philippines for that matter, but she had that certain appeal, that X-factor, that made me think she might be big some day, or at least take the road less taken in terms of movie choices. I wasn’t entirely wrong.  As Judy Ann Santos and company chose the path of least resistance, choosing to star in abominably atrocious Filipino films (what can I say? I’m a snob. ^^ And this is my blog, and I’ll blog if I want to, blog who I want to, blog if I want to!), she instead chose indie films – where the pay isn’t good, but the opportunities for creative explorations are prevalent.

Anyway, many films later, imagine my surprise when a Filipino lesbian film entitled “Rome and Juliet”, directed by theater-trained, first-time director Connie Macatuno is released and it starred the aforementioned Mylene Dizon, all grown-up and looking, well, hot, as a feisty, ferociously independent, successful entrepreneur on the verge of coming out after having slept with every available gorgeous man in Manila.

Anyway. Filipino lesbians are precocious, cautious and suspicious of any Filipino work of art, be it film, literature, music or painting, that claims to be a representation of the Filipino lesbian experience. Having been misrepresented and portrayed in countless stereotypical films, most famously for “Tatlo Magkasalo” (which, to this day, I cannot recall without cringing or grimacing – sometimes at the same time), we view any lesbian film with suspicion. When other gay and gay-friendly women started recommending this film with a dreamy, faraway look in their eye and much excitement in their voice, I wondered. And anticipated. And looked forward to this film. And tried, in vain, to look for a copy.

I finally got to watch it after I left the Philippines. It had come at an opportune time. I was homesick and longing for the familiar smells of home.

From the first scenes of Manila, the jeepneys, the tricycles, the cramped buses, the inexplicable, inordinate hordes of people spilling out of everywhere, rushing to god-knows-where, the cramped houses, sidewalk stalls, sari-sari stores, the mayhem, chaos, confusion that is the Philippines, that make us who we are, encapsulated in these progression of scenes, interspersed with voiceovers of poetry read by the main character, Juliet (Andrea del Rosario), I knew I was going to like this film. ^^ Hell, I could, quite literally, almost feel the heat and humidity.

This film revolves around the main characters Juliet (Andrea del Rosario) and Rome (Mylene Dizon). Juliet is a nice, dutiful, obedient, somewhat conservative kindergarten teacher engaged to be married to a rich, up-and-coming politician and into his very snobbish family. She dabbles in poetry and is not without a book with her, scribbling every day thoughts and dreams. Rome is a successful, independent, liberal entrepreneur with her own flower business   who is the kind who enjoys intense physical relationships with men but find such relations wanting somehow. This bit kind of reminded me of “Imagine me and You”. There must be something about florists! What gets the ball rolling is when Juliet starts planning the wedding and her friend and co-teacher (who, we learn later on, is a closet lesbian herself), recommends Rome’s flower shop for the wedding flowers.  She eventually ends up being Juliet’s wedding planner as well. They (for lack of a better word) click and for the better part of the movie, the filmmaker establishes  and emphasizes this in each scene: that this isn’t some experimentation both women are having because they are bored with their heterosexual lives or becaue they have abusive boyfriends (that comes afterwards), but a serendipitious meeting of two people who were just destined to be together and who just happen to be of the same sex. rome-and-julietWhat is emphasized here is that they get each other, in ways that their respective boyfriends don’t, and it shows in how Rome changes – paying more attention to Juliet and her needs, something she does not do with her boyfriends, arranging for Juliet to read her poetry, being there for her when Juliet’s family and romantic life begins to unravel as the pressures close in and constrict her, until they eventually cross from platonic into romantic territory.

Anyway, the storytelling up to this point is very engaging and you find yourself actually enjoying the scenes they have with each other.

But this film of course, is not without its faults.  Most of it comes when we get to the second half of the film when the story unravels and director’s seemingly lack of imagination, or at least panic, runs wild here and she now didn’t know what to do with the film.

