Queer Asians in Film

Hey, readers! I thought a good way for us all to wind down from Bout of Books is to go from one medium to another, and what better way to veg out than a good movie? At first I was going to put together a list of queer Asian movies, but it turns out that I don’t know too many off the top of my head. (Shame on me; I’ll have to catch up on watching some this year.) Instead I’ve picked some films with great queer Asian characters and generally happy tones. (None of those tragic love stories for this blog.)

1.Yes or No (Yak Rak Ko Rak Loei, 2010) – Both main characters!

 Sucharat "Aom" Manaying as Pie and  Suppanad "Tina" Jittaleela as Kim.
Sucharat “Aom” Manaying as Pie and
Suppanad “Tina” Jittaleela as Kim.

This movie follows Pie, a marine biology student, as she struggles to share a dorm with her new roommate, Kim, an agriculture student, whom Pie suspects of being a lesbian. The story is fairly run-of-the-mill LGBTQ fare (the Thai title translates loosely to “let’s love as we wish”), but the movie itself is revolutionary for being the first lesbian romance in Thai cinemas. I especially liked learning about the LGBTQ culture in another country (the labeling of different types of lesbians as “toms,” butch lesbians, or “dees,” feminine lesbians and the expectation of both masculine/feminine elements in LGBTQ couples). Bonus: there’s also a sequel — and both are on YouTube with slightly dubious subtitles: here and here.

2. But I’m a Cheerleader (1999) – Dolph (played by Dante Basco)

Dante Basco as Dolph, second from the right.
Dante Basco as Dolph, second from the right.

While this film’s focus is on the romance burgeoning between Megan and Graham at a gay conversion therapy camp, there are a surprising amount of PoC side characters: Mike (RuPaul!), Jan (Katrina Phillips), Andre (Douglas Spain) and Dolph (Danta Basco AKA Rufio from Hook or Zuko from Avatar: The Last Airbender).

I recently learned that the director deliberately wanted to cast PoC for side characters because she had been overruled in trying to cast Rosario Dawson as Megan, the film’s protagonist. The producer thought that a PoC actress was not “All-American” enough, which thankfully didn’t sit right with the director.

3. I Can’t Think Straight (2008) – Both main characters!

Lisa Ray as Tala and Sheetal Sheth as Leyla.
Lisa Ray as Tala and Sheetal Sheth as Leyla.

This storyline is equal parts cheesy and wooden, but I suggest getting through it mainly for the film’s discussion of Middle Eastern culture. The main characters are Tala (British-Jordanian-Palestinian) and Leyla (British-Indian). Tala is known for her multiple broken engagements with men when she meets Leyla and the rest is fairly predictable.

The movie’s director, Shamim Sarif, is also a LGBTQ person of color, and had cast Lisa Ray and Sheetal Sheth (the actresses playing Tala and Leyla) in her previous film, The World Unseen (2007), another lesbian romantic drama.

4. Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist – Thom (played by Aaron Yoo)

Aaron Yoo as Thom on the left.
Aaron Yoo as Thom on the left.

Tragically the storyline for this film does not center on Aaron Yoo’s character, but instead focuses on the very white heterosexual romance between Kat Denning’s and Michael Cera’s winsome hipsters. Thom plays Cera’s friend and fellow bandmate, a guitarist for The Jerk-Offs. Interestingly, it is oft-repeated that Michael Cera’s character is the only straight musician in an “all-gay band”…so, of course that’s who they focus on. (I’m not bitter.)

Anyway, Thom gets fairly little screen time in the scheme of things but he does get a fairly great line about love and music: “Look, other bands, they want to make it about sex or pain, but, you know, the Beatles, they had it all figured out, okay? I Want to Hold Your Hand. The first single. […] That’s what everybody wants, Nicky. They don’t want a twenty-four hour hump sesh; they don’t want to be married to you for a hundred years. They just want to hold your hand.”

5. The Wedding Banquet (1993) – Wai-Tung Gao (played by Winston Chao)

Winston Chao, May Chin, and Mitchell Lichtenstein in The Wedding Banquet.
Winston Chao, May Chin, and Mitchell Lichtenstein in The Wedding Banquet.

Yep, this is an old one. Before Ang Lee conquered Brokeback Mountain, he took on this interracial romantic comedy. Protagonist Wai-Tung is in a happy, long-term relationship with his boyfriend, Simon, when his unsuspecting parents come for a visit and set him up with the “perfect” Chinese women: She speaks five languages, has a PhD, and sings Western. Except she is also hiding a relationship — also with another white man. So, instead (didn’t make sense to me then, doesn’t make sense to me to this day), Wait-Tung and his boyfriend decide it would be best for Wai-Tung to just marry his female artist friend, who is in need of a green card.

Weird stuff happens from here and things get not only melodramatic but disturbing until the happy ending. So, now you’re wondering, then why the hell did you pick this movie if you didn’t even like it?

Readers, there are very few well-known queer Asian characters for me to pick from here, especially in Western cinema. There are a fair amount of LGBTQ movies throughout Asian cinema — and the numbers are growing! — which is amazing. But googling “LGBT characters” versus googling “LGBT Asian characters” yields some very different results. Gone are the neatly compiled lists and charts, replaced instead with scattered East Asian films featuring mostly gay men and some academic blogs and papers.

While it seems the tide may be changing, at least slightly, in literature (those YA books I tackled for Bout of Books give me such hope!), the visual representation of queer Asians still remains quite lackluster in films. (There are some PoC LGBTQ representation in television, but that’s another topic entirely.) Producers and studio heads continue to push the whitewashing of casts (see the recent Exodus: Gods and Kings and director Ridley Scott’s “explanation”), but, with more visible discussions of media representation and diversity in films and books, I believe we will see the beginnings of actual change in the years to come.

As always, if you have a recommendation for Cheri or Chebk, let us know in the comments! Chebk will be back tomorrow to continue our Ultimate Blogging Challenge for January. Happy reading and writing!

PS. The magnanimous Cynthia Griffin allowed me to guest blog on my process of self-editing. You can see it here!

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One thought on “Queer Asians in Film

  1. I enjoyed But I’m A Cheerleader and was happily surprised to see Dante in it (I like’d Danted in hook). I don’t recall any gay moments in Norah and Nick but I hardly remember the movie excpet a few disgusting scenes (the gum in toilet scene for one).

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