Top 3 Gay Asian-American Film Classics

Compiling this list of the top 3 gay, Asian-American films has been a labor of love, and allowed me to re-watch each film several times. The criteria for being on this list were that the films needed to take place in North America and feature gay, Asian men. That each film was directed by Asian men is a welcome bonus and was probably necessary for the film to be made. The three films deal with subject matter familiar to any gay, Asian man in North America. However, each film also uniquely impacted me, which I share in the reviews below. Here are the films in the order they were released:

  • The Wedding Banquet (1993) by Ang Lee
  • In the Family (2011) by Patrick Wang
  • Front Cover (2015) by Ray Yeung

Enjoy, and let me know what you think!

 

The Wedding Banquet (1993)

This drama by Ang Lee captures two distinct cultures – Taiwanese, and New York gay cultures, the conflicts (and comedy) that erupt when these cultures meet over a wedding and how they are resolved into a compromise that benefits all parties. This movie is my all-time favorite having watched it half a dozen times.

The Wedding Banquet was released the year after I came out. I was living in Los Angeles at the time, and though the film was not in wide release there, there were public advertising through posters and the gay press. It was a ground-breaking film in Taiwan during its time due to its gay theme but also in North American because of its Asian stars. Wai-Tung was my introduction to a gay Asian leading man, and he was living a life that I only started to see as a possibility for myself.

 

Overview

Wai-Tung Gao (Winston Chao) is living with his partner Simon (Mitchel Lichtenstein) in New York. His parents, while in Taiwan, make repeated attempts to match their son to eligible women using matching services. In an effort to get his parents to stop, Simon and Wai-Tung enlist a tenant Wei-Wei (May Chin) to play the part of the fiancé. Wei-Wei needs a green-card in order to stay in the United States.  Excited by their son’s news, Wai-Tung’s parents announce their plans to visit them in New York for the wedding. His parents arrive and the marriage occurs at city hall.  While having a simple wedding dinner, a former colleague of the elder Mr. Gao offers to throw a wedding banquet for the newly married couple.

Much of the comedy in the film centers around navigating this deception. A turning point occurs in the announcement of a pregnancy and the circumstances of that pregnancy that up-end each of the relationships.

Highlights

There are several poignant moments in the film. The first is the passing of wedding gifts to Wei-Wei. Mrs. Gao’s  (Ya-Lei Kuei) genuine delight in offering these gifts is met with Wei-Wei’s growing realization and guilt over what receiving these gifts represent. The second is Simon desire to establish a relationship with the Gaos, by his offering of gifts for them. Even though Simon was neither the bride or groom, his attempt was awkward but heartfelt showing his eagerness to be part of this family. A final moment occurs near the end of the film between Simon and Mr. Gao (Sihung Lung).  In the only scene where he speaks English, Mr. Gao reveals that he is aware of what is going on and why he is willing to play along.

There are not many details on how Wai-Tung and Simon met and how their relationship developed. The film starts with two families – a Taiwanese family and the expectations of an only son within this culture, and the family of Wai-Tung and Simon – and ends with a new family.

One shortcoming of the film surrounds Winston Chao’s portrayal of Wai-Tung. His character often appears pouty and powerless, for example, in the scene where Simon left for a night out, leaving Wai-Tung suspicious and broody. It may have been needed to move the plot of the story but I found it frustrating at times.

On Reflection

This was the first time I had seen a gay Asian man happily in a relationship with another man – on screen or in real life. It served as a possibility. Moreover, I remember the simple scene where the two men were sitting in bed shirtless, filling me with a sense of exhilaration. However, watching it again more recently, it seems dated in that there is the lack of any sex scene between them; something that Ang Lee remedied in his later film Brokeback Mountain. Having first viewed this film more than 20 years ago, the fact that Wai-Tung was with a white man also profoundly influenced my future relationships, but this is a topic for another article.

When Wai-Tung finally comes out to his mother, he uses a word in Mandarin to describe himself – tóngxìnglián (同性恋) – a word I had never heard until then. Like all words that I try on and find a fit, I discovered a part of myself through it. It was not as powerful as when I acknowledge “I am gay” but when I thought to myself, wǒ shì tóngxìngliàn (我是同性恋) (“I am gay” in Mandarin) it gave me a sense of being gay within my Chinese heritage.