Hence, after what seems to be a carefully crafted, sensitive portrayal of the tender romance that develops between the two women, the film goes awry when Rome and Juliet are discovered taking a shower together by Juliet’s fiance, no less (note to self: The requisite, obligatory shower scene! Thousands of lesbian films later, where characters repeatedly keep getting caught making out or making love and still they never learn!). The director, I presume in the interest of realism, then goes to great lengths to elaborate on what happens when lesbians come out in the Philippines with quite tedious scenes/plot points reminiscent from a million and one Filipino dramatic films and TV shows:  you get the huge scandal, the wedding called off, the bitter, madugo (bloody) coming out sabunutan between Juliet and her mom(classic!), confrontation between Juliet’s mom and her boyfriend’s mom (classic!dukha!dukha!), Juliet losing her job (which doesn’t make sense since Juliet’s co-teacher is a lesbian as well and she doesn’t get sacked), Juliet’s girlfriend being seduced by her now ex-fiance (huh? I know. But knowing the Filipino male ego – this might actually be plausible. Nothing is more horrible for a man than being scorned for a lesbian lover) Juliet’s father dying (classic!name me one Filipino drama without anyone dying!), Juliet being banned from the hospital (classic!), Juliet getting run over by a car and then subsequently falling into a coma (the ultimate classic plot line! Because when it rains it pours). rome_juliet2Anyway, by this time I was resisting the urge to get a gun, bang my head on the wall and throw my computer out the window. Alright, we get it, being gay is catastrophic! It induces natural and unnatural disasters!  (Contrary to what the writer/director believes, having your first girlfriend is pretty mundane and anti-climactic, really.).

And then what happens in the end boggles the mind: after everything that Juliet and Rome go through, Juliet’s mom now likes Rome (well, she would have to after her daughter gets run over, wouldn’t she?), Juliet’s ex-fiance calls a truce with Rome, and Juliet, after her nail-biting, maka-pigil hiningang coma, suddenly is up and about, commuting in the jeeps of Manila, to be with Rome.

The other beef I have with this film is the attention to unnecessary detail. Do I really need to see extensive shower scene shots (err..on second thought…)? Menstruation scenes? Scenes of underwear being shared, complete with pantyliner conversation? And why, oh why? do both these women who love each other have such scary, freakily long nails? I mean, I felt like telling the director, Oo na, I get it, they’re really, really, really close. I don’t need anymore elaborate, too-much-information scenes!

The director, Connie Macatuno, is theater-trained, so that makes you scratch your head sometimes. But anyway, aside from that, it was a good film.I like how the gender issue/s subtext are subtly interspersed with the gay storyline. romeandjuliet11Juliet as the epitome of Filipina submissiveness, torn between wanting to break free from her gender roles: daughter, sister, girlfriend, teacher – all nurturing roles, or just staying where she is.

I also liked the acting of the main characters.  My most favorite scene from this film has to be the church scene, right after Rome realizes she is in love with Juliet, disappears for a few days and, mustering the courage to see her, confesses her love and readiness to commit to Juliet. That was the single most powerful scene for me. There was something so emotionally raw and yet restrained about that scene that alternately made me cringe and root for these lovers.

It has a strong supporting cast, led by Tessie Tomas (whom I almost didn’t recognize) and Glydel Mercado and a cool soundtrack provided by Wency Cornejo. Andrea del Rosario’s turn as Juliet is pretty nice to watch, and one could almost forget that she was a Viva Hot Babe singing novelty (read: baduy/jologs) songs like “Bulaklak” (Flower) (Sorry, I just had to mention that). This is what she used to do before she decided that if she wanted people to take her seriously, she should do indie films (hehe).

Aesthetically, structurally it is a good film, with substantial (almost too substantial!) characterization,and, since I’m a sucker for poetry and poetry readings, this film gets points for that as well. I think it’s pretty cool that Juliet’s poems change and seem better once she falls in love with Rome and I like what that implied: lesbian love makes one poetic. That lesbian love IS poetic.

Now, if the director hadn’t put in the second part of this film – this would have been perfect film. ^^


2-nailsand a small-gun-pic21

World cinema retro-review: Love my life (Japan, 2006) (after a trip to central London)

canary-wharf So I took some time off from my frenzied reviewing to enjoy a day out in central London. Since the sun in London is equivalent to a UFO sighting, people rush like mad to any available surface where sunlight can  shine through. I was no exception. As a person from the tropics, where the weather is always either hot, or hotter, inordinate amounts of sunlight is the norm not the exception – unlike here in London. Anyway, so  I went to Trafalgar Square, then Leicester Square where China town was, for some much needed Chinese food, then by a series of train changes found my way  to Canary Wharf, a very posh, expensive area of London near the River Thames, famous for its buildings as it is for its yuppies and other wealthy folk. Unfortunately, the weather, being British, started to turn all awry, and it started raining when I got to the riverside. Thus I had to abandon what could have been a nice day out for the comfort and shelter of the ubiquitous mall. Anyway, some really bad, expensive vanilla chai tea from Pret A Manger helped me clear my head and so I am now able to proceed to the job of reviewing films, separating the wheat from the chaff so you won’t have to watch the bad ones. ^^

