21 Nov 2003

the festival must go on

The 13th Hong Kong Lesbian and Gay Film Festival will be held from Nov 28 - Dec 13, 2003, after almost being cancelled due to the lack of corporate sponsorship caused by the economic downturn. Fridae's Hong Kong correspondent Tim Cribb tracks down festival directors Raymond Yeung and Wouter Barendrech for an exclusive report.

Although Hong Kong has been hosting a lesbian and gay film festival since 1990, this year could well be its last, the victim of a dragging economy and an increasingly conservative community.

Festival curator Raymond Yeung, 'nurse' William Wong (also a barman at Rice Bar) and festival director Wouter Barendrech; stills from ultra-camp Dutch musical 'Yes Nurse, No Nurse;' Australian lesbian private detective thriller 'Monkey's Mask' and 'Sugar Sweet' by Tokyo-based second-generation Chinese Malaysian lesbian director, Desiree Lim.
Organisers of the Hong Kong Lesbian and Gay Film Festival cancelled plans for March after corporate sponsorship vanished due to the economic downturn, a fortuitous decision as it happens because the onset of Sars would have anyway wiped them out.

There was also a growing feeling that the middle-class gay and lesbian community in Hong Kong is no longer willing to support a film festival. Why pay good money to see sometimes weird movies about a lot of angst-ridden poofs.

"Hong Kong is not like Sydney or San Francisco, where there is a big community that does fundraisers and is prepared to pay for a lesbian and gay film festival because they know if they don't, there might not be one next year," says festival curator Raymond Yeung.

In early October, Yeung and fellow festival director Wouter Barendrech of Fortissimo Films scraped together US$4,000 and decided if there was to be a 2003 festival at all, they would have to gamble on the support of an increasingly conservative gay and lesbian community in Hong Kong.

"There are people who want to go to the festival to see faggoty movies, and others who like naked men. Sex always sells," Yeung reasoned.

It's a lean festival - 15 films and 12 shorts over 15 days - compared with previous outings and falls well short of last year's spectacle of some 50 offerings over 18 days.

"We did a lot of events last year, we were very extravagant, which is a bit gay - if you have the money, you tend to spend it all," says Yeung.

The 2003 festival theme is "camp." Yeung for one and Hong Kong in general is depressed enough without having to sit through a lot of dark, angry and sad films about the discrimination homosexuals continue to suffer at the hands of a homophobic minority that hides behind so-called moral values.

This year is about having fun and getting on with life, he says, and taps into the freedom-loving "camp" underbelly of gay and lesbian communities everywhere.

"It's all been too depressing. We want this festival to help people look for the humour again, so we're doing musicals and lots of bright colours," he says.

The festival opens with Yes Nurse, No Nurse, the "ultra-camp Dutch sing-along" that has been a hit at international film festivals this year. This was a popular musical sit-com in The Netherlands in the 1960s, lost after the master tapes were wiped for recycling. But memory of its lunacy refused to die and, after the original scripts were unearthed Yes Nurse, No Nurse lives again.

Wouter Barendrech fondly recalls the impact the television show had on his Dutch boyhood and maintains language is no barrier when it comes to camp.

Also featuring is Party Monster, which has attracted mixed reviews, mostly to do with the calculatingly cold performance of Macaulay Caulkin as a notorious New York underground clubber now doing time for murder. He plays off Seth Green, most famous as the sometime werewolf in television's Buffy: The Vampire Slayer.
There's also Monkey's Mask, which is being touted as Kelly McGillis's coming out film. It's a noirish lesbian private detective thriller by Australia's Samantha Lang. If nothing else, it puts that scene in Top Gun with Tom Cruise in an entirely different and very camp context.

Festival curator Raymond Yeung, 'nurse' William Wong (also a barman at Rice Bar) and festival director Wouter Barendrech; stills from ultra-camp Dutch musical 'Yes Nurse, No Nurse;' Australian lesbian private detective thriller 'Monkey's Mask' and 'Sugar Sweet' by Tokyo-based second-generation Chinese Malaysian lesbian director, Desiree Lim.
Yeung for one finds camp irresistible.

A former City of London solicitor, he threw off the grey pinstripes for the life of "a pseudo drag queen" and headed towards the life of a filmmaker. "I changed from Will into Jack," he says, alluding to the US sitcom Will & Grace and his abandonment of the law for film. His 26-minute gay short Yellow Fever gives a glimpse of that other London life.

Now 38, Yeung admits to becoming a bit quieter after returning to Hong Kong and joining the family business when his father fell ill.