Wai-Tung’s father eventually figures out the deception of the fake marriage although never specifically talks about it. A few years after its theatrical release, my parents had accidentally rented this film not knowing its full plot. At that time, I had not yet come out to them. My mother later recounted to me that they watched the film in silence (even though it is a comedy!) because much of the content felt too close to home. Like Wai-Tung’s parents, they eventually figured it out.

The baby in this film, who we never meet, becomes the central unifying figure. He or she unites the Gaos to Wei-Wei and Wai-Tung, and in the end, reunites Wai-Tung and Simon. I never realized the power of a baby to define a family until the arrival of my son, and this is not to say families with no children are any less a family. However, since the arrival of my son, I have become much closer I am with my parents, and to my husband’s parents. Early on, my father had told me that the biggest disappointment for him in me being gay was that I would never know what it was like to be a father. Perhaps the drive in Chinese culture to have children is not just the drive to propagate the family line but also to give our children the full experience of what it means to be human by having children of their own.

 

In the Family (2011)

In the family is a drama set in Tennessee in the southern United States and features the blended family of an interracial gay couple Joey Williams (Patrick Wang) and Cody Hines (Trevor St John), and their 6-year-old son Chip Hines (Sebastian Banes), a biological child of one of the men. It’s a story of what defines a family beyond legal definitions and is presented in a way challenges the viewer’s assumptions and biases. I recently learned of this film and actively sought a way to view it – and it has lived up to the reviews I read to become another favorite.

Overview

The first scenes depict the daily life of this family: the simple act of having breakfast and packing their lunch show how well they fit, how synchronized is their routine, and how in tune they are with each other. Joey does the work of being a ‘Dad’ to Chip – he helps Chip overcome his fears of seeing his ‘Pa’ in the hospital room – the result of a car accident, and every week makes him a gift to make going to school on Mondays easier. He has done that and much more since Chip was a baby.

Cody dies as a result of that accident. There is a will but it was written after the death of Cody’s wife, but before Cody’s relationship with Joey developed. The will makes Cody’s sister the executor and places the guardianship of Chip to her. When Joey attempts to pick up Chip after spending Thanksgiving at Cody’s parents, Joey is prevented from seeing Chip and a restraining order is placed on him. Despite the support from friends of the family, it is clear that Joey has no legal claim on Chip. It is only when Joey is helped by a retired attorney for whom he had worked, that Joey finds a way to move forward.

Much of the story as it relates to Cody is told in flashbacks – from how they met, to the start of their relationship and as their relationship deepened.

 

Highlights

I was prepared for the length of the movie because of other reviews I had read: the film is 2 hours and 49 minutes. However, while watching, it never seemed long. There are some scenes where the camera rests on an actor without dialogue but the pause allows the viewer to ‘fill in’ the emotions and thoughts of the character. It was also filmed with few takes and with long, uninterrupted scenes that give the viewer the sense of eavesdropping on the characters.

There are some scenes where the audience only sees the back of Joey’s head. Joey is in the scene but we are not looking at the scene as Joey sees it but rather we are invited to Joey’s perspective as an outsider – much like reading a novel about a protagonist in third-person point of view. In this way, the thoughts and emotions we may feel about the scene become Joey’s.

It is not entirely clear that either men are gay as their attraction and relationship seemed to have been a surprise to both. In fact, the word ‘gay’ is not mentioned once throughout the film. It is simply a love story or love stories between members of a family. There is also ambiguity in the reaction of others toward Joey – whether the discomfort stems from his being gay or Asian. You never quite know whether the reactions are bigoted or homophobic – and in some cases, you are surprised to realize later that they are neither.

The most awkward part of the film is Joey’s southern accent. I am not sure how large is the Asian population in the American South but watching the movie as a west-coast Asian-Canadian, Joey’s accent seemed unusual at first. It made me ask ‘what is race and ethnicity’ – Joey looks Asian but he doesn’t sound like any Asian I know. When we first see someone, we immediately make stories about that person –  what they want, what they like, don’t like and what they sound like. Because what he sounded is so different than what I expected, I could not make up my stories about him; I needed to get into the story to know him.

In my family

This family is not unlike my own. The exceptions are that our son is legally adopted and my husband and I are married (and have up-to-date wills!) The most compelling similarity, however, is that I am Asian and my son is white, and at the time of this writing, my son is almost 5 years old. In many ways, the interaction between Joey and Chip resemble the interactions that I have with my son (although a surprising a lack of tantrums for a 6-year-old, but I guess this is film).