Anyway, I have devised a new rating system for the review of anything in popular culture. Someone once said, “Whenever I hear of culture,I reach for my gun”. I say, whenever I encounter a bad film (be it gay or otherwise), all I can think of as a fitting ending is for the writer to get a gun, shoot the director, the cast, the producer then finally shoot himself/herself, then we would be spared from a bad film. As such, I would rate a movie based on guns. The more guns, the worse the film is.No guns means the film is really good.

Another rating system I have come up with is the “nail” factor rating system, which rates how accurate the depiction of lesbian reality in the film is. The more nails, the less accurate the depiction to the point of stereotypes. The less nails the better.

Hence, let the ratings begin!

Love My Life

So the other reason why I started this blog is because I have some straight female friends who are, strangely and inexplicably fascinated with lesbian films (and Shane McCutcheon from the L-Word and the L-Word) and I thought it would be nice to keep each other informed of and entertained by, lesbian films (and other things queer).

During one of those pre-blog days when they used to chat with me so they could get the lowdown on lesbian films, I recommended this film, “Love my Life”. Now, having been, at one point in our lives or other, been ESL teachers lml22to sustain ourselves, we have become quite good at geeking out over the importance of the preposition in the sentence (although the split infinitive is still the bane of my existence), differentiating between the present, present perfect and present, present, (really) present tense, sentence constructions and so on. Anyway, when I recommended “Love my life” – my friend, Ame, did not know how to make of what I just said. She asked me, “Dude, are you changing the subject? Are you telling me you love your life? Or is that the title of the film?” I answered that it was the latter.

If I had the chance, I’d think I’d tell the director, former soft-core porn director, Koji Kawano, “Dude, you forgot your pronoun in the beginning of your movie title!”

That title, which seems an incomplete, haphazard, poorly thought out title, probably sums up and gives one an idea how this movie will pan out.

Of the Asian movies I’ve reviewed thus far (except “Memento Mori”), this is the one that I was the most disappointed with.

Now, I shouldn’t really be reviewing this at all because when I watched it, it was all in Japanese, with Chinese language subtitles. My knowledge of Nihonggo is pathetic and my knowledge of Mandarin, Cantonese, Hokkien or any of the other Chinese dialects is nil, so I was basically relying on my own storytelling skills, the facial expressions of the characters, the angle, lighting, seasons, weather, music, and so on to figure out what the story was.I find myself saying, “Oh, that pretty character’s voice has gone up, she has knitted her brows, she slaps her girlfriend – they must be fighting…” or “Oh, they’re making out – they must be making out“, or “Oh, they’re in the bathtub…they must be taking a bath”, or “Oh…they’re naked…they must have made out earlier”.

I wasn’t too worried about my next to zero knowledge of the Japanese or any of the Chinese dialects – my experience of watching Japanese films tell me that you don’t really need the English subtitles to figure out what the story is all about. A few years ago, I saw renowed director Kinji Fukasaku’s “Battle Royale” on the Wowow channel, in Japanese and that certainly as hell didn’t need any translation, as you will see from the following clip (warning: don’t watch this if you are eating, or have kids near you or if you don’t like violent, blood and gore films like “Kill Bill”. Ok…you’ve been warned.):

I rest my case.

Anyway, “Love my Life” is no exception.

It is actually the universal, classic, cliched, tried and tested so much it has become blase rom-com formula, based on the “boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy wins girl back” story. Except in this case, it’s “girl meets girl, girl loses girl, girl wins girl back” story.

Rei Yoshii plays Ichiko, a lesbian college student working part-time at a record store. She is perpetually excruciatingly perky, happy-go-lucky  and chipper, which is a contrast to her brooding, sensitive, serious, driven (but really hot!) girlfriend, law student Eri (Japanese model Asami Imajuku). Note to self: lesbians seem to attract their opposites (please see previous reviews for this. Either writers are talking to each other or this is the lesbian nature order of things).