But his passion for film gets free rein once a year with the Hong Kong Lesbian and Gay Film Festival, and the jewel has always been its section devoted to Asian filmmakers, whose work on show this year continues to redefine how Asia's gays and lesbians are negotiating acceptance of who they are.

Gay film tends to be mostly white and middle class, informed by what has evolved over the past two decades in the United States or Britain, but there's a steadily growing body of work by Asian directors coming out of Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, Thailand, Australia and Canada, as well as the US and UK.

Japanese filmmaker Desiree Lim, who now lives in Vancouver, says "we see more positive images of gays and lesbians in the mainstream media" compared with five years ago.

"But the themes and images of queers are still very marginalised. There are still many themes and stories of the queer communities that have yet to gain any recognition, acceptance or exposure in mainstream media, especially (the stories) that are not white, male and middle class," Lim says.

Lim has several films on show in Hong Kong - Sugar Sweet in the featured section and the shorts Dyke: Just Be It, Salty Wet and Disposable Lez.

Growing up in Japan, Lim, a second-generation Chinese Malaysian, was never able to be "Japanese" and her life was always that on a "woman of colour", which is how she describes herself.

"I moved to Canada for a better quality of life and to build my career as an independent filmmaker in a country that lends more support to its artists in their work," says Lim. "There is literally no support from the government in Japan for the arts, and it is difficult to make a living as an artist working on alternative arts and themes.

"I have not abandoned Japan, my heart is still there. I plan to return to produce more films there. In fact, I am getting funding from Japanese producers to produce my next short in Canada."

Lim says that, in Japan, queers are virtually invisible and there is almost no movement pushing for gay and lesbian rights, though the same does not apply elsewhere in Asia.

"Compared to when I grew up, I certainly feel that gays and lesbians are slowly but surely finding a place for themselves in Asian societies. That is a good sign," she says.
"There most certainly is a slow evolution that's happening and won't stop. Having diverse images of queers on film could help the younger generation find connection, compassion, self-validation by seeing stories and experiences of other queers out there. And it is the queer filmmaker that can give a voice to those stories that need to be told."

Festival curator Raymond Yeung, 'nurse' William Wong (also a barman at Rice Bar) and festival director Wouter Barendrech; stills from ultra-camp Dutch musical 'Yes Nurse, No Nurse;' Australian lesbian private detective thriller 'Monkey's Mask' and 'Sugar Sweet' by Tokyo-based second-generation Chinese Malaysian lesbian director, Desiree Lim.
Hong Kong director Kit Hung says the Hong Kong festival "is one of the few channels available for the gay and lesbian community to identify themselves."

His offering this year is Buffering, which dabbles with experimental fragments and again stars the extraordinarily talented Chet Lam Yat Fung, who featured in Hung's last film I am not what you want.

Mainstream film has matured over the past 10-20 years and is at least trying not to view gays as mentally ill criminals whose lives revolve around hardcore sex and lesbians as objects of a straight man's sexual fantasy, he says.

"More and more, mainstream movies are diversifying. On TV we can see Sex and the City and Will & Grace, though it's a pity they're all western productions, which sends out a totally different image of homosexuals to society at large," Hung says.

"I can really see the western societies are changing their point of view toward the homosexual communities, but the pity is that it is only for their entertainment value. Most gay movies are about the middle class and party life. They're fine, but what is there for those teenagers who are still very confuse about their sexuality."

Hung says that the very need to identify as a gay film maker, or as a filmmaker making gay films, makes him sad because "because the subtext of that statement is that there's not enough gay film for people are suffering because they are gay."

"Utopia is when there are no gay and lesbian film festivals, only festivals that have a gay and lesbian section, like Berlin. Right now, we need gay and lesbian film festivals because the society is not open enough for gays and lesbians to express themselves elsewhere," he says.

What is striking about Hung's work, particularly I Am Not What You Want, is that they are really love stories in which the two protagonists happen to be male.

Asked in a Hong Kong radio interview to explain his film, he replied: "It is a love story between two university students. They are boys."

At the moment, Hung is producing a feature length film with a Korean woman filmmaker. It takes place in the US, Hong Kong and Europe and also stars Lam in his first feature.

"The story seeks to present the fluidity of sexuality and the desperation of waiting for love to come and to return. I am not what you want was about how ordinary gay love can be. It was not what people expected - no sex, no muscular man, no clubbing, no lust. In this film, I again aim at blurring the border between homosexual and heterosexual, to stress this is only love between people, not gay or straight," Hung says.

The 13th Hong Kong Lesbian and Gay Film Festival opens November 28 and runs until December 13. Organisers have again secured the support of Broadway Cinematique on Kowloon side, as well as the new cinema at the towering IFC on Hong Kong Island.

For film schedule and ticketing details, please click on the link below.