This is a family story, and while one of the characters is Asian and it is about a gay couple, its themes transcend sex and race. It is an example of the love, affection, and acceptance that are possible in a family.

 

Front Cover (2015)

Front cover (2015) is a rare film with two gay Asian-American leads. Ryan (Jack Choi), who designs the front cover of fashion magazines, is asked to be a stylist for a Chinese actor, Ning (James Chen) who is in New York to promote his new film. Ning is reluctant to have Ryan as a stylist and only when Ryan insists he is not ‘interested’ in Ning, that a professional relationship develops between them. While working together at a photo shoot, Ryan is insulted by a racist comment and abandons the photo shoot with Ning. The two end up in Ryan’s apartment where they spend the evening talking and dancing.

After being caught together by Ryan’s parents the next morning, they assume that Ning is Ryan’s new boyfriend. The two men allow the pretense to continue much to the delight of Ryan’s parents. The turning point in their relationship occurs when they are dancing in a nightclub; another man flirts with Ryan. Ning becomes jealous and begins to walk away only to turn and give Ryan a kiss. The two men connect sexually and start to develop feelings for each other before photos publically emerge of the two of them together jeopardizing Ning’s career and their relationship.

Written and directed by Ray Yeung – the story borrows from many of his personal experiences from growing up in the United Kingdom. It premiered at the Seattle Film festival in 2015 and opened the 2015 Hong Kong Lesbian and Gay Film Festival.

Highlights

Any gay Asian man, especially those growing up in western countries will be quick to recognize the stereotypes and experiences that make up the gay Asian American or Canadian experience; Ryan describes himself as a ‘potato queen’, someone who exclusively dates white men yet is faced with ads on dating apps that explicitly state “Asians need not apply”. The film is interspersed with Chinese proverbs that frame the scene but also provide commentary such as when Ryan’s father is talking about Ryan’s choice in boyfriends – “Chinese like Water, take a long time to boil but once hot, lifetime to cool down. White men like sand: fast hot, fast cold. Do not last.”

This is a love story not because Ryan and Ning fell in love but because each showed the other the possibility of loving oneself. Ryan demonstrated to Ning that it is possible to live authentically and openly as a gay man and to love who you love; Ning made it possible for Ryan to embrace one’s culture and identity as a Chinese man – simply by seeing his own world through Ning’s eyes (who did not carry the burden of growing up as a minority and being bullied because of it).

There is also a contrast of cultures represented in these two men although they are both Chinese. It is the contrast of new China versus old China. Old China is represented by the Chinese in America, what Ning calls “American Borrow Chinese” a play on the acronym A.B.C. or American Born Chinese. Old China speaks Cantonese, predominantly spoken by immigrants in America like Ryan’s parents. New China is confident and ambitious and speaks Mandarin. Increasingly, this type of contrast in being played out across many North American cities. Being Asian in America is being reinvented with this new cultural infusion.

On Reflection

Ryan’s parents were surprised yet delighted that their son is now dating a Chinese man having been previously told by him that he only dated white men. This scene reminded me of when I came out to my mother. As I talked about my first boyfriend, her immediate question was whether he was Chinese. Perhaps dating another Chinese man would make a same-sex relationship more acceptable to Chinese parents. I asked her about her response years later – her reason was that a Chinese man would share more cultural similarities and she could relate with them better.

That the film depicts a relationship between two Asian men together is exceptional (the other two films in this list feature Asian-white couples). In reality, Asian-white couples are far more prevalent among gay, Asian men in North America (including my own) and perhaps in other western countries. Yet this film carefully and convincingly portrays the growing attraction between these two men despite both being straight in real-life. It certainly helps that both these men are exceedingly handsome.

 

Conclusion

Do you agree with this list of the top 3 gay Asian-American films? What other films should have been included? Have you seen these films? How did these films affect you? I would love to hear from you.

How to Watch

The links below are primarily for purchase within the United States. This section will be updated with links where the films will be available in other countries.

This film can be purchased or rented at:

 

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Edward

Edward

Edward writes for Gayasianmale.net as well as being its founder.

  • gayasianmale

    I came across this interesting video on the history of Chinese immigrants in the Mississippi delta. Joey Williams (In the Family) could very well be a descendant of one of these families https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2NMrqGHr5zE

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