Anyway, what follows is basically a slice of life in the lives of our young Japanese lesbian lovers, as each character navigates through familial, socio-cultural, platonic, romantic and personal waters. Rei’s father surprises her one day with the revelation that he and her late mother were gay and lesbian (respectively, not at the same time) and that they had married for convenience to shield themselves from social ostracism. Rei’s gay friend and classmate is going through a crisis of his own and Rei helps him come to terms with it. Rei makes out with an older lesbian, a punk rocker who frequents her record store, and guiltily confesses to Eri afterwards. Eri forgives her. Eri has a row with her brother and father, mostly about her future and we see her struggling to prove that even though she’s a woman she can make it as a lawyer. The climax of the story is when they fight during Christmas eve, a turning point in the story when Rei decides to grow up and find a job, and Eri decides to…well…write a book called, “Love my Life”. They get back together. They make out. End of story.

My one beef with this story is that as I was watching it, after I watched it, I felt that all these characters, especially the main ones, Rei and Eri, were already self-contained, despite their character flaws. They didn’t seem to have any real crisis or flaw that would merit a movie being made about them. While it is nice to find a Japanese film that’s positive and light, I felt a bit like I’d only ate the appetizer and had not been served the main course. ^^ There was too much of an MTV-like, insubstantial, superficial, thing to it and it’s only saving grace is that Asami Imajuku (Eri) is easy on the eyes, and so that saves this film from being utter rubbish (note to self: If the story is bad, it’s alright. Just put in really pretty actors.)


Nail factor: long-nails-2

out of

long-nails(for the “ouch factor”. Points if you get what I mean).

Overall Rating:

small-gun-pic2 out of 5 guns, for making it look a bit soft-core porn, a bit like it was made for a male audience instead of the demographic it should be representing.

World cinema retro-review: Fire (India, 1997)

About five years ago (or more, I can’t remember), I went to this International Gay and Lesbian conference. Held  in Manila, Philippines, it gave me a crash course on the state of GLBT rights worldwide, and I met some of the of the most diverse group of largely gays and lesbians from all walks of life, from every country imaginable. Being a young, not yet that out lesbian then, it seemed like I’d died and gone to GLBT heaven. I hung out with the lesbians and we discussed everything from GLBT rights to sexuality to monogamy to gay marriage to movies  and of course, girls. ^^ As you will eventually know – or if you have lesbian friends, you will know, that we are the most opinionated of the lot, and we will offer our two cents worth of opinion on anything under the sun. I’d met some Indian lesbians there and almost everyone I’d met hated or loathed the movie “Fire”, an award-winning lesbian film from India that was directed by critically-acclaimed Indian director, Deepa Mehta. I wondered why. As it had come out in the 1990s, at a time when access to anything GLBT in the Philippines was the equivalent of living in the Dark Ages, I had not had a chance to view it. Until now.

And now – at times, I wish I hadn’t seen it.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I am familiar with Deepa Mehta’s work. I had seen her earlier work, “Earth”, which, though very tragic, was quite a compelling movie that dealt with the birth of modern-day India, and the socio-cultural, political and personal price that each person had to pay, especially during that time when India was being divided. I couldn’t tear myself away from the movie.

I thus had high expectations for this film, “Fire”, which is part of Deepa Mehta’s film trilogy that included “Earth” and “Water”.

Now that I have seen it, I just, well, don’t know what to make of it. Of course, kudos are in order to the director for what I presume to be a very realistic almost to the point of gritty portrayal of life as an Indian woman in modern India. I’ve met and talked to, enough Indian women to know that what Mehta had tackled in “Fire”, about arranged marriages, loveless marriages, the homophobia, the many sexist and mysogynist obligations Indian women are subjected to, are real. In fact, a couple of young, female Indian classmates I had had told me they’d heard about Deepa Mehta,but that they were forbidden from watching her films. Clearly, she had struck a chord with a Bollywood-loving Indian audience and that would have made this film more interesting to watch.

Except…it wasn’t so much as interesting as it was…painful to watch…even excruciating at times.

It is safe to say that I had a number of problems with this film. Problems that made it difficult for me to appreciate it, despite its groundbreaking and, by Indian standards, taboo topics.

