For much of the world, June traditionally means Pride Month, which traditionally means parades and parties. But as this year's parades and parties have been cancelled, we're taking Pride online. Over the next week, VICE is releasing a series of articles to celebrate the LGBTQ community, and champion the individuals and collectives who push for greater visibility and equality.
While Hollywood has been making steady improvements in gender inclusivity, Asian pop culture is markedly slower in recognising the importance of LGBTQ representation. Apart from being rare, many of the characters that do appear in the media don’t really constitute a win for the LGBTQ community.
Mainstream media can be plagued by problematic tropes and tokenism — the loud gay best friend or angry butch lesbian — which only further perpetuate stereotypes.
But there are some bright spots and, every once in a while, someone we can all embrace comes along. As we celebrate Pride Month at home this year, VICE takes a look at some memorable LGBTQ characters from Asian shows and movies.
Yiu-Fai and Po-Wing
Happy Together (1997), Hong Kong
Let's start with a classic. When talking about iconic LGBTQ films, we can't not mention Happy Together, the 1997 film by acclaimed Hong Kong filmmaker Wong Kar-wai. The story follows Yiu-Fai and Po-Wing, played by Tony Leung and Leslie Cheung (who is a gay icon himself), as they navigate their tumultuous relationship. Steeped in vivid colours and Wong's signature visuals, Happy Together offers a raw peek into the lovers’ journey of self-destruction and frantic passion, while revealing the profound connection between the two men.
Ymir and Krista
Attack on Titan (2013 — Present), Japan
In anime, LGBTQ characters are usally fetishised or accorded stereotypical traits and little character development. But in season three of the popular anime Attack on Titan, the groundbreaking pairing of Ymir and Krista is seemingly confirmed.
Early in the series, Ymir is shown to be deeply in love with Krista, but it isn't until season three that the romantic feelings are revealed to be mutual. Against a dystopian backdrop with epic fantastical sequences, their relationship is one of mutual reinforcement and healthy growth — while Ymir taught Krista to embrace her identity and take charge of her own life, Krista softened the cynical sides of Ymir’s personality.
Three Stories of Love (2015), Japan
The movie Three Stories of Love is, well, a mosaic of three different stories of love. Shinomiya, the main character in one of those stories, is introduced as an arrogant lawyer who, after being forsaken by his boyfriend, attempts to rebuild his life by seeking comfort in an ex-crush, who now has a family of his own.
Despite the popularity of the yaoi (Boys’ Love) genre in anime and manga, director Ryosuke Hashiguchi, who is openly gay, makes it clear that Shinomiya isn’t just a token gay character or the subject of fetishisation. According to film critic Mark Schilling, the portrayal of the three main characters in each story arc reveal a sincere attempt to “individualize and elevate them,” showing viewers that in spite of their imperfections, they are still worthy of love.
Itaewon Class (2020), South Korea
In the hit South Korean series Itaewon Class, Ma Hyun-yi is a transgender woman who’s saving money to undergo gender confirmation surgery by working as a cook. While this wasn't the first time a transgender character appeared in a Korean drama or movie, what makes Ma Hyun-yi so special is the show’s sincere exploration of her struggles and her journey of self-acceptance. Some believe that this heartfelt portrayal of a three-dimensional trans character could represent shifting values in Korean society that’s typically conservative when it comes to LGBTQ issues.
Her breakthrough moment in the show happens when her gender identity is exposed in an attempt to sabotage her chances at a cooking competition. After a meltdown and a moving show of support from her friends, she ends up owning her critics with a killer speech, winning viewers over in the process.
Alex and Benny
Happy Together (2015), Taiwan
When it comes to LGBTQ rights, Taiwan may be considered one of the most progressive countries in Asia. Last year, it became the first country in the region to recognise same-sex marriage. In the popular web series Happy Together, Alex and Benny are two male characters in a long-term relationship. While gay relationships are not exactly rare in Taiwanese media, what struck many about Happy Together is how it avoids the pitfalls of queerbaiting or the overdramatisation of gay characters. With Alex and Benny, viewers are introduced to the mundane intricacies of a long-term relationship between two gay men, with all the little victories and defeats that come with daily life.
Billie and Emma
Billie and Emma (2018), Philippines
Emma, a small town girl with an ordinary small town life, falls in love with Billie, a new girl at her school who had just arrived from a big city. As if navigating her newfound sexuality wasn’t stressful enough, things get complicated when she finds herself pregnant. Set in the 90s, this coming-of-age movie touches on serious themes like gender identity and teenage pregnancy, but does so with charming wit and a whole lot of heart.
Jai, Sahil, and Alex
LOEV (2017), India
Sudhanshu Saria’s directorial debut LOEV explores the complexities of modern relationships with three men: aspiring musician Sahil, businessman Jai, and Sahil’s immature boyfriend Alex. While romantic tensions among the three gay men take centre stage, what sets LOEV apart from other gay films is that it is less about the exploration of sexuality and more about the exploration of love. Before becoming a critics' darling, LOEV was a movie that was “nearly impossible to make” due to the criminalisation of gay sex in India. When the film did get made, it had a hard time getting into high-profile film festivals because it wasn’t “Indian enough.” But the sincerity of LOEV spoke to its audience, and has since been lauded by viewers worldwide.
Memories of My Body (2018), Indonesia
Based on the true story of Indonesian dancer Rianto, Memories of My Body is a coming-of-age tale about how a boy navigates his sexuality while engaging with lengger lanang, an Indonesian traditional dance that often sees male dancers in female roles. The subject matter of the film drew ire from religious groups in Indonesia and was banned in various cinemas in the country, which has the largest Muslim population in the world. Despite its controversial release, the poetic depiction of lead character Juno’s heartbreaking experiences garnered acclaim from local critics, and was even selected to represent Indonesia at the Oscars.
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