Archive of the Asiaweek article, “Gay Teens In Taiwan. A rosy hued documentary gets a mixed reception in the Lion City (April 2000)

Cinema: Gay Teens In Taiwan

A rosy hued documentary gets a mixed reception
in the Lion City


“Documentary filmmakers are very political,” declares Taiwan director
Mickey Chen. He is also gay and proud. Hence Boys for Beauty, his cinematic
celebration of homosexual youth, which, he says, performed creditably at
box offices in the island last year. And if the documentary is any sort of
indicator, 33-year-old Chen stands at the more accommodating end of the
political spectrum.

Boys focuses primarily on the lives of three teenagers – a drag dancer, a
straight-A scholar from an elite institution and a student from an average
school. Chen had ruthlessly whittled the “leads” from a shortlisted series
of interviews with 12 boys and their families. Those choices, however, came
under some fire at a special screening of his film organized in Singapore
last month in conjunction with his visit. “Why is it that you depict only
effeminate gays?” demands one member of the predominantly male audience.
The boyish Chen quips: “Because I believe in the power of sissyhood.”

A more serious criticism, though, is that his documentary fails to address
the problems that gay teenagers encounter, and Chen replies in kind. “I am
very protective when it comes to gay society. I only showed those accepted
by their families because I wanted to present positive images of
homosexuals,” he explains. It’s not that he doesn’t want to “deal with
darkness,” he says, but that he’s careful in his representation of the
teenagers. Chen fears that any depiction of the uglier side of homosexual
life may be taken out of context and used against the youngsters.

All the same, his documentary is unapologetically intrusive. The camera’s
unblinking eye captures the teenagers’ changing moods, their petty
squabbles over love lives and their worries over matters ranging from
weight problems to sexual encounters. But what comes across as a seamless
chronicle was painstakingly spliced together from hundreds of hours of
footage. Toting a fuss-free digital camera, Chen had followed gay teenagers
around Taipei for a year. “At first, I spent hours and hours just chatting
and talking nonsense with them.” The time was well spent, for the trust
that Chen earned is evident in his film. His subjects appear relaxed and
their frank answers to probing questions provide an insight into their
different psyches.

One boy declares: “Being gay is very high class. I have never found
anything wrong with it.” An assertive stance. But confusion and low
self-esteem are more familiar feelings among many gay teenagers. “I dare
not tell anyone. I thought being gay was equal to having AIDS. That I’m not
a good son,” says one. Adds another: “I’m like Mulan [in reverse] – a boy
dressed in girls’ clothes.”

Bin’s father is one of the most memorable interviewees. While he repeatedly
declares that he is proud of his drag-dancer son, “Papa Bin” cannot
comprehend the teenager’s sexual preference. “It doesn’t make sense. But he
is my son, so I must try and understand him,” he says, though he hopes the
boy will “come to his senses” eventually. Indeed, Bin’s father is a
supportive dad and even drives him to his gigs. At the gay bars where the
boy performs, Papa Bin is often complimented by other teenagers craving
acceptance from their families. But the father still feels guilty for “not
knowing how it happened.” He adds: “How could [society, friends and
relatives] blame me for not giving [Bin] a normal orientation? Luckily he
didn’t blame us.”

The most dramatic, and tragic, case that Chen came across did not even make
it into the raw cuts: a father who discovered his son was homosexual when
he found the youngster asleep with a gay magazine in his hand. Shocked and
furious, he tore up the publication, set it alight and then held the flames
to the boy. The family agreed to be interviewed on camera, but Chen says
his conscience would not allow him to spotlight a parent who momentarily
let his anger get the better of him. “The father acted not from his heart
but from the pressures of society,” he says. “I’ve no right to play God
[and judge]. I don’t have the right to burn Chinese society.” Instead, the
director presents portraits of well-adjusted teens who enjoy some degree of
acceptance, even support from loving parents.

In any case, the New York-trained filmmaker reckons attitudes are softening
in Taiwan. Not only was Boys financed by a $12,000 grant from the United
Daily News, one of the island’s leading newspapers, the authorities even
entered his documentary at a foreign film festival. What’s more, Chen adds,
the government recently approved ground-breaking funds to promote the
rights of gays and other minorities.

Chen’s rosy pictures, however, may be what trouble Singapore officials
most. Gay activists, who sought permission for a screening through the arts
organization The Substation, could only show the film to a restricted adult
audience. A 1992 censors’ panel decreed in 1992 that while gays should not
be persecuted, it could not allow works that glorify homosexuality or
agitate for its acceptance. That stance, observes T. Sasitharan,
Substation’s artistic director, stems more from officials’ desire “to
protect the conventional family.” And lest anyone forget, a series of
formal debates and officially supported activities in recent years help
hammer home the message: Singapore must nurture “strong families.”

But activists like Alex Au question the definition of this basic social
unit. It’s time, he argues, to re-examine the assumption that “family
values” can only be built in a heterosexual setting. “Pigheaded” pressure
on gay sons and daughters only creates barriers to communication. Rather
than strengthen the family, Au says, insisting on conformity only tends to
fracture them.

Similarly, Au feels denying Singapore teens the chance to view films such
as Boys is more damaging: “By cutting off information about their own
sexuality, gay teenagers are left with negative self-images and feelings of
isolation.” He concedes that Singapore isn’t a wholy homophobic society,
but says many people still adopt “Jurassic” attitudes. Equality for the gay
community is “still very far away.”

About groyn88

Ultraliberal advocate of universal human rights, justice and fair play.
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