First of all, it would have to do with the characters themselves. The story is that of Sita (Nandita Das) and Radha (Shabana Azmi), two sisters-in-law who are stuck in loveless marriages. The older Radha is married to a celibate Indian man, while the younger Sita is stuck in an arranged marriage with Radha’s husband’s brother, who is in love with a young Chinese woman.

Now let me explain why I didn’t like this film. In Korean parlance, there is a word, “a-ju-ma” (or a-zu-ma) which roughly translates to “aunt”, but contextually, refers to any older woman past 50. These “a-ju-mas” are wise, cosmopolitan, headstrong, feisty, tough little old ladies and as my Korean friends have explained, you don’t mess with them – unless you are ready to lose life and limb. You’d have to be a bit familiar with Korean culture and society to understand this word and the context, but a Western equivalent would be somebody like Bette Midler (sorry,coulnd’t think of anyone else) and the characters she’s been playing since “Beaches”, but a lot meaner. An even better example would be Kim Hae Suk, pictured below, who had played the consumate kim-hae-suk and ultimate  “a-ju-ma” in countless Korean films. Watch Korean film “Viva! Love” (Gyeongchk Urisarang) so you’ll get what I mean.

Anyway, why the lengthy discussion about “a-ju-mas“? Well, the thing is this is what has kept me from enjoying an otherwise nice film. The thing is Shabana Azmi’s Radha is so old, so “a-ju-ma“-like that it is hard to suspend disbelief and believe that she has actually fallen  in love with the younger Sita (Nandita Das).  This is not a case of ageism, as I do find older women hot (^^), but I just didn’t and couldn’t believe that a straight  “a-ju-ma” who’s been in a heterosexual marriage all these years would suddenly have strong sexual and romantic feelings for another woman. Besides, I didn’t find anything in the younger woman that would necessitate Radha’s leaving her husband. There is nothing special or fascinating about her. The other thing is I can’t help but think that the film seems to imply that what pushes women into lesbianism is bad heterosexual relationships and marriages, like a very politically incorrect alternative to the heterosexual lifestyle (heck, if you can’t hack it as a straight woman, go gay! is what it feels like it’s saying). While there are many reasons why gays are gays (that is another debate that will never end soon), choosing this one reason amongst other, more convincing reasons (we were born gay, for example), doesn’t really advance the cause or help people understand gays. Although Mehta gets points for trying. What it does seem to have is  situational homosexuality,  which defines as sexual behavior “that is different from what is usual for that person (or from what that person normally exhibits) due to a social environment that permits, encourages, or compels those acts”.  Meaning a person is gay, but only because the situation, in this case, loveless marriages, forced them into it .Put in another way, they turned gay because there were no decent people of the opposite sex in sight.

Anyway, one can now understand why straight and gay viewers alike had some ambivalence about this film. Even now, I still don’t know what to make of it really. One hopes though that Indian lesbians and Indian women, in general, are better off than what is depicted in this film.

World cinema retro-review: Spider Lilies (Ci Qing), Taiwan (2007)

Can a film be so good and so bad at the same time you can’t stand watching it but at the same time can’t tear yourself away from the screen as well?

Apparently yes.

In this interesting, somewhat contrived film by out Taiwanese lesbian filmmaker Zero Chou (Drifting Flowers, Splendid Float), repressed (but really hot!) tattoo artist, Takeko (Hong Kong’s Isabella Leong) is being pursued by the young and youthful, totally outrageous, cybersex girl, Jade (Taiwan’s Rainie Yang). Jade used to have a childhood crush on Takeko which develops into serious feelings when she sees her again as a young adult. Takeko is a brooding, evasive, cold person who, we learn later on, has not had a girlfriend in ages. Jade is determined to break Takeko’s self-imposed celibacy and thus not only comes to her shop when she is not on the web talking to male customers, but also wants to have a tattoo from her. The tattoo she decides on is that of spider lilies (hence the title), which sets off Takeko’s memories of a past she has long repressed. We learn that Takeko has had a girlfriend when she was younger, about the same time Jade develops a crush on her. But when, one night, Takeko sneaks out to spend time with her girlfriend, and an earthquake strikes, killing her father and leaving her then younger brother, Ching (John Shen), traumatized and with no memory at all of her or their life together, Takeko vows never to abandon her family again, and thus subsequently turns her back on personal happiness. Jade does not have the best of childhoods as well, as her mother abandoned her and she has grown up with her grandmother all her life. But while Takeko chooses to be cynical and closed off to the world, Jade persists in having fantasies about her childhood crush, and about the male customers she meets online. Perpetually chipper and perky to the point that it almost irked me everytime I saw her, she provides a contrast to Takeko’s withdrawn character. All of these come together in an interesting, contrived and a bit corny,  climax, where after Takeko finally gives in to her attraction to Jade, her brother has an accident, one of her customers is almost murdered, and Jade almost gets arrested for prostitution. There are some amateurish scenes here where Takeko deals with images of her father, her brother and her customer – all of whom feel betrayed by what she has done to find personal fulfillment  – or at least, in the arms of Jade, temporary release (^^).Eventually, after the pseudo-magic realism of Takeko confronting her past and symbolically triumphing over them (via her stamping the spider lilies to death) she texts Jade that she will see her in her shop. End of story.

Which begs the question – is this movie equating lesbianism with catastrophic consequences? Such as earthquakes and accidents and deaths? Though I am sure the Chou, who is an out lesbian herself, did not intend it so, it did seem, for a while there, like it was.Aside from this, the movie struggles with some clunky, awkward dialogue that would have benefited from merciless editing. I do not know if it was the dialogue that resulted in the awkward, wooden acting in some parts of the movie – mostly when Takeko is talking to her psychologically challenged younger brother, Ching. The movie is quite interesting when it is not so self-conscious – as when the movie opens and we see discussions of why men and women have tattoos (men for strength and courage, women for the memories of love) – a thread that the filmmaker, who wrote this story as well, abandons as the characters’ pasts are explored. It is also quite effective when it is dealing with visuals and imagery – the carefree younger days of Takeko and Jade shot in wide open spaces in the countryside, as opposed to the more cloistered, somber, claustrophic adult ones, shot in the constricted spaces of the tattoo shop and Jade’s room, with the added constriction and illusory space of cyberspace for Jade. It is when the filmmaker stops to be self-conscious and just lets the story tell itself when the movie starts to take off on its own. Sadly, it ends too abruptly before we see any real sense of denoument and satisfaction from this film. Since this is only Chou’s second film, one hopes that the next ones will be better.

While one must be grateful that Asian lesbian films are being made at all, that doesn’t mean one will be complacent and accept these films just because they are gay films. As one blogger wrote, the term “bad lesbian film” has become redundant in referring to those films that cater to my particular marginalized demographic. There is hope though. As this film suggests, though we are not quite there yet, in terms of better stories, we might actually be almost there. That is something we can look forward to. 

ci-qing1 PS If the main actresses here are familiar, it’s because they actually are. Isabella Leong starred in the ill-advised “The Mummy 3”, which, among other things, preposterously postulates that mummies existed via the terra cota route, and Rainie Yang starred in “Meteor Garden”, a very popular Taiwanese soap opera which featured a popular band, F4, which used to induce mass hysteria from its Filipino fans when it came to my country, the Philippines. They used to play F4 songs then. Couldn’t get their songs out of my head for months! I hated it. It was most atrocious.

World cinema retro-review: Butterfly (Hu Die), 2004 (Hong Kong)

Flavia (Josie Ho) is a 30-something married teacher who teaches poetry at an all girls’ school in Hong Kong. On the surface, she seems to have the perfect life most women would want when they hit their 30s: a stable job, a stable marriage, a baby, a decent spacious house in the suburbs, a car, and enough disposable income to ensure that whatever urban ennui one feels can be staved off by the occasional weekend get-away to Macau or perhaps a holiday in the tropics. On the surface, I say, because early on in this hauntingly lyrical film, Flavia meets 23-year-old musician, Yip (real-life rocker from mainland China Yuan Tian), a slacker, by chance at the supermarket, who not only brazenly shows interest in her, but actively pursues and woos her as well. Not being your regular mainstream reactionary Hollywood movie, Flavia does not brush off nor encourage Yip’s interest, although she is clearly drawn to this very laid-back, surprisingly mature young woman, as evidenced by her still continuing to see her. We realize early on that this is not Flavia’s first foray into same-sex relationships. In fact, from the very beginning, grainy, colorful flashbacks indicate that she has actually had an intense lesbian relationship almost a decade ago, with a high school best friend with whom she was with for 3 years until she breaks it off. hu-die1These memories become more intense as Flavia’s own feelings for Yip grow, and the parallel development of each relationship mirror Flavia’s fears that the factors and circumstances that had surrounded and eventually led to the disintegration of her earlier relationship would ultimately lead to the undoing of her burgeoning present-day relationship with Yip. Flavia’s relationship with Yip thus pushes Flavia into examining her own life, her choices and eventually embarks into a journey to confront and accept her past, confront her identity and finally come to terms with her sexuality and finally, with who she really is. Having watched a number of lesbian films from my coming out days, most of them admittedly Western lesbian films, this is the first Asian lesbian film I have watched that surprised me with its scope, characterization and in-depth development and understanding of the female and lesbian psyche.

Unlike “Memento Mori”, this film has focus, a thematic design and a premise that it is determined to see right through the end. The characters are well-developed and every situation does not at all feel contrived or convoluted, but a natural  progression from the choices the main character, Flavia, chooses. The acting is not over the top and is done with restraint and caution. The contrast between the two Flavias is quite striking and makes for enjoyable watching – the younger Flavia, played with carefree exuberance by Isabella Chan and the older Flavia, played with cautious restraint by Josie Ho. The visuals complement the story as well, the camera starting to look grainy and colorful and very energetic, when Flavia sees Yip or when she recalls her past relationship with Jin (Joman Chiang) and contrasts nicely with the standard, steady, almost still-life shots shown when Flavia is with her husband, or in her house or just whenever she is away from Yip (or her past girlfriend). The storytelling flits quite like a butterfly from real-time to the past, and although it gets confusing sometimes, the story is quite compelling enough for one to understand Flavia’s motivations and choices and why she is quite torn between living the familiar socially accepted good hetero-normal life with her husband and child, and being with Yip. hudie-dvd-001 As with other artsy Asian films – linear storytelling is not used here and that is alright.  There is an interesting sub-plot about Flavia’s suicidal mother, to whom Flavia, being a Chinese daughter, is obligated to, which provides the explanation for her torn feelings, and another sub-plot about her lesbian students, who were separated from each other when their parents found out about their relationship, another indication of why Flavia is afraid to come out herself. Wrapping it all up is the Tianmen Square tragedy, which is central to Flavia and her generation’s coming-of-age when they were younger. Overall, I found it a good film. It is one of the first to discuss lesbianism as something that does not exist in a vacuum, but exists alongside other socio-cultural issues as well, issues of freedom, acceptance, personal fulfillment and so on.

This film is another indication of the emergence of a new breed of Chinese filmmakers, now referred to as the Sixth Generation, which marks the rise of the amateur filmmaker, forced to emerge because of censorship and more available and cheaper forms of filmmaking that make it possible for guerilla filmmaking to be made.

I like this movie for another thing as well: it introduced me to an Icelandic psychedelic band, whose music figures prominently in this film, Mum. At first, when the opening credits began, I thought the music playing was an indigenous  form of Chinese music, laying the mood and the sense of foreboding, interspersed with the modern Chinese poems Flavia is reading to her class, but further research revealed to me that it was Mum and I would recognize two more songs from them in the film. My favorite right now is “Green Grass of Tunnel” and I loved it so much I’d like to share it to anyone looking for some interesting respite from mainstream music.

There are so many things to like with this film. Western film reviewers had mixed reviews about this film, but one has to be Asian, I guess, to understand the context of this film.

World cinema retro-review: Memento Mori (Yeogo Goedam II), South Korea (1999)

Confucius once said that one can gauge the state of the nation through its music. I actually think he is right over that one – but Confucius never foresaw that another form of art would prove more powerful than music: movies, a visual medium whose influence on young impressionable minds, and on preserving the status quo, as well as its potential for spearheading change, is still hotly debated. It’s the classic “Which came first? the chicken or the egg ?”debate. Did we help movies become what they are right now? Did we shape the way movies are being marketed to us? Or did the movies shape us into becoming who we are? It’s an endless debate with no end in sight.

I have since then, believed that while movies can and do have the power and potential to help change or shape or keep things the way they are, I believe that like any other form of popular culture, we should take movies with a grain of salt.

Which brings us to “Memento Mori” (also known as Yeogo Goedam II) the Korean horror movie that was supposed to be a cult hit in 1999.

I had huge expectations for this one. I am a big movie fan and lately I’d discovered the joys of watching Korean films. For those viewers sick and tired of the largely unimaginative film fare that Hollywood has been churning out the past few decades, Asian cinema offers surprisingly more than you would expect. The Korean films I have watched thus far, “See You After School”, “Sex is Zero”, “Viva!Love”, “Like a Virgin” and “200 pounds of Beauty”, “She’s on Duty”, “Too Beautiful to Lie” , the “My Wife is a Gangster” series, are a testament to how competitive the Korean film industry is. I enjoyed watching these films so much I’d decided to make a whole blog about Asian films (and films and music and books in general) just so other net geek can learn about Asian cinema and start watchin these films as well.

So imagine my surprise when I saw this film and found, with increasing horror, that the horror was not in the film itself, but in the fact that this film got made at all.

Where do I start?

Well, first of all – there’s a confusion of marketing strategies at work here. It’s been marketed in Korea and in most part of Asia, as a horror film.

It’s been marketed to gay viewers such as myself, as a “Asian gay horror film” and so I looked forward to seeing what such a film would be like. At the back of my mind was the idea that this film could end badly. And right I was. Not a few minutes into the story and the story has already ended badly, with main protagonist, the enigmatic, talented and intense high school girl Hyo-Shin (Yeh Jin Park – the only reason I stuck to watching this one) committing suicide, jumping to her death from the top of one of buildings, even as her classmates go through what is meant to be a horrifying situation: the regular health check-ups for girls (where girls are submitted to the humiliation of  finding out that their breast size has stayed the same since grade school). What happens next is the attempt of another character,  Min-ah (Min-Sun Kim) to make sense of her death in a rather disturbing voyeuristic way, by reading through the dead girl’s artfully written diary, where thoughts of suicide and other morbid thoughts are revealed to us. But at the core of the diary and of the story, seems to be the intense friendship, eventual relationship and subsequent break-up Hyo-Shin has with another girl, Shi Eun (Young-jin Lee). Seems, I say, because while there is a story in there somewhere – it seems like it does not develop into anything more substantial other than as a basis for what comes next: a rather corny “The Haunting” kind of sequence where Hyo-Shin appears in Min-Ah’s locker (as a bloodied face no less), in musical auditorium, playing piano, on the rooftop, and in the climax – on top of the glass roof, a huge face looking down at Shi Eun’s face. I could go over all the things that make this a bad horror film, and I will forever wonder why it had good reviews from the Korean press and why it was such a hit (well, as far as I know) – my Korean friends said it was a huge hit in Korea when it first came out. But it  just isn’t as compelling as “The Ring” or “The Sixth Sense” and it doesn’t have that absurd, cheesy, campy thing going for it as well that would make any filmgoer enjoy it, despite the corniness of it all.

I think the problem with this film is that it tries to be too many things at the same time: a coming-of-age tale, a criticism of the Korean education system, a lesbian first love story that goes terribly and horribly awry, a horror film. It doesn’t help that it shifts back and forth in its storytelling, confusing its viewers even more. The viewers would thus probably ask themselves, is this Hyo Shin a ghost? Or is it a memory that Min-Ah is reliving? Or a fantasy she has? While I am all for post-modern meaning, symbolism and metaphor making, there comes a time when you just have to choose how to say something and stick to it.  I have nothing against cyclical storytelling – in the hands of a capable storyteller, it becomes more compelling than linear storytelling (Hong Kong’s Hu Die, a favorite of mine and which I’ll review later on, being a good example), but in this case, this kind of storytelling falls flat.

There is a reason why movies are supposed to have themes and thematic designs. They help the writer, the director, the actors, pretty much everyone involved in its production focused. This story doesn’t seem to have that at all.

And so, could Confucius have gotten any idea about Korean society from watching such a film? I don’t know. I’d probably have some of my own: lesbianism is tantamount to social and actual suicide, Korean education is not at all that good – but which educational system from which country  is? Horror as perceived in Korea is an artistic,depressing darkness of suicides.

I still don’t know why it was a hit, but it is safe to say that this film is probably shaped by how its largely Korean audience perceived it, and vice versa.

One hopes that in the future – we would have more positive representations of GLBT people, and not just films of situational homosexuality interspersed with horror.

PS I chose this clip from the film because though it intends to be scary, I just thought it was the most unintentionally hilarious, gayest scenes I had ever  come across in a while. Others might agree, but I just thought it was really